Jonas is an intern at the Department of Political Affairs of the United Nations Headquarters in New York
It took me almost two months to apply to the internship program at the UN. The application process was not easy, at times even confusing and I was hesitant between whether I should apply or not. The last day before the deadline, I decided to apply. I was very pessimistic, but well, I had nothing to lose…except for one thing: a lot of money that I didn’t have. In fact, I didn’t know how to finance the internship. During the phone interview, they asked me whether I would be fine financially during the six-month internship period in New York. I said “yes” but I didn’t have anything in my pocket, nor were my parents able to afford it.
Before leaving to New York, I decided to ask everyone I knew if they could help me find housing but I didn’t find a cheap place to live even until a few days before my departure. I was literally getting ready to live somewhere in New York under a bridge or with a tent somewhere in a park. At the last minute I secured a place with poor immigrant workers in a marginalized neighborhood in Brooklyn. It was an enriching experience to discover the different aspects of the American life and its inequalities.
Every morning it took me one hour to go to work. The cost of the monthly travel pass is US$ 116. There was no stipend or reduced fare for unpaid interns. Often I was already late to pay my rent of US$ 350 as I didn’t have money. Often I was wondering the whole day at work about how I could afford to travel to work the next day. I didn’t eat enough for a couple of days. I couldn’t ask my parents for help as I knew the situation was already hard for them. I waited until they were able to afford to send me some money.
I used to work without eating and drinking enough water, attending meetings and getting my tasks done. Usually I’d find something in the morning like milk or bread from roommates but that was often my only meal for the whole day. I often had a severe headache and couldn’t work properly. During that time, the Fair Internship Initiative (FII) was organizing weekly meeting. I went to a lunch meeting. We were discussing about interns’ issues, everyone was eating food and discussing but I didn’t have anything. I could not even express myself that I cannot afford to eat. On another day, colleagues and other interns invited me to eat together but I had to decline.
One day I decided to organize a protest for interns in front of the UNHQ. I was alone and I hadn’t eaten. I planned to stay 15 minutes but then I stayed one hour. I thought about all the others who cannot even come to the UN to protest. In my home country, India, it would take a year of full salary for a person to come and do an unpaid internship of 6 months. I remembered that only two decades ago, I was a refugee and I didn’t have any home to stay.
One evening, I was still in the office working. It was around 8pm and a colleague who was leaving told me that I should not be working like that. “You are not paid you should go and enjoy the city!”, he said. I didn’t know how to answer. I told him that it is a quite expensive city and made him understand indirectly that I was in a difficult situation. He left saying that he would help me. A few minutes later he came back with a hundred dollars. He told me “Take it, you are my friend.” I didn’t want to take it but due to my situation I took it in the end. A week later, when my situation got better, I gave him a card to thank him and his money back.
Another day it was the birthday of my intern colleague and they had planned to go for lunch with other intern friends. They selected a restaurant, I couldn’t refuse because it was a pleasure to work with this intern and she is a very nice person. I had only US$ 20 for the week. I took the cheapest dish, they decided to also give tips. I had 3 dollars for the rest of the week.