A headshot of IRAP alumna Samah Sisay. She is a Black woman wearing a black blazer and bright red lipstick, smiling brightly.
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IRAP Alumni Spotlight: Samah Sisay

This is the seventeenth installment of our Alumni Spotlight series, which features interviews with former IRAP students who have become strong advocates and leaders in their fields of practice.

Meet Samah Sisay former member of the IRAP chapter at New York University Law School, and current Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The views expressed here are entirely her own.

How did you become involved with IRAP and how did IRAP impact your law school experience?

My decision to attend law school was deeply influenced by my family’s history of fleeing war and arriving in the United States. During my undergraduate studies, I had the opportunity to study in Dakar, Senegal, where I heard stories of people dying at sea while trying to reach Europe and met young men who were deported after a perilous journey. These experiences helped me develop a political analysis around the inadequacies and oppression of the global systems that restrict migration. I entered law school knowing I wanted to work to build power within migrant communities, so I was immediately drawn to the experiences and community that IRAP offered. IRAP provided me with a practical understanding of refugee law and helped me develop skills beyond those taught in law school. I also gained a deeper understanding of how borders, globally, have been weaponized. This gave me a better context to understand how the U.S.’s implementation of civil immigration laws bolsters a system of criminalization, detention, and expulsion. Most importantly, I gained a community of people with similar interests who helped me navigate the public interest space within law school and sharpened my skills as a client centered advocate.

IRAP’s law school chapter members provide aid to our clients and support for our legal, litigation, and policy advocacy initiatives. Please describe your experience working on IRAP projects to secure and expand pathways to safety for displaced people.

I joined NYU Law’s IRAP chapter in my first year of law school and worked on the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) case for an Afghan woman throughout law school until she and her family were resettled in the U.S. My team included a pro bono attorney and another law student and we also received tremendous support from the IRAP U.S. team. We originally believed our case would be straightforward but agency delays, due to a change in SIV regulations and safety concerns, forced our client to flee Afghanistan with her family and seek safety in Turkey. Yet, once in Turkey she and her family were immediately detained and we had to navigate, with the help of a Turkish lawyer and various NGOs, the Turkish immigration system in order for our client to be released and attend her visa interview. Our advocacy lasted for about three years and involved many complications but it was also a model of relationship building, strategic communication, and creative lawyering. Beyond my involvement with our client’s legal case, I also served as the Legal Chair for the NYU Law IRAP chapter and was able to see the intricacies of various cases and help develop advocacy initiatives that became integral as the U.S. began to reduce refugee admissions after the 2016 presidential election.

What have you been doing since you graduated from law school?

I graduated from NYU Law in 2018 and worked as an Equal Justice Works Fellow and staff attorney at African Services Committee. During my two-year fellowship, I provided legal representation on immigration matters to undocumented Black immigrant women, both transgender and cisgender, impacted by gender violence. My work with IRAP provided me with skills that I transferred to my direct representation practice, including the ability to interview clients regarding sensitive matters and find creative ways to move cases along despite agency delays. I am currently a Bertha Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights, where I specialize in international human rights and challenging inhumane immigration policies and abusive police practices. Although my current work is more focused on impact litigation and advocacy, everything I learned during my IRAP experience is still applicable.

In what ways has your involvement with IRAP in law school impacted your career?

The work I do today is impacted by the experiences I gained as a student advocate with IRAP. My legal work and career focus on combating criminalization and detention, which I began to understand as global issues faced by refugees when my IRAP client and her family were detained in Turkey for simply seeking safety. My involvement with IRAP showed me the important of being a persistent advocate even when it seems like the government and the law are against your cause. IRAP also provided me with a better understanding of how direct representation, litigation, and advocacy are all interlinked and important for bring about substantive change.

At a time when refugees have been more politicized than ever, how do you engage with the issue on a personal level?

Migration has always been politicized but in recent years, there has been a global shift towards restricting migration through criminalization and civil detention. This narrative of refugees and migrants as threats that need to be surveilled is false, yet powerful. I have personally done work with directly impacted people and organizers to engage communities in political education and expand our understanding of how borders have become extensions of criminal systems and develop analysis of what it means to demand a world with open borders. Beyond this political education, I have also become involved in mutual aid projects in New York that raise funds and supplies to meet the material needs of migrants, including food and housing. These efforts have helped me find hope in this moment and imagine and work towards a future where we all have what we need to live abundant lives.