Netsanet Tesfay ’17 LL.M.
2016–2017 Human Rights Fellow
By the time she was 8 years old, Netsanet Tesfay ’17 LL.M. had already lived in Ethiopia and Sudan, eventually settling in the U.S. Along the way, her activist parents nurtured in her a strong public service ethic and commitment to community (by high school, she was taking part in Amnesty International letter-writing campaigns). Indeed, international human rights advocacy is at the core of all she does—even her name, Netsanet, means “freedom” in her native Ethiopian language of Tigrinya.
“I always had a sense that there was something bigger than me,” she says, “that there was a world out there.”
Prior to law school at the University of Washington in Seattle, Tesfay helped advocate for immigrants’ rights, and assumed she would continue that work in the U.S. upon graduating. “But some time in my third year, I realized there was a whole other world that never made it to the U.S., that lived in limbo, waiting for durable solutions,” she says. “I wanted to work with that population. That compelled me to go to Kenya.”
She worked at the International Rescue Committee in Nairobi, helping asylum seekers navigate the legal system and access social services. Often they faced obstacles, such as arbitrary detention, inadequate housing, and vulnerability to gender-based violence and human trafficking. “I first realized that the pursuit of legal solutions isn’t always the clients’ primary concern,” she says.
Two years later, while working as a joint consultant for the International Organization for Migration and the International Labor Organization in the Philippines, Tesfay worked in Typhoon Haiyan–affected areas. She investigated incidents of human trafficking and illegal recruitment, finding that incidents of human trafficking and other human rights violations were on the rise. She studied the programming that had been implemented and helped measure what it had been able to accomplish. She also took a deeper look into how communities were faring post-disaster, finding that incidents of human trafficking and other violations were on the rise.
“That made me realize that oftentimes the people who develop the conceptual tools, and the people who are on the ground implementing the programs, are not in discussion,” Tesfay says, noting that she chose to study at Columbia Law School so she would be better equipped to bridge that gap between theory and practice. “I want to be able to conduct research and to impact policy, while at the same time being able to have a direct client impact.”
In the future, Tesfay plans to carry out forced-migration research, which sits at the nexus of law, anthropology, and development. “The rest of the world is calling me,” she says.