Q&A with Grace Benton (MAAS '14) - Center for Contemporary Arab Studies | Georgetown University

Grace Benton, originally from Mobile, Alabama, graduated from the MAAS program in 2014 and also holds a Certificate in Refugee and Humanitarian Emergencies from Georgetown. Grace received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach and study in Jordan from 2011-12. Her fluency in Arabic has opened opportunities for her to live and work in several Middle Eastern countries, including Tunisia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. Most recently, Grace was the Egypt Program Director at the International Refugee Assistance Project and managed the resettlement team at the Refugee Legal Aid Program at St. Andrews Refugee Services in Cairo, Egypt.

Having recently completed a year-and-a-half stint as a researcher at Georgetown focusing on refugees and internally displaced persons in the Middle East, Grace will begin a JD program at Georgetown University Law Center in fall 2017.

 

By Rachel Grey

Can you talk about your work at Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of International Migration? How did you become involved in this project?

I first started working at the Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) as a MAAS student. I had recently returned from a year in Jordan, where I worked on refugee education programming with the Sudanese community in Amman and also did work with the International Organization for Migration’s displacement monitoring program. I knew from the beginning of my MAAS career that I wanted to work on issues of migration and displacement, and when a research assistant (RA) position opened up at ISIM about a month after I started MAAS, I eagerly applied. I continued working as an RA throughout the duration of my time at MAAS, even traveling with CCAS Professor Rochelle Davis to Jordan in the summer between academic years to design and conduct participatory video projects with refugees in Amman as part of an ISIM project. Following a two-year stint working as a legal advisor to refugees in Egypt and Iraq, I returned to Georgetown to become a Research Associate with ISIM.

Why did you choose to go to law school after MAAS?

After graduating from MAAS, I moved to Cairo to work at an NGO providing free legal aid to refugees. The shock of moving from what often felt like the padded room of academia to a rapid-fire world of legal aid casework (all in Arabic, no less) was eye-opening. While I had read extensively about the plight of refugees in the Middle East and the theories that underpin the field of study in graduate school, sitting across from someone during an interview who had lived through forced displacement and war was something else entirely.  Through this work, I learned that legal aid for refugees is essential to upholding basic refugee protections and human rights, but access to it was highly limited. I believe that a law degree, coupled with my regional and language expertise gleaned from MAAS, would allow me to be a more effective advocate for the displaced.

What type of law do you plan on studying? How does this relate to your future career goals?
I plan to focus on immigration and asylum law at Georgetown. After law school, I want to work to ensure access to legal aid for refugees and asylum-seekers to enable them to address the ruptures and vulnerabilities associated with forced displacement. My ultimate goal is to direct a legal aid program for asylum-seekers and refugees.

What is your favorite memory of your time in the MAAS program?

My favorite memory of my time at MAAS would definitely be the intensive summer Arabic course I took in order to satisfy the program’s language proficiency requirements. This experience afforded me an opportunity to focus entirely on honing our language skills—basically to just totally nerd out on Arabic—and I found that I really thrive in such a learning environment. It was this intensive course of study that allowed me to build a firm foundation for my Arabic skills, which in turn has served me very well in my work in legal aid casework and research in Arabic.

Do you have any advice for current MAAS students?
My advice would be to say yes to everything (within reason). CCAS, SFS, and Georgetown as a whole have so many amazing opportunities for learning and networking, and I would encourage MAAS students to capitalize on those opportunities.. Something as simple as going to a lecture on something outside of your standard intellectual circuit can be really refreshing and open the door to a whole host of interesting connections and material. Grad school can sometimes feel overwhelming, but working towards a balance between coursework and extracurriculars can be immensely rewarding.

Rachel Gray interned at CCAS as as National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Fellow in 2017.