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Fall 2023

Alumni Changemaker

A career devoted to helping the most vulnerable across the globe


Brenda Goddard (LLB’93) has spent her nearly 30-year career helping some of the world’s most vulnerable people as a member of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Her remarkable career with the organization has taken her across the globe, from Macedonia to Switzerland, Turkey to Russia, and beyond.

A native of Grand Bay-Westfield, N.B., Brenda describes her start with the global organization as a chance occurrence.

“It was really a coincidence —being in the right place at the right time. I had finished my law degree and had an undergrad and MA degree in Soviet and East European studies from Carleton. My interest in Russian history and language took me to Moscow in 1996.”

She accepted her first position with the UNHCR as a UN volunteer, a role that provides young professionals with stipend-paid work while building experience within the organization. Brenda spent the next two years interviewing asylum seekers, providing legal assessments to determine their refugee status using the definition contained in the 1951 Refugee Convention—a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

“At that time, I was mostly working with Afghans, Iranians, Iraqis, and people from all over the African continent to determine if they would qualify as a refugee or not, and if they did qualify, we would support their application before the Russian authorities. We also supported cases in a government appeal procedure. It was one of the most challenging things I have ever done—the situation was very tough for asylum seekers and refugees in Russia.”

The Kosovo Refugee Crisis began in 1999, following the Kosovo War, an armed conflict between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbians backed by the government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) that controlled Kosovo at the time. Brenda left Russia for Skopje, the capital of the Republic of North Macedonia to assist with the humanitarian crisis that followed the war. She accepted her first staff position with the UNHCR as an associate protection officer.

“There was a huge refugee movement from Kosovo into Northern Macedonia and Albania in 1999. Many people had become stateless as a result of the earlier breakup of the former Yugoslavia.”

Brenda assisted the return movement of Kosovar Albanians following the end of the conflict and then worked on issues related to the prevention and reduction of statelessness, including supporting the authorities with legislative reform. She also helped train government officials on refugee status determination and supported NGOs by providing legal counsel in their work with asylum seekers and stateless persons.

After three and a half years of work in Northern Macedonia, Brenda’s next posting took her to the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, where she assumed the role of legal advisor in the Department of International Protection.

“I was in the section on protection policy and legal advice. Again, my legal education was paramount to the work I was doing providing advice and guidance to UNHCR offices around the world on a number of issues including the intersection of international criminal and refugee law.”

Brenda’s work focused on a provision of the 1951 Convention that denied refugee status/protection to individuals who, for example, have committed a war crime, a crime against humanity, or what is called a serious non-political crime.

“We as UNHCR or a government that's assessing whether someone is a refugee or not must look at what the person has done in their past. Of course, the vast majority of asylum-seekers have nothing in their past of that nature, but it’s something that has to be checked. It’s a provision that is not included in other human rights instruments. The ‘51 convention was drafted immediately after the Second World War, and the drafters wanted to make sure that the people who had been responsible for the atrocities of that war would not be protected as refugees.”

She provided training to HCR offices and government agencies on the proper interpretation and application of the provision, ensuring a clear, high standard for use. In addition to this, she also worked on issues relating to the detention of asylum seekers. After marrying and moving to Turkey, in 2009, Brenda brought her expertise to the position of Refugee Status Determination Officer in the UNHCR’s Ankara office. As the unit lead, she managed a team of young professionals who conducted refugee interviews and assessments. She spent four years in this position.

With the onset of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2011, which saw more than 14 million Syrians forced to flee their homes in search of safety, Goddard accepted a position as Senior Protection Officer, again taking on a broad range of responsibilities to support her colleagues and operations in the region.

“I supported our team in Southeast Turkey, monitoring the crisis and assisting the Turkish authorities to ensure that the needs and rights of refugees were being addressed and respected, and to support NGO partners to provide counselling to Syrian refugees.”

After seven years in Ankara, Brenda completed the circuit, returning to Geneva, this time as a senior refugee status determination officer. Her focus shifted to the qualification of Palestinian refugees under the ‘51 Convention, including supporting UNHCR’s legal interventions before courts and other decision-makers on cases involving Palestinian asylum-seekers. This portfolio required her to collaborate with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), a separate UN agency established in 1949 following the creation of Israel and the exodus of Palestinians from the region.

“I worked closely with the UNRWA, which operates only in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. They have an exclusive mandate for Palestinian refugees within those five areas. Once a Palestinian refugee leaves those areas and is unable to return, they become entitled to protection under the UNHCR and the ’51 Convention.”

In September 2022, Brenda accepted her current role as deputy representative for the UNHCR’s Moscow office, where she supports the management of the office, including all protection activities for the operation.

“The UNHCR Office in Moscow supports asylum seekers in Russia, ensuring they have access to national asylum procedures. We work with several legal partners who provide guidance, legal counselling and legal representation to asylum seekers in the Russian Federation.”

Since the February 2022 Russian/Ukraine conflict, Brenda and her team have been monitoring the situation in the country, conducting outreach missions to different regions where Ukrainian refugees are living to understand the conditions and standards of treatment, and their access to legal rights, including refugee status, temporary protection and other forms of legal stay.

Brenda's career has been fascinating and rewarding but also very difficult. Through her fieldwork, she has visited several refugee camps and met many people at their most desperate and vulnerable times.

“There have been many heartbreaking cases. Individuals who have faced gender-based violence, or members of the LGBTQ+ community who have faced various forms of persecution in their own countries. In Turkey, I met with Yezidi refugees who had survived attacks by the Islamic State in Iraq—that was very hard. I still get quite emotional when I think about it, especially when talking to children. Even now talking to the Ukrainian refugees. It can be challenging to maintain your composure when someone's talking about what they've lost and their other hopes for the future.”

But the bad also comes with the good. Brenda recalls the feeling of seeing successful relocations and helping refugees begin their new lives in a new home.

“It is wonderful to see people who we have helped relocate. We had a very big resettlement program in Turkey, where those who qualified as refugees and could not remain in their country of asylum were resettled in Canada, the United States, European countries, Australia, and New Zealand. Refugees are resilient people — they have to be. That's one thing that you do see that brings hope. These people have been through extraordinary things, but they also have something extraordinary to contribute to the places they now call home.”

This story was originally featured in Nexus, UNB Law's alumni magazine.