When Jason A. Leckerman was assigned a pro bono asylum case involving a deaf Guinean refugee, the young attorney had no idea what he was in for.
What followed was a long, arduous journey through a young woman’s violent past in a war-torn African nation and an eventual victory that gave her a new home and a new opportunity to start over.
On June 10, Leckerman was the recipient of both Ballard Spahr’s first Alan J. Davis Award in honor of his work in this particular case and the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s 2008 Pro Bono Award for his pro bono work in general, which has included cases in conjunction with the Homeless Advocacy Project and Social Security disability cases.
He called the honors “humbling and gratifying,” but acknowledges that it wasn’t always easy.
When Leckerman, an associate at Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll in Philadelphia, was offered the case of the Guinean refugee by the firm’s pro bono coordinator in March 2006, he agreed to take what he at first thought sounded like an “interesting, if not very challenging, case.”
Initially, he said, he was only supposed to assess the claim.
“When we began to assess the claim, we realized there were a lot of obstacles,” he said.
For one, the woman – whom Leckerman referred to as “Ms. Smith” to protect her identity – was deaf and unable to communicate verbally or through sign language.
To clear this hurdle, Leckerman and his co-counsel, Lisa K. Hurlbutt from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society & Council Migration Service of Philadelphia, used Ballard Spahr’s resources to hire a deaf interpreter and a hearing interpreter, whom Leckerman called “two extraordinary women.”
Over the course of the next two years, the interpreters worked with Smith to develop a method of communication so she could tell her story, which was essential to building her case for asylum.
Leckerman said the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service was accommodating to his multiple requests to push back the asylum interview date.
“I was very frank that we needed more time to communicate with her,” he said.
Slowly, the woman’s harrowing tale began to come together.
While some of the specifics remain unclear as a result of the communication barrier, Leckerman and Hurlbutt, with the help of the interpreters and the Guinean man who took Smith in when she arrived in America, were able to deduce that she was born in Guinea and moved at an early age to Sierra Leone.
“We couldn’t quite figure that out at first,” Leckerman said, adding that she could write about 20 words in English, including “Guinea” and “Sierra Leone.” “Remarkably, the man she was living with was able to contact somebody in Guinea and get her birth certificate.”
Leckerman said they believe Smith, who was discovered to have suffered genital mutilation as a child, attended school – where she was the only deaf student – until she was about 10 years old, at which point the Sierra Leone Civil War erupted. Her father died soon after, and she and her mother fled back to Guinea. Smith told the interpreters that in Conakry, Guinea’s capital, she was raped.
Leckerman said they believe that after her mother died, Smith lived on the streets and survived by eating at refugee camps or with people who took pity on her.
Details are hazy after that, Leckerman said, but somehow Smith met what is believed to have been a United Nations refugee worker who helped her obtain a diplomatic passport and a visa that expired after two months. Smith fled to America with an unidentified man but arrived alone and was taken in by a Guinean man and his family in Berks County, Pa.
It was this man, whose identity Leckerman also wished to keep secret, who brought Smith to HIAS.
“He was as essential a part of the story as anyone else,” Leckerman said.
When the day finally came for the asylum interview, Leckerman said he and Hurlbutt went armed with a report from a doctor who had examined Smith detailing the traumatic effects of genital mutilation, as well as a report from an expert on Guinea who called sending Smith back home “a virtual death sentence.”
At the interview, the attorneys decided to go for broke.
“We thought we had a stronger case at the initial level, the interview level, than at a hearing,” he said. “We decided to go into the interview like it was a hearing and persuade the asylum officer that she didn’t need to go beyond this level.”
In the end, Leckerman and Hurlbutt’s persuasion worked, and they were able to obtain asylum for Smith without having to resort to litigation.
“It’s weird that it’s not one of these cases where we were successful during litigation,” he said. “The success, I think, was in the hard work beforehand. It was interesting that we were able to get our result and didn’t have to go through the hoops we thought we would.”
Once word spread about the case, Leckerman said, people began asking him how they could assist in getting Smith settled in as a U.S. citizen.
“People wanted to help me, so I said, ‘The next step is to give her the tools to succeed here,’” he said.
With the help of a partner at Ballard Spahr, the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf and the state, Leckerman was put in touch with a volunteer at Berks Deaf & Hard of Hearing Services in Berks County who offered to teach Smith sign language.
In addition, the state agreed to pay for the instruction and to help Smith eventually find a job.
Leckerman said the most recent update on Smith was that the sign language classes were going “extraordinarily well” and that she and the family who took her in are happy together.
As part of the Alan J. Davis Award, Leckerman received $25,000 to be donated by the firm to the organizations of his choice.
He chose to give the money to HIAS & Council Migration Service of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Legal Assistance and Berks Deaf & Hard of Hearing Services.