IRAP recently concluded its annual student trips to the Middle East, during which students gain hands-on experience working face to face with clients in Beirut and Amman. We’re making an effort to bring you more commentary on these trips, directly from the student perspective. Featured today is a piece written by two Yale Law School students, 2L Swapna Reddy and 1L Liz Willis, about the experience of meeting, interviewing, and working with their client in person. Enjoy!
We received our case just one week before we arrived in Amman for our trip. With less than two weeks to prepare an appeal, we began to meet with our client right away.
Three days later, he shared a bittersweet story as we took a break to enjoy the many foods he had provided that day:
“One day our family’s bird cage broke, so he began to live in our home uncaged. Then my wife became scared for the kids after she learned about avian flu. We opened the window to let our bird fly free, but he flew back through another window. We tried to release him many times, but he always returned. Our home was too happy for him to leave.”
Our client smiled, remembering a time when it was safe for his family to live together under one roof. A Shia Muslim, he was now forced to live apart from his Sunni wife and children. They had received countless threats on account of their interreligious marriage.
We spent the majority of our week in Jordan in our client’s small but welcoming apartment. Months earlier, the U.S. government had denied his case on the mistaken ground that he had persecuted others during his mandatory military service. Our goal was to demonstrate the truth: our client spent his service performing menial tasks. Due to poor vision, he was unauthorized to carry weapons of any kind.
Our client was also achingly kind. An artist by training, he had repeatedly risked his life to return to Iraq, where he had been imprisoned and beaten, to teach workshops on cross-cultural acceptance. He had volunteered his time to work with children and refugees and had produced radio shows advocating for religious tolerance, democracy, and peace.
Now, an unlikely group of five had gathered in hopes of reuniting his family in the safety of the United States: our Iraqi Shia client; his Iraqi Sunni roommate; our Syrian Christian interpreter; and ourselves, a blond Southerner and a child of Indian immigrants. Predictably, communication issues instantly emerged.
We had only one week to pin down the most painful details of our client’s past. But after three days of interviews, we felt more confused than before we began. We were lost in sea of details about Iraqi military identification. We left our client’s apartment feeling discouraged. Not only had we failed to get the information we needed, but we had also frustrated our client and interpreter in the process.
We returned the next day with only one more chance to pin down details. We would be leaving Jordan the following day.
After reviewing the details we had gathered, our client’s story suddenly came into focus. A sense of relief washed over the room, and hours later, we had a finalized declaration in hand.
As our tension eased, we noticed the powerful yet lighthearted bond that the group had developed over the course of the week. Our client joked about stealing our interpreter’s favorite pen, and we laughed as his roommate brought a second round of tea before we had finished the first. That evening, we expressed collective regret that we hadn’t left time to enjoy each other’s company free from our work.
We left Jordan the next day both grateful for the opportunity IRAP had provided and staggered by the amount of refugee resettlement work yet to be done.
Swapna Reddy (2L) and Liz Willis (1L), at Yale Law School