Interventions: Aiding the Persecuted through Law
Mandigo Vambe arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport and, soon, headed south. He was seeking a warmer climate — and safety. In North Carolina, Vambe found both. When he left his home of Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2011 he knew he may never return, but trusted he was doing the right thing and hoped to one day reunite with his wife and two young children.
With the help of Elon Law’s Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic, Vambe sought political asylum in the United States. As an open and active member of a political party opposed to the Mugabe government, he risked abduction and beatings. His role in organizing an anti-government protest tipped the scale — he was no longer safe. After making efforts to hide and protect his wife and two children, Vambe was forced to flee.
More than 1 1/2 years later, his application for asylum was granted. The waiting was excruciating.
“But now I have hope. I have hope of seeing my family,” Vambe says. “Not seeing them is the most difficult. But, no matter how long the night is, the day is sure to come. Everything has an end. No matter how long it takes, it will end.”
Meeting a Need, Building Skills
Vambe is one of nearly 500 clients served each year by the Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic at Elon. The clinic has served clients from 47 countries since 2011 (see p.8 sidebar for list of client home countries). They may need guidance and legal representation to gain permanent residency, work permits or become naturalized citizens. And many desperately seek to be reunited with family, having been separated through war, violence and persecution.
The clinic opened in January 2011, taking on a large and ongoing need in Greensboro and in the region. For more than 30 years, Greensboro has been a top resettlement location through the U.S. State Department. A concentration of refugee and immigrant services and agencies developed over the years, but legal work was limited.
“Elon recognized a compelling need in the com- munity and responded to it by creating an incredibly unique opportunity for engaged learning and practical skills development for Elon law students,” says Heather Scavone, director of the Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic and assistant professor of law.
Each semester, eight to 10 law students manage cases, meet with clients, perform intake interviews, analyze cases for legal remedy, gather evidence, draft and file applications and briefs, and maintain client correspondence. Students also observe and participate in hearings before federal administrative agencies and courts. They attend a weekly class and work in the clinic at least 10 hours a week. Many students are eager to do more, adding extra time in the clinic into their schedule of classes and coursework.
“Our goal is to blend the student learning — the pedagogy — with the hands-on experience of doing real and important work,” Scavone says. “We essentially run a full-time law office while developing students’ legal practice skills.”
Home countries of clients served by the Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic
- Central African Republic
- Republic of Congo
- Cote d’Ivoire
- Democratic Republic of the Congo
Trust: A Critical Ingredient
Most clients have difficult stories to tell: a mother who escaped across battle lines, forced to leave her baby behind, seeks reunification; an elderly resident, who gained permanent residence in the United States following the Vietnam War, seeks citizenship; an injured refugee seeks a medical waiver to take the citizenship test. Many times, the legal needs of clients are a family affair. Students in the clinic find that work with a client often reveals urgent legal needs of that client’s parents, children, nieces or nephews.
“To be an attorney in this setting, the students have to build relationships,” Scavone explains. “Our clients have difficult, often horrific, tragic stories. They are living in an unfamiliar place. Who do they trust?”
The students take time to hear their stories and build trust with each client, listening, advising and walking them through every step of the process.
“I spent 120 hours with my client. I know her story, her kids’ names, the best days of her life and the worst days of her life,” says Leah Shelberg L’13. “It’s a very delicate process. I learned what kind of questions to ask and to listen. And as I heard the client’s story, I had to know, legally, what was important to the case.”
The people skills students develop and hone through the clinic reflect the law school’s emphasis on service learning and engaged learning. The clients experience this as respect.
“The clinic was a very welcoming environment,” Vambe says. “Because of my experience, I was scared of authority. It’s hard to trust. The most difficult part of the process is when you talk about something you don’t want to talk about. Joe Baker, my student, was very patient. This is a very professional place. They treat you as a person.”
Felix Ndayisenga, a refugee client from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, agrees: “They have helped my family a lot. The students are patient to learn our story. Even when it is really too emotional and painful to repeat, they are patient.”
Learning how to build a client relationship is just one element of preparing “practice-ready” law school graduates.
