The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Program (IRAP) offices at the Urban Justice Center are located on the ninth floor of a low-budget office building on the southern tip of Manhattan. The red brick building, which Hurricane Sandy hit hard three months ago, still shows signs of wear from the superstorm. On the first day of my internship this January, I entered the building through a temporary entrance hidden by scaffolding and blue tarps.
For five days over winter break, I rode the R-train for 45 minutes down to Rector Street from my safe Upper East Side neighborhood to volunteer as an IRAP intern. Within minutes of walking into the dark, empty, no-frills offices to introduce myself to IRAP co-founder Becca Heller, a 2010 Yale Law School graduate, I was put to work preparing briefs on the conditions of Iraqi refugees due for presentation the next day at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, D.C. Over 10,000 Iraqis have been displaced by war and resettled in squalid refugee camps for years, and are in desperate need of assistance.
Becca situated me at a table outside her office and put me straight to work on a project with a very tight deadline. Her colleagues—Steve Poellot, Amanda Beck, and Katie Reisner—are hard-charging lawyers in their twenties using their knowledge of the legal system to fight for humanity.
When I asked Becca why she and her colleagues work for IRAP and not for an established law firm, she said, “I think people go to law school for many different reasons. Each of us went because we knew we wanted to do some kind of public service work. It was never really a question of going to a big firm versus working for a non-profit—we always viewed our law degrees as tools to use in service of our efforts to combat persecution and injustice.” There are obvious salary differentials between IRAP lawyers and their former classmates, but none have ever second-guessed their decision of cause over compensation.
For four hours each day of the internship, I sifted through narratives of Iraqi people who fled from their home country to find temporary refuge in Jordan. They applied for refugee status in the United States and, for various reasons, were denied. Refugee status, as defined by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), may be granted to people who have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
In most cases, it was on the basis of “credibility.” According to IRAP’s Memorandum on Credibility and Trauma, “credibility” is described in the USCIS Adjudicator’s Field Manual as “involving a witness’ trustworthiness and believability.” Many refugee applicants suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other conditions that cause forgetfulness or repression of memories. Therefore, those “who are survivors of trauma seem to be at particular risk for erroneous negative credibility findings.” In addition, applicants for refugee status are disadvantaged by a lack of knowledge about the intricacies of the U.S. Immigration System. Organizations like IRAP were founded on the belief that refugee applicants would benefit from legal representation, thereby reducing the number of denials based on credibility. Currently, refugee applicants are not guaranteed legal representation. As Congress prepares to talk about comprehensive immigration reform, IRAP is advocating for the right to legal representation for refugee applicants.
Many IRAP clients are living in Jordan temporarily because they were forced to flee Iraq due to persecution. Some traveled to Syria first but due to unrest there, have since moved to Jordan. Day after day, IRAP lawyers and law students piece together horror stories of kidnapping, rape, beatings, and dealings with life threats to prepare their clients’ dossiers for presentation to USCIS.
Suddenly, I was in the thick of it. After spending a semester living a protected life of a Bowdoin first year, these refugee stories were hard for me to read; it was not unusual for me to read horrific cases, such as one in which a woman said she was raped and beaten by her husband, then imprisoned due to his false accusations of theft. Her initial application was denied by USCIS because she omitted these details so as not to dishonor herself or her family.
Although I was thrilled to be working with the IRAP team and inspired by the possibility that I could have a positive impact on someone’s life, I dreaded opening each new file. Becca, Steve, Amanda, and Katie, it seemed to me, showed no emotion. They summarized case stories for me, describing rape, kidnappings and death threats in detail, as if they were everyday experiences—and to IRAP clients, they often are. The team had to appear desensitized in order to be able to take on each new case. Due to language barriers and miscommunications, IRAP conducts weekly teleconferences with refugee applicants to review the facts of their stories, create a timeline of events, and fill in any gaps.
Until 2010, volunteer Yale Law graduate students directed IRAP. The impact of their work in helping Iraqi refugees escape persecution is evident. Most of IRAP’s clients are referrals by USCIS or the United Nations. Last year IRAP helped resettle over 300 people.
“This year,” Becca says, “I would like to double that number.”
Many applicants for asylum in the U.S. already have a connection to the country through past employment—they may have worked as translators, navigators or guides for American reporters covering war-torn cities. The Iraqi government, suspicious of lack of loyalty to the regime, has persecuted citizens with even the most tangential connection to the U.S.
I decided to volunteer for IRAP for a few days over Winter Break because I had previously worked with refugees at the International Rescue Committee in Brooklyn. I tutored young refugees in reading, writing, math and socialization skills one summer in preparation for the school year in September. Witnessing the application and admission process made it clear that there is much room for work to be done.
“There are often refugees who arrive in the United States and need help with learning English, putting together a resume or opening a bank account,” Becca told me.
My winter break experience with the common good drove home the point that no matter where we are, our work matters. The IRAP team continues to use its talent for the public benefit, championing the cause of refugees who are, as Becca describes them, persecution “survivors who are their own best advocates."
Sophie Sawyers is a member of the Class of 2016.