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Fighting for an oppressed ethnic group

Final dispatch: Ruminating on work vs. play, helping individuals vs. millions

"Everyone is afraid of their own life. If you could be anything you wanted, I'd bet you'd be disappointed, am I right?" —Modest Mouse

The overarching goal of my life is to have fun. Unfortunately, I was not born rich, so I have to work. It was my good fortune to realize this at a early age … at about the same time I also realized that work sucks. I remember mentioning these newfound revelations to my mother, who smiled and said, "That is why it is called 'work' and not 'play.'" I thought it was a crap answer then and I still do, but it's sadly accurate. For the past 15-odd years of my life, I have tried to minimize the gap between work and play. Before I went to law school, I think that I succeeded about as much as possible. The gap was virtually nonexistent, but I was still left unfulfilled.

'I gave up thinking that I was unique a while ago. I know that the majority of my life just happened. Poof. There it was.'
-Mike Burstein

So am I having fun? My work as a summer intern here at the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) in Budapest hasn't really answered that question. Simply put, I have insufficient skills to actually do much at this level of legal activism. So I worked in support roles doing research, or writing memos and angry letters to French mayors and whatnot. Not quite direct activism, but honestly, I think it's been somewhat fulfilling. What my work has lacked in direct effects, I think is mitigated by the fact that what I am doing here supports actions that will affect … millions? That sounds stupid, but that is the size of the population the ERRC represents.

Yet nothing that I did was truly special. Anyone from my law school could have done the exact same thing, and probably done it easier or better. Then again, I gave up thinking that I was unique a while ago. I know that the majority of my life just happened. Poof. There it was. How many really important decisions about my life have I actually made?

Actually, numbers suck for such analyses. A better question would be, What is the ratio of important decisions that I consciously and deliberately made, compared with the times I stumbled impulsively into the easiest or most convenient choice? Sadly, that is an uncomfortable question. Damn it. I want my foresight to be 20/20. No I don't — I want to have "do over's." I want to be half way through a career, think about it, and be able to go "Ya know, this sucks. Do over!" and then suddenly be 22 again, just graduating from college. But there are no do-overs, and I am paranoid that I am screwing around again.

Back to Budapest and this summer: it is easy for me to say that I now understand much more about human rights and the processes behind advocating them in the first place. It's all about political pressure. On the one hand, the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights are not really worth much. On the other, people pay attention to what the ECHR says because other, more powerful countries do. As soon as the European Union countries start ignoring the ECHR's rulings, then so will everyone else. The ECHR may do the exact same thing as it was, but no one will care. Politics — defining what is important for everyone in a way that favors your own interests. There's much more I picked up, especially about specific fields, but I won't bore you with the details.

About the Roma: They are still a mystery to me. Considering that they are my "client population," you'd figure that I would have had some degree of interaction with them. Well, at least I thought so. That was clearly my naiveté speaking. The interesting thing is that I feel that most everyone at the ERRC only rarely interacts with actual Roma.

Upon reflection, this makes sense. [U.N. Secretary-General] Kofi Annan only swings by humanitarian crises or war zones to raise publicity for their plight. For him to do what he needs to do, there's no real reason that he should hang out with a refugee in Sudan. The ERRC is enough of a high-level organization that it basically contracts out all its client work to local lawyers. The center manages cases and runs with them to the truly large-scale international arenas. Individual Roma will not testify before a U.N. body or the EHCR unless there is some exceptional circumstance. Their testimony will all be written, and interns really have no reason to see it.

So, I had basically no contact with the Roma, but apparently that's par for the job. I am not so sure how I feel about that. It appears to be some bizarre volume vs. directness tradeoff. Before coming to Budapest, I helped two African kids get asylum here in the States. My assistance was very direct and very intense: I had to get to know them personally and discuss some of their most painful memories. The exact opposite happened here. Instead of dealing with two kids for six months, I was engaging with issues that (to varying degrees) represented most Roma. Because of this, meeting a Roma was beside the point.

I would have liked to have spent more time with the Roma, but probably it's best that I didn't. I understand that the nature of the ERRC's work prevents that direct client interaction. Now I have to decide if that is the kind of work that I want. Honestly, I just don't know. What I do next summer will probably determine what I do after law school. That is true for most law students, but I think I should try something else. Not so much because I had a poor experience in Budapest at the ERRC — quite the contrary, I had a great time and I think I have a much better understanding of what life in that legal field is all about. It's just that I was so wrong in what I expected from it that I now have to re-evaluate my assumptions about the other legal fields.

Good.

-Mike