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Elon Law reunites family separated by war

Marcelline Nyiramagaju received asylum in the United States after fleeing violence in her native Democratic Republic of Congo. On June 2, 2016, with assistance from Elon Law's Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic, Nyiramagaju embraced two daughters for the first time in years.

Marcelline Nyiramagaju reunites with her daughter on June 2, 2016, after years apart.

Elon University School of Law faculty and alumni are celebrating the reunification a mother and her daughters, long separated by war, who saw each other in person this month for the first time in years.

The school’s Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic had worked since 2012 to reunite Marcelline Nyiramagaju with six children. The family had fled to Rwanda long ago from their home in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where violence was responsible for the murder of Nyiramagaju's husband and another daughter.

After making her way to the United States, Nyiramagaju sought legal assistance from the Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic, which successfully represented her with a claim for asylum. Elon Law has since advocated for reunification visas for her children. Two daughters who were granted reunification visas - Chantal and Bintu - arrived in Greensboro on June 2, 2016, embracing Nyiramagaju and their brother, Felix Ndayisenga, at Piedmont Triad International Airport.

The airport celebration included hugs from the Elon Law professor overseeing Nyiramagaju’s case, and two alumni who worked in the Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic during their studies.

The narrative that the family has lived through is not uncommon for refugees and asylum seekers in the United States, said Assistant Professor Heather Scavone, director of the Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic. Survivors of torture and ethnic violence often experience family separation, and the road to reunification can take years or even decades due to administrative delays and unavailability of evidence.

“Legal representation is often key to successful outcomes, making it imperative that programs like HILC are available to individuals in need,” Scavone said. “The fact that alumni who graduated two and three years ago were at the airport to join in this family’s joyful reunion speaks volumes to the quality of our graduates and their commitment to public interest law.”  

Felix Ndayisenga hugs his two sisters, Chantal and Bintu, upon their arrival at PTI Airport on June 2, 2016.

Since January 1, 2011, Elon Law’s Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic has served 1,700 individuals from 57 different countries. Clients of the clinic are refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution.

“Working in the clinic definitely was an eye-opening experience that reminded me of the privilege I've had growing up in the U.S. as the great granddaughter of immigrants,” said Suzi Haynes L’14, who attended the reunification. “Some of my clients had spent over 20 years in a refugee camp without running water. And here they were living with as many as eight family members in a two-bedroom apartment, working minimum wage jobs, but they were so grateful to be here.”

Kate Shimansky L’13, an attorney for the Guilford County Public Defender’s Office and another alumna present for the reunification, said Elon Law is in a position to help people in the immigrant community while providing learning opportunities to student practitioners.

“Elon students are so fortunate to have opportunities like the Immigration Clinic that remind you why you put in the hours studying,” she said. “We are here to serve our community, and when you get to see a family like Marcelline’s reunited again after four years, you feel again why you chose this calling.” 


Eric Townsend,
6/9/2016 1:00 PM