The Ibrahims are a family seeking asylum in the west as refugees. They fled their home in Iraq after their son, Ibrahim, was blinded by a car bomb, their daughter, Tuhama, nearly died while trying to reach a hospital after they were repeatedly stopped by checkpoints and when the family’s life was threatened when the father refused to join an insurgent group. When a U.S. official asked Mr. Ibrahim what would happen if his family returned to Iraq, he said they would more than likely be killed, though he could couldn’t say for sure. The U.S. official denied his request, saying since he was not sure, the family could safely return to Iraq.
Stephen Poellot, Yale Law School class of 2011, and Aseel Zahran, an IRAP intern in Jordan, advise a family of Iraqi refugees about their legal case.
“I was in the Middle East over the summer of 2008, between my first and second years of law school,” said Heller. “I had the opportunity to travel to Jordan and meet six different Iraqi families who had fled persecution in Iraq. To my surprise, at the time, each of them independently identified their primary need as legal assistance with navigating the resettlement process.
The IRAP organizes law students and attorneys to provide legal representation and policy advocacy on behalf of Iraqi refugees seeking resettlement in the United States, and assistance for those who have resettled. They focus on four areas within the resettlement process: individual legal representation, fact-finding and policy advocacy, overseas education to ensure refugee rights and creating a legal “roadmap” to help refugees understand and navigate the process.
“The fact that the system is so difficult to navigate highlights why IRAP's role is important. Our job is to make the process more clear for our clients and to advocate for them at every stage,” said Kevin Hubbard, Legal Director for the Yale Law School chapter of IRAP.
Clients are located in a variety of ways. The IRAP has developed partnerships with many non-governmental organizations and community leaders, who identify urgent cases. According the Heller, the referrals can come from anywhere, from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the priest of a Chaldean church.
“Once we complete an intake for a case, we assign it to a team of lawyers and law students, who help prepare materials for submission to the resettlement country, and also assist the refugee with navigating the resettlement bureaucracy.”
“The legal team assists with all phases of the resettlement process: from registering as a refugee with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and navigating the UNHCR referral process, to applying directly to the U.S. Refugee Admissions process for Priority-2 (P-2) Status or to the U.S. Embassy for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV)” said Hubbard.
Law students who are a part of the program work in teams of two under the supervision of attorneys from private firms who volunteer their time. The students help prepare visa applications, submit appeals, and advocate for their clients.
One such client was a family that was originally rejected for resettlement by the United States because the U.S. determined that they had not experienced serious persecution in Iraq although the father had been kidnapped and tortured for three days.
"We were working on an appeal for the family when the daughter went into a severe epileptic shock and had to be hospitalized," said Heller. "We contacted the Refugee Affairs division of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to inform them about the medical emergency, and they re-examined the case, then determined that the family should be granted refugee status, within about a day."
The IRAP then made provisions for the daughter to receive special treatment under a neurologist at a hospital in New Haven, Connecticut.
Heller graduated from Yale Law in May of 2010 and received a Skadden Fellowship and an Echoing Green Fellowship to start working on the Iraqi Refugee Assistant Program full time, making it a newly independent organization.
Although the IRAP started as a student group within the Yale Law School, there are now chapters at 12 other law schools, 11 in the United States and one at Amman University in Jordan.
To date, the IRAP has worked on more than 200 cases, and resettled about 90 families to the United States, Australia, Germany and Canada.
“I never expected IRAP to grow into what it is today. I just wanted to recruit some law students to help the six families that I met," Heller said.
"However, the longer we did the work, the larger we realized the need was.”
If anyone is in need of assistance, they can contact that IRAP through the website at www.iraqirefugees.us and fill out a form with the details of their case.
Individuals in Amman, Damascus or Beirut, can meet in person with a member of IRAP for a follow up. If they are in Iraq, IRAP follows-up with them through e-mail.