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Law Students Help Iraqis Win Refugee Status
The National Law Journal
What began in 2008 as an effort by Yale law students to help Iraqis seek refugee status has evolved into a nonprofit organization with student chapters at nine law schools and three more on the way.
The growth of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Program reflects both the commitment of law students to pro bono work and the overwhelming need of thousands of displaced Iraqis to secure refugee status, said recent Yale law graduate and project executive director Becca Heller.
The project -- which Heller projected could expand to as many as 20 chapters by 2012 -- appears to be the only organization in the United States devoted to assisting Iraqis seeking to resettle in other countries.
"When 100 students signed up [for the first chapter at Yale], we realized we were onto something," she said.
Additional chapters have formed at Columbia Law School; New York University School of Law; the University of Pennsylvania Law School; the University of California, Berkeley School of Law; the University of California, Irvine School of Law; Stanford Law School; Duke Law School; and the University of Jordan.
Next fall, fledgling chapters at Harvard Law School, the University of Southern California Gould School of Law and Northeastern University School of Law are expected to start taking Iraqi refugee cases.
To date, the project has helped about 90 Iraqi families come to the United States and has another 200 open cases. In total, it has helped 400 Iraqis find refuge. Heller estimated that the volunteer supervising attorneys and law students have donated legal services worth $2.4 million.
The idea came about when Heller spent the summer after her 1L year in Tel Aviv. She learned about the problems facing Iraqi refugees, many of them stuck in limbo in Jordan and Syria, where they lack legal status. She traveled to Amman, Jordan, and met with six refugees.
"All were in heartbreakingly tragic situations," she said. "They didn't really understand the refugee process. I was sort of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and thought, 'Law students can help with this.' "
Back at Yale, Heller joined forces with fellow law student Jonathan Finer, who was working to resettle some Iraqi interpreters he had met while embedded with the U.S. military as a reporter for The Washington Post.
They discovered myriad hurdles facing refugees -- including a lack of understanding about the process; the numerous interviews they must complete; and the massive amounts of paperwork they must submit. Many refugees suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the prospect of repeated interviews -- in which they must discuss why they are persecuted or unsafe in Iraq -- can be difficult and painful, Heller said.
The students are pushing the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security to allow attorneys to attend those interviews, from which they now are barred. "A legal advocate is needed to make this process fair," Heller said.
Under the direction of a supervising attorney from a partner law firm, students help Iraqi refugees gather their documents, prepare for interviews and submit expert witness testimony. They advocate on the client's behalf and work to help resettle Iraqis who have been granted refugee status. The project has two staffers in Jordan, and each year student directors travel to the Middle East.
Betsy Cooper, a 2L at Yale, got involved last year on behalf of a family of four seeking to resettle in the United States. The Christian family was living in Baghdad when its hairdressing shops were attacked and the eldest son kidnapped for ransom. The family paid the ransom and fled the country. The government initially denied the family's application for refugee status -- although the government does not offer specific details about why applicants are rejected, Cooper believes that the father and son offered slightly different versions of the events. In fact, Cooper said, the government concluded that by paying the ransom, the family had materially supported terrorism.
After the project got involved in their appeal, the decision was overturned.
"My partner who worked on the case with me and I were just running around the law school screaming when we got the news," Cooper said. "The family arrived in California earlier this year."
In addition to advocating for individuals, the project is pushing for policy changes at the agencies that handle Iraqi refugees. They want to see greater transparency in decisions regarding refugee status and a formal procedure for applicants to appeal those decisions. They have suggested a number of technical and systemic reforms to the application process.
The project has secured the declassification through the Freedom of Information Act of more than 5,000 pages of government documents pertaining to refugee processing.
For now, students at Yale and the University of Jordan are the only ones eligible to receive academic credit for their work; it remains a pro bono project at other schools, although Heller hopes that will change over time.
Yale offers the project as a seminar course, and the University of Jordan offers it as a clinic. It is first law school clinic in the Middle East outside of Israel, Heller said.
The group is financed through fellowships, grants and private donations. Heller said the United States has a "special obligation" to take in Iraqi refugees displaced from the war.
"These refugees are fighting so hard for their own survival," she said.