You Should Know… Ya’ara Barnoon

Photo by Jared Foretek.

Ya’ara Barnoon has an enviable resume. At 34, she’s lived on three continents, gotten a master’s degree in international relations and Middle Eastern studies and received a law degree from Georgetown. She works in Washington as an anti-corruption attorney. But that’s only part of the story.

You were born in Jerusalem but moved to Massachusetts at a young age.

My mom was American and my dad was Israeli. We moved to the United States when I was 2. My dad was working at Ben-Gurion [University] and my mom was basically introducing women’s health care to parts of the Negev. She would take her station wagon and fill it with medical supplies and drive around the desert treating Bedouin women.

When they opened up a clinic — a little office next to our house — [the Bedouin] would drive their herds close to our house so the women could sort of peel off and go see her without their husbands knowing.

You’ve lived in Turkey, Paris, the United Kingdom. Has this given you an international outlook?

There’s a big world out there, and even if you care only about the United States, you have to have an understanding of other folks. There’s that sort of baseline perspective that comes from not being entirely American. But I was always fixated growing up on stories from my dad and the military and the founding of the State of Israel, so I was interested in national security and foreign policy from an idiotically young age. I was fixated on Zionist history, women in Zionist history. It was something I grew up on.

You worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Turkey in 2010. What was that like?

We went to a lot of areas that the Turks don’t go to, sort of along the Syrian border, which was much different then [before the Syrian civil war]. And to some fairly Kurdish areas [the Kurds being a persecuted minority in Turkey], so people had a lot of feelings about that. When we’d go back to Ankara and Istanbul, people would say, “Oh, what was the like?” We’re like, “It was absolutely lovely.”

When [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamic] AK Party came in to power [in 2002], a lot of people supported them just as a change. Obviously the perception’s changed a bit. I still have good friends there, so I’ve gotten to go back periodically. I would talk to people about corruption there and I would say, “How can you support this government? There’s obviously well-known corruption.” And people would say, “Everyone’s corrupt, we at least know that this government has had the opportunity to fill their pockets once, so maybe their appetite is less.” I was like wow, that is a perspective that, had I not asked the question, I would’ve never gotten there on my own.

In 2016, you were splitting time between Paris and Washington, but decided to take a leave to work on the Clinton campaign. How was that?

Amazing. Definitely one of the most rewarding and, ultimately, emotional experiences of my life.

I was working on cyber security policy issues at the beginning. It was unpaid work and it was alongside my job, totally volunteer. And then I said, I want to make this into my day job, I feel pretty strongly about this. I was really on the Hillary train. So I left France on July 5th and started on the 6th. Initially I was handling “principal trips.” Whenever one of the principals — Secretary Clinton, Sen. Kaine, President Clinton — were in Virginia, I’d manage their events.

And as the campaign progressed I was doing more voter protection, because there were fewer Virginia trips.

Having lived in so many places, how do you feel about Washington?

D.C. is definitely home now, I’ve been here since 2010 mostly. I’ve seen all the changes over the past eight years, it’s just such a cool place now. I love D.C.

Would you go back to campaign work in the future?

I’ll still help with voter protection, for sure. I think it’s a basic part of our civic duty and voter protection, despite what people say, is not a partisan activity. Every American should have the right to vote, should have a polling location with their name on the books that’s open when they go. Those are issues I definitely want to continue being involved in.

And I still support candidates, financially or going and knocking on doors. My sister-in-law [Becca Rausch] is running for the state Senate in Massachusetts, so I’m going to go knock doors for her this weekend. She went to Brandeis, she’s a nice Jewish girl.

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