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Penn Law Student Project Helps Iraqi Refugees

April 19, 2011

Somewhere in Bangkok, an Iraqi man named Yusuf* lives in limbo, a visitor who has overstayed his visa, unable to return home and not yet permitted to join his sister, Amal*, in Chicago. He cannot go back to Iraq because he is a marked target; his sister’s work as a translator and caseworker for United States forces put her entire family at risk from anti-American terrorist organizations. Though Amal was able to receive refugee status and immigrate to the United States, Yusuf’s relocation has progressed much more slowly.

Yusuf’s case is one of over 200 being handled by the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a national organization that helps Iraqis who were formerly employed by American and international forces in Iraq, and their families, to enter the United States through Special Immigrant Visas. Students in the Penn Law branch of IRAP are currently working to secure Yusuf’s relocation to the United States.

University of Jordan law students Dana Abu Al Ghanam and Sultan Abu Dalhoum confer with Katie Flannery L'13 about a client
University of Jordan law students Dana Abu Al Ghanam and Sultan Abu Dalhoum confer with Katie Flannery L'13 about a case

Penn’s IRAP, a Toll Public Interest Center student group, was formed in February 2010 as an offshoot of the Penn Law Immigrant Rights Project. The project consists of more than two dozen students and seven attorneys who work together on ten cases. Currently each attorney supervises students who work in teams of two or three to develop strategy, draft memos, and prepare paperwork and client statements for the government.  This semester, IRAP also began working with the local Iraqi community in Philadelphia. Under the supervision of Professor Fernando Chang-Muy, students are helping Iraqi refugees complete Green Card applications, apply for the refugee benefits to which they are entitled, and file taxes.

Learning Beyond the Classroom
Many of the skills students develop through their work with IRAP can be difficult to hone in the classroom. Andrew J. Soven L’95, an advising attorney from Reed Smith, said the cases teach students patience and persistence. “The reality [is] that things in the real world take much longer than you’d often like them to. In particular, it can be frustrating dealing with government agencies and levels of review each application takes. Nothing happens quickly on something like this.”

Certain skills, including interviewing and working with victims of trauma, require training sessions like those sponsored by Penn Law’s Students Against Gender-Based Exploitation Project (SAGE).  In February, IRAP hosted a training session for students and attorneys taught by Miriam Marton, a Skadden Arps pro bono attorney with experience – first as a psychologist and later as a lawyer – working with refugees and asylum seekers who suffered trauma.

“Most of our clients have been through tremendous suffering, and they feel, quite rightly, betrayed,” explained Kathleen Norland L’12, executive director of IRAP at Penn Law. “One of the challenges of an interview, then, is to acknowledge and respect that suffering and betrayal, but at the same time ask questions that will bring to light the details and facts that make a convincing statement.”
The work can be grueling, but the payoff for students and their clients can be tremendous. “This project gives students the unique opportunity to work on a real case, 3-on-1 with a supervising attorney,” said Becca Heller, co-founder of IRAP. “This is a way to connect with someone who really needs your assistance. Even as a first year, you can help. There aren’t a lot of options available to clients, so you are the last hope, but there is something concrete you can do for them.”

Khurram Nasir Gore, a supervising attorney at Reed Smith, agreed. “The Penn Law students have an opportunity to deal with individuals with significant problems that are purely legal at this point. [Our clients] should be rightly entitled to come to the U.S. because of service to the [U.S.] military, and they can’t. The entire roadblock is legal.”

Penn Law students help represent clients before United Nations and United States agencies, explain the legal process, and prepare clients to respond appropriately to questions. “It’s a tiring and stressful process for the individuals trying to secure Special Immigrant Visas,” Gore said.

In addition, students are working in a new area of law. “No one has tried to provide individual legal representation to a refugee population before,” asserts Heller. “This is a new area of law related to resettlement proceedings. It qualifies as an administrative adjudication. We must make sure the system is fair, certain procedural guarantees are in place, and there is a transparent appeals process.”

Supervising attorneys have been impressed by the skills and experience Penn Law students bring to the project. “Penn Law students have diverse backgrounds,” observed Gore. “One is an MBA/Law student and brings his own perspectives because of that. Others bring their previous pro bono and volunteer experiences.”

Soven, one of the attorney advisors from Reed Smith, continued, “The Penn Law students are really sharp and motivated. I’ve been particularly impressed by how global the students’ interests are. They’ve traveled to the Middle East and been involved in other international projects.”

Penn and University of Jordan law students receive instruction in refugee law in Amman
Penn and University of Jordan law students receive instruction in refugee law in Amman
Traveling to the Middle East
Indeed, this semester six Penn Law students, including members of IRAP, PLIRP (Penn Law Immigrant Rights Project), and IHRA (International Human Rights Advocates), traveled to Amman, Jordan for ten days over spring break, an opportunity afforded by a collaboration between Penn Law’s Toll Public Interest Center and its Office of International Programs. The students met with six current Penn IRAP clients, updating them on the progress of their cases, collecting missing documents, and filling in problematic gaps in their narratives that had resulted from reluctance to share sensitive information over the phone.

While in Amman, the Penn Law students also worked with University of Jordan law students to handle the intake of seven new clients for IRAP National. One of the new clients was assigned to two of the Penn students who traveled to Jordan. They are currently drafting a Request for Review of the client’s resettlement rejection and filing a Workers’ Compensation claim on his behalf under the Defense Base Act, which extended workers’ compensation to employees injured while working for the U.S. military in Iraq.

According to Norland, students made great progress on the cases during the Jordan trip. “In one case, we knew that our client had been detained by U.S. forces, and that this was probably the reason her application had been rejected,” she said. “But we didn't know any of the details of her detention and she was reluctant to discuss these details by phone or email. During a long face-to-face interview, she shared with us the details of her arrest and detention, and these specific facts will, we hope, help convince USCIS [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] that she does not pose a security threat to the United States.”

Gola Javadi L’13 described another advantage of meeting with clients in person. “I found that by working with our Iraqi refugee clients directly, I was able to appreciate the global impact of our education and assistance much more fully,” she said. “Personally interviewing clients who depend so profoundly on our assistance was a very humbling and inspiring experience, and has connected me to my client’s case in a way that I was unable to appreciate while working from Philadelphia.”

Gore, the Reed Smith supervising attorney, noted the importance of IRAP’s refugee work. “It’s a cause U.S. citizens should be concerned about, especially when Iraqi citizens risked their lives to support the U.S. military and later found themselves refugees.”


*Names have been changed to protect identities.