INTERVIEW: ELISSA MITTMAN (JHU ‘88), EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT OF OPERATIONS, INTERNATIONAL REFUGEE ASSISTANCE PROJECT

It was Elissa Mittman’s first visit to Hopkins that was the clincher — seeing its strong international relations department and then, in the aftermath of a winter snowstorm, watching students sled down “the beach” on cafeteria food trays. Although she wasn’t quite sure which was her first preference. A native New Yorker, she applied early decision to Hopkins and was really excited to be accepted, because she simply didn’t want to attend college elsewhere.

Elissa initially started as an international relations major and then shifted sophomore year to be a humanistic studies area major as it gave her the flexibility to focus more on her interests and create her own concentration — Middle East Studies. She never regretted it, although many questioned her years ago — saying “what will you do with that someday?” Who would ever have thought that the course “An Anthropological Approach to the Middle East and North Africa” with Professor Ashraf Ghani (now President of Afghanistan), and numerous Middle East courses with Professor P. Kyle McCarter (thank you Dr. McCarter!) would have such an impact years later.

Ultimately, Elissa went to law school (Hofstra University) and became an expert in refugee and immigration law, later specializing in Middle East refugee policy and processing — all sparked by her Hopkins classes. This began an upward public service career trajectory in positions with international NGOs (e.g. International Rescue Committee, HIAS) and the U.S. Government. Whether it was collaborating on Senator Kennedy’s Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act and Senator Cardin’s Afghan Allies Protection Act; interviewing refugees overseas during the Bosnian war and in Central America; adjudicating asylum-seeker claims in the U.S. on behalf of our government; supervising immigration legal services for a national network of immigration providers; or lecturing and training the next generation of advocates — it’s been a great journey.

And the journey continues — Elissa, as the Executive Vice President of Operations for the International Refugee Assistance Project, is currently implementing a UNHCR (Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) deployment program for young professionals with expertise in international law and refugee rights to interview at-risk Syrian refugees in the Middle East.

Describe the most memorable day in your career.

There have been so many memorable days that I’d rather reflect back and say my career in its entirety has been memorable. One day that I will always remember, though, is working for the U.S. Government and sitting in a cowshed in Croatia at a handmade table of random wooden planks and rusty nails and across from me were Bosnian asylum-seekers seated on wood logs covered with wool blankets who I was interviewing for refugee status. As such, I’ve never had a typical day — work is always varied and interesting, and keeps staff (and me) challenged and engaged. I think it’s so important to wake up every day and want to go to work. If you don’t, then it’s time to change jobs or your career path.

What initially attracted you to this field? What are some of the rewards of this area of law and the legal profession?

I wanted to make a difference. Whether directly, or indirectly through programs, policies, and back-end operations, I work to serve some of the world’s most vulnerable and at-risk individuals and populations and help change their lives.

What are some of the downsides of this area of law? How would you compare the reality of your profession to the picture you had of it while in school?

It’s important to remember that you simply can’t help everyone, even if you wish you could. There are limitations regarding human and capital resources, and parameters of the law and policies that we must abide by.

Do you have any advice for an undergraduate interested in pursuing this body of law and the legal profession?

You have the ability to create what you want to do and achieve it. Never be afraid to follow a non-traditional career path. Each employment position is a building block to the next step, and you may not always learn what you expect to learn in a specific job. Find a mentor — mentorship is so important throughout your entire career, not just at the beginning. And most importantly, follow your passion!

Contact Information:

If you have questions, you can reach Elissa at emittman@refugeerights.org.

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