“Practice-ready graduates are learning the law but also learning what goes into working in the field—case management and time management, client relationships, interpersonal skills, juggling and prioritizing, adapting and steering,” Scavone says. “The clinic is invaluable in teaching how to manage client expectations, focus questions to get a complete understanding of the case and cope with the emotional aspect of representing clients who are often in dire circumstances,” says Joe Baker L’12.
Through weekly meetings, handled like a partners meeting at a law firm, professors talk through cases with students. They ask questions, discuss ideas and help students work through each case step-by-step.
“The professors make sure you are not just processing paperwork without knowledge of what’s behind it. Their priority is to be sure you understand the law, too,” said Ben Snyder L’12, an immigration attorney in private practice. “The clinic prepared me to be able to do what I’m doing now. The practical experience set me apart from other applicants.”
Students describe a range of benefits and lessons learned from their semester with the clinic. They gain experience explaining complicated issues and working through interpreters. They have a deeper understanding of legal and administrative systems. Balancing a workload, managing interruptions and using standard case management software also prepare students for real-world settings.
“I learned to think on my feet, to practice drawing from the knowledge I have in my mind at a moment’s notice,” Snyder says. “This is extremely important and translatable to any field. All attorneys need to do it, and the more you do it, the better you get.”
Elisabeth Linka L’13 plans to do criminal defense work. “The client relationship piece is valuable even if you don’t do immigration law,” she says. “Learning to assess the client, manage expectations, deal with different levels of English skill — these all apply to criminal defense as well as understanding immigration law in the purely legal sense.”
Above all, the work students conduct at the clinic goes beyond the practical application of the law. It changes lives.
“I think I will look back on this as an experience that made me more compassionate, interested in understanding and appreciating other peoples’ situations.” Linka says.
“This work is really close to my heart,” said Katlyn Lantz L’13 who worked with Ndayisenga (see sidebar) and other clients. “We are making a difference in people’s lives — even before we graduate.”
Shelberg agrees. “The clinic is a lot of work, but it’s worth it. The first thing my client said to me in English was, ‘I love you.’ That made every second worthwhile.”
Client Profile: Mandigo Vambe
Mandigo Vambe is a man with vision. An entrepreneur. An advocate for the disabled. A family man.
Vambe is also a political asylee. Harare, Zimbabwe is his home, a home that became too dangerous. After schooling, Vambe managed his father’s grocery store. When his mother was disabled by a stroke, he saw the many challenges and indignities faced by people with disabilities. Buildings or transportation services have no aided access; employers are unwilling to hire anyone with a disability.
“These individuals were often forgotten by our government and treated very poorly,” Vambe explained. “Their voices are not heard.”
Working out of the store, Vambe created a gathering place for the disabled. He helped them get wheelchairs and learn skills such as beading, crocheting and mending shoes and clothing so that they could earn a living. He trained some to be competitive wheelchair racers. In 2000, Vambe and his wife opened their own store, and created a similar community space for the disabled — complete with a wheelchair racing practice area in the back.
Eventually, he and his close-knit community caught the eye of the Mugabe government. Vambe was openly a member of the opposition party. Many of the disabled he knew and worked with had been injured at the hands of government forces. He was outspoken in his criticism.
A conflagration of events — increased repression of citizens, attacks on and abductions of people who oppose Mugabe and Vambe’s active involvement in organizing a citizen protest in 2011 — put his life on the line. He made the wrenching decision to leave while he could. A U.S. travel visa in hand, from his time as an international wheelchair racing coach, Vambe fled.
Living in nearby Winston-Salem, N.C., Vambe sought the help of the Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic. Student Joe Baker L’12 worked closely with him to complete a lengthy affidavit and other documents needed to present a case for asylum in the U.S. It was granted in February 2013.
Soon, Vambe hopes to bring his wife and daughters safely to this country. He has earned several medical certifications and?is working in health care. He is also taking courses for Cisco network certification.
Even so, his heart remains in Zimbabwe. Vambe remains connected to his people and his country through Zimbabwean expatriate communities in the U.S., U.K., South Africa and Australia. They continue to push for human rights and political goals.
“I am so grateful