Alumni Short
Students Put Their Education to Work for Refugees Ithaca, NEW YORK, February 5, 2015

Members of the Cornell chapter of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) have been hard at work helping refugees from some of the world's most dangerous places. In addition to providing ongoing support for clients seeking visas, the chapter sent participants to Jordan this January to assist with intake for refugees there.

IRAP is a student-run organization that helps refugees from the Middle East displaced by war or conflict resettle in the United States and other countries. Members work with immigration attorneys to research legal problems faced by refugees, prepare visa applications, and appeal denied applications. IRAP casework is very broad, including not only Iraqi/Afghan interpreters working with U.S. and Coalition Forces but also refugees from other conflicts throughout the Middle East.

"Most of the refugees we work with are former military translators, many of whom put themselves in harm's way to assist service members overseas, and who are now targeted for having worked with Americans or Coalition Forces," says Chelsea Gunther '16, director of the Cornell IRAP chapter. "They face many obstacles accessing the various visa pipelines available to them, and IRAP fills this need for legal assistance."

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With assistance from faculty advisors Elizabeth Brundige, executive director of the Avon Global Center and assistant clinical professor of law, and Susan Hazeldean, associate clinical professor, IRAP participants were able to partner with law firms Nixon Peabody and Hughes Hubbard to help six clients, including five former military interpreters, apply for visas to the United States through the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), P2/DAP, and UNHCR refugee resettlement programs. This semester, in part with the assistance of Stephen Yale-Loehr, adjunct professor of law, and the firm Miller Mayer, IRAP began work with two additional clients.

In spite of the ongoing unrest in Iraq and the temporary closure of SIV applications in Afghanistan this past summer, one of Cornell's clients has already been approved for a visa and resettled, and the team continues to work for resettlement of the remaining seven clients.

Natasha Menell is among the students involved in the visa project. "Our client had an interview scheduled the week that ISIS invaded Iraq," she says. "When American non-essential personnel were evacuated, his interview was cancelled. Since then, he and his family have been displaced and are traveling through Kurdistan." Menell and her collaborators have been advising their client about options for continuing his refugee application were he to leave Iraq. With interviewing recently resumed but slowed by a long backlog, they are working on getting his application expedited.

"Direct client contact has lent context to my law school experience," says Menell. "Hearing about the threats that our client faces and knowing that I have a role to play in helping him get out of that situation reinforced the gravity of real-world legal work." Katherine Chew, another IRAP member, is currently drafting a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on behalf of a client who does not meet the SIV requirements of the U.S. government, but is pursuing resettlement in another country. "My mother was a refugee of the Vietnam War," she says. "Hearing about her experiences before she arrived in the United States and the opportunities that opened up to her as a result of obtaining refuge here has inspired me to help other individuals and their families in vulnerable situations."

In addition to ongoing client work, IRAP at Cornell also sent five students on the national chapter's trip to conduct intake at refugee camps in Jordan this January. Mostafa Minawi, of Cornell's Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative, worked with Laura Spitz, associate dean for international affairs, to secure $10,000 from Cornell's Mario Einaudi Center to enable the students' participation.

Carolyn Wald was among the trip participants. She says that the students spent their first few days in Jordan meeting with NGOs involved in refugee work there. They were then trained to do intake work, with guidance from The Center for Victims of Torture, which covered such areas as how to interview traumatized refugees with respect and sensitivity. Wald's group met with five Sudanese roommates at their home to determine what problems they were facing and what kind of assistance could be sought for them. They also conducted an interview with a Syrian man who had fled the civil war.

"Sudanese refugees in Jordan face uniquely difficult circumstances, and several of the men we spoke with had experienced truly unspeakable horrors as a result of the conflict in Sudan," says Wald. "It was incredibly humbling to be invited into their home and to have the men share their deeply personal and traumatic experiences with us. That intake in particular drove home for me the level of trust and confidence placed in us as lawyers, and I felt the full weight of the responsibility that comes with that trust."

Cornell's IRAP chapter will present a panel on refugee rights in the Middle East, which will include student participants as well as IRAP's legal director, Steve Poellet. The panel, which will take place on March 11, 12:15-1:15 in Room 279, is being co-sponsored by the Clarke Initiative for Law and Development in the Middle East and North Africa and the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative.