By Rhett Whiteman, Kalin Natzev, Faiza Khalif, Ramla Geilani, Ebrima Jammeh, Sophie Udell, University of Washington Bothell School of Business
Content warning: The following post contains topics that may be unsettling or triggering, including rape, torture, war crimes, and the experiences of refugees. Reader discretion is advised.
On a partly cloudy day, we logged onto Zoom feeling excited, nervous, and honored to speak with Judge Rania Rampersad. Once on the call, she was already there waiting patiently. Immediately, it was apparent that she had an aura of confidence so palpable we could feel it through our screens. Through her blurred background, you could see the edges of a perfectly organized and clean office that looked over the evergreen state. Though, the paragon sitting before us in light-toned attire and model posture is what anyone could imagine a prestigious figure would look like. From start to finish, her words had the passion, weight, and power that one might think the old and great storytellers of the world once had.
To start, we asked Judge Rania Rampersad:
When did you know you wanted to go to law school? Or, was there a specific reason you wanted to go to law school?
RR: I used to live in the Deep South in a small town in South Carolina, and we lived next to a swamp. We would play in the swamp and come home covered in mud […]. We were always climbing trees and digging up tadpoles and things like that. So I cared a lot about nature and animals. Then one day, some people came to trim the trees, and I asked them, “You aren’t going to cut the trees down, are you?” And they promised me they wouldn’t cut down the trees. Well, I went [away] and played for a while, and when I came back, I found that they had cut down the trees […] I was so distraught that they cut down the trees, but more that they had lied to me. They had been dishonest and that really bothered me, so I wrote a letter to President Bush that I was going to become a lawyer and sue them for cutting down our trees.
Like many childhood memories, this faded into the back of her mind as Judge Rania Rampersad grew up and searched for what she wanted to do. She almost became many things, but after graduating from Foster Business School with a degree in finance, she entered and left the private sector after a year.
RR: I just felt I wasn’t passionate about it, and it’s really important for me to do work that I’m passionate about. I can’t do work unless I really really care about it, and I felt like my work was making the world a better place. So, I was committed to public service.
Although the year spent in finance was her kind of “personal hell,” she is grateful for the experience.
RR: Once I got to law school, I knew what I didn’t want to do and had a lot of direction. I felt very committed to public service from the beginning, so I knew I wanted to work for the UN. I knew I wanted to do environmental justice work. I knew I wanted to be a public defender.
What first led you to see the effects of trauma on refugee populations, And how has this motivated you on your journey?
RR: Before I went to law school, I volunteered at a local organization founded by one of the lost boys of Sudan[…] That was my first introduction to running a mentorship program[…] I happened upon this opportunity and thought, gosh, that sounds interesting. I worked with this organization [and] the Southern Sudanese community of Washington. I Helped them put together a very small-scale mentorship program for women from Sudan. They were learning English, as most of them had lived in very rural settings before[…] they were assigned to be resettled to Seattle.
The mentees learned how to navigate American life, such as how to use phones or how to get to and use buses.
RR: That was a really powerful experience because I saw how meaningful it could be to be helpful to someone. I saw through the founder of that organization how much potential people have. So just because somebody is struggling to figure out how to use a bus pass doesn’t mean they won’t be a capable mechanical engineer[…]. I could see people who had so much potential and were doing so much for their community. Seeing them overcome such challenging circumstances was incredibly inspiring, so I wanted to work more with refugee communities. When I went to law school at Georgetown, I was lucky enough that our career counselor had [those] connections. So I walked into my first meeting with the career counselor, and she asked, “what is your dream job?”
I said, “I don’t know, maybe I’d love to work in a refugee camp for the UN.”
She said she’d make it happen[…] and away I went. So I spent my first summer in a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya.
At the time, this was the largest refugee camp in the world.
RR: I was only there for a summer, or 8-10 weeks. It was such an impactful experience, because it was so different from everything else I’d ever experienced in my whole life[…]. So I was grateful to be there[…]. I think I struggled with some secondary trauma, and definitely almost all of the people who[m] I interacted with had experienced intense trauma[…].
What did your time spent with the United Nations look like in regard to helping refugees who are survivors of torture and other forms of violence?
RR: My job while I was there was to interview families or people about why they were a refugee so that I could document their claims and submit them[…].
The initial interview and screening process was to root out any would-be or active terrorists in the camp. Also, refugees identified as particularly vulnerable would be interviewed further so they could be prioritized for resettlement.
RR: So I was listening to stories all day about how people had been raped, their family members had been murdered in front of them, or their younger brothers and sisters had been conscripted as child soldiers; just traumatic, terrifying experiences. They were reliving those experiences, […] so it was challenging for them to go through that again. And I didn’t have any training, so here I am as a 1L law student, thinking that I had experienced adversity in my life[…], but nothing prepared me for that. I muddled through it the best I could. I tried to be empathetic[…], to maintain my composure, because I won’t help anybody if I fall to pieces listening to their terrible story. But it was hard […] because I wasn’t prepared or trained for it.
Being so close to Somalia and the long-standing conflict there, many refugees had similar stories.
RR: Every person we interviewed was either a survivor of torture, a survivor of war crimes, a single mother with young infants, ethnic minorities within the camp, or [they] for some reason needed extra protection. Some had family members or children with particular medical needs and disabilities. So that would be another reason that the UN had chosen, according to their policy, to prioritize people for resettlement. Part of that had to do with the United States Federal immigration policy of prioritizing victims of torture, sexual assault, or [those] who were particularly vulnerable for maybe having experienced things in the camp, in addition to why they had left.
How are you able to emotionally handle the stress of working with people who have experienced traumatic events?
RR: It’s hard, honestly, and something that I struggle with[…]. There are days when it’s hard. The work that I did in the camp was incredibly intense. I probably should have been in counseling. After I came home, I had some serious trauma that I worked through on my own for several years. When I first came back, it was incredibly intense. I went from the circumstance of living in a camp, having cholera, not having running water all the time, only being able to talk to my husband once a week for 20 minutes, and sometimes not even that. We were worried there were terrorist cells or poisonous snakes [within the camp]. This one time, I got stung by a scorpion, the poison spread up my arm and almost to my head, and I thought I was going to die[…]. It was just the circumstances, but [also] the people who are living there deal with that all the time. I had, in a sense, survivor’s guilt because I got to get on an airplane and fly away from there. I got to leave, and these people were stuck there.
When answering the question we asked earlier, What did your time spent with the United Nations look like in regard to helping refugees who are survivors of torture and other forms of violence? Judge Rania Rampersad spoke on the importance of having healthy coping strategies.
RR: I need[ed] to cultivate healthy ways to deal with the trauma[…]. I have colleagues from that time who committed suicide. I have colleagues from that time who became addicted to drugs, and I have colleagues whose family life just blew up because they made crazy choices trying to deal with their secondary trauma. So it can ruin your life if you don’t manage it and manage it well[…]. I think it’s really important we talk about it with training and things[…], and find healthy outlets[…]. It was a thing you wouldn’t talk about, because if you were to admit that there was secondary trauma or that you were affected by it[…], it would be perceived as weakness. People would be like, oh, you can’t be a judge, because if it’s getting to you then you’re just not tough enough[…].
You have to be inhuman for this not to affect you, and if you want to be a judge, hopefully, the reason you want to be a judge is because you want to make the world a better place. Because you want to serve the community. Because you want to help people. And so that’s your motivation. Of course you’re going to be affected when you hear about people who are hurting, and you should care about that[…] You also have to find a way to cope with that, so that it doesn’t just eat away at your soul.
As a King County District Court Judge, these experiences followed her and helped build the ideals she follows on the bench.
RR: […] I had a lot of philosophical strife associated with that for a long time, and I think that the only way that I could come to terms with it was to say to myself; It’s not fair. It’s not fair that I get to leave, and they had to stay. But I don’t get to fix all of the injustice in the world. All that I can do is try to make the most of the opportunity that I have. I have an obligation to the people who don’t have the privilege that I have. I have an obligation to them to make the most of the platform that I have, to make the most of the privileges that I have, to speak on behalf of people who can’t be here, and to be a voice that opens doors for other people.
RR: I learned through experience how trauma impacts other people, and I learned through experience the effects of secondary trauma without any formal training. I’ve learned a lot through experience, and now it helps me on the bench, because I can recognize some of those same impacts.
If you believe that you are struggling as a result of secondary trauma, please feel free to check out Secondary Trauma Tips. This article from Bluemoon that while focused on therapists and their secondary trauma also has useful information.
This interview has been condensed for content and clarity.