HIRC students recently landed two exciting victories for asylum clients seeking refuge in the United States following traumatic experiences in their home countries.
Escaping LGBT Persecution in West Africa
Over the course of a year, Sophie Glickstein ’15 and Sussan Lee ’15 worked extensively on the asylum case of a gay West African man, ostracized by his community and physically assaulted for his sexual orientation. The man originally arrived in the United States in 2010, and unsuccessfully applied for asylum without the help of an attorney, before being referred to HIRC by Immigration Equality, an NGO that supports and represents lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) asylum seekers in the United States. Glickstein and Lee began their work on the case in September 2013.
In order to prepare for the case, Glickstein and Lee interviewed the client and conducted country conditions research on the state of LGBT people in his home country, focusing on the threats to the client from his tribe, from his community and from rising conservatism and Islamic extremism in his home country. The danger to the client was quite evident, according to Glickstein. In a series of incidents, the client was attacked under the suspicion that he was gay. “After his true orientation was discovered, he would almost certainly have been killed by tribal, community, or family members if he’d stayed in his home country,” Glickstein said.
The traumatic and sensitive nature of this experience made the story difficult to relive, a process that is necessary for court preparations. Glickstein and Lee worked to earn the trust of the client, so that he could feel safe and comfortable sharing his story. “Through our many and lengthy meetings with the client, we were able to build that baseline of trust and able to thoroughly represent him and prepare him for his direct and cross examinations in court,” Lee said.
The initial immigration court hearing, where the client testified, took place in April, but there was not enough time to present the expert witness testimony so the judge continued the case to September, to allow for testimony by the expert witnesses. Glickstein and Lee had to re-prepare the expert witnesses and closing argument for the September date; however, when their day in court arrived, the judge made her decision without needing to hear the extra testimony. “Even though we knew we had a strong case, we were stunned,” Lee said.
Sophie Glickstein ’15 (right) and Sussan Lee ’15 (center) enjoy a celebratory breakfast with their client (left) after receiving the good news that he had been granted asylum.
It was four years between the client’s arrival in the United States and the asylum victory. Glickstein counts herself lucky to have contributed to the client’s journey towards asylum: “He is extraordinarily resilient and has survived so much to get to where he is today.”
An East African Woman’s Flight from Political Persecution
HIRC students Yana Mereminsky ’15 and Eszter Vincze ’15 collaborated on the case of an East African woman who was attacked based on her opposition to the current government. The client’s opposition was seen as threatening to the government’s power, and security forces targeted and tortured her and her family, killing her relatives and forcing her into hiding. “It eventually became clear to my client that if she did not escape, government forces would find her soon and probably kill her,” Mereminsky said. Vincze and Mereminsky began working on the case in the fall of 2013 to prepare the client for her immigration court hearing.
With a hearing scheduled in March 2014, Mereminsky and Vincze researched the policies of the client’s home country and the government’s attacks on members of the opposition and the client’s tribe. The two students worked closely with various witnesses, ranging from physicians and psychologists to country conditions experts to friends and family of the client to corroborate the story in her application for asylum. According to Vincze, however, the most important efforts were towards preparing the client to testify at trial, as well as practicing direct and cross-examination with the various expert witnesses.
The client experienced extreme trauma, which added another challenge to the case, as the client often had difficulty telling her story. Along with the client’s medical and psychological team at the Boston Center for Health and Human Rights, Mereminsky and Vincze worked hard to prepare the client to testify in court, while also being sensitive to the trauma she had suffered; the final product was a great accomplishment for the whole team, and the results filled Mereminsky with “great pride and admiration for [her] client’s strength.”
The hearing in March 2014 was just as emotionally taxing; a tough cross-examination by the government attorney and a lengthy proceeding left both the client and the legal team drained. The team’s victory in September 2014 came far sooner than expected, as the judge had scheduled the team to come back to court in April 2015, for a decision to be handed down at that time. Both Mereminsky and Vincze were pleased with the results. “The relief that she wouldn’t be sent back to further violence was immense,” said Vincze of the decision.
For Mereminsky, the victory was a formative moment in her legal career: “…when I heard the news, I felt like it signified the most worthwhile experience of my law school career. I can genuinely say that in the course of law school, I am most proud of the work I’ve done for HIRC.”