Finding a calling far from home

By July 6, 20176 July 2017

Finding a calling far from home

Persia Sayyari’s path to the BC Coroners’ Service took her via Constitution Hill, a former prison in Johannesburg where men and women who fought apartheid were once incarcerated.

Home to South Africa’s Constitutional Court and the offices of the South African History Archive (SAHA), it’s where she worked as an intern with the Young Lawyers International Program in 2012-13. Her experience there shaped her decision to pursue a career with an investigative role – as a coroner who conducts preliminary investigations of unnatural, unexpected or unexplained deaths.

It’s a long way from SAHA, an independent human rights archive that preserves histories about struggles for social justice and uses access to information laws to support present-day activism.  But the work was an eye-opener for someone who, as an articling student, had been frustrated with how the human elements of a case can be ignored during litigation.

“At SAHA, I saw first-hand how thorough investigations could expose multifaceted stories and lay the foundation for preventing future injustice,” Sayyari said in an email. “It validated my belief that there’s value in knowing the whole truth, no matter how disturbing – and is a major part of what motivated me to become a coroner.”

The Young Lawyers International Program provides opportunities for Canadian law graduates under 30 to spend a year working overseas with host organizations on legal, justice-related and policy issues.

The interns, who are not qualified to practice law overseas, take on a variety of tasks, including research, analysis and writing, justice and rights advocacy, assisting with training programs, setting up consultations and raising public awareness.  They receive a monthly stipend based on the cost of living in their placement city. To be considered, candidates should be involved in extra-curricular activities related to access to justice and have an interest in pursuing a career in that area.

The program is funded by Global Affairs Canada as part of the Youth Employment Strategy. The CBA has applied for further financial support and hopes to resume YLIP in the coming months.

Joshua Lam was placed in Nairobi with the Kenyan section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ Kenya).  His work with the East African International Criminal Justice Initiative took him to Gulu in northern Uganda where he was profoundly affected by what he heard at a community forum held with victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army, NGOs, government officials and community leaders.

They had gathered to discuss how to pursue justice and peace in the wake of the LRA’s reign of terror that had seen more than 30,000 children abducted for use as child soldiers while more than one million northern Ugandans were moved to protective camps.

“It was gut-wrenching to get personal accounts of the devastation that individuals, families and communities had suffered as a result of the conflict,” he said in an email. “[But] it was humbling to see how positive, proactive and courageous all the individuals were in trying to find solutions and ways forward.”

“If you continually paint individuals and people as victims, one can easily start to view people as weak and helpless. That was definitely not the case at this meeting.”

Lam, who stayed on with ICJ Kenya for another year after his internship, said his professional skills grew “immensely” during his tenure. He attributed that to working with an NGO with a limited budget but high aspirations – the lack of resources meant the entire team had to work together to solve problems ranging from getting a new website up and running to bringing a class action against the government on behalf of victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

He has since returned to Canada where his wife is completing her medical residency. He plans to pursue international human rights law again in the future, but in the meantime does pro bono work related to access to justice issues.

 “I feel my experiences in Kenya as an YLIP intern really made me into the lawyer I am today.”

Learn more about YLIP at and

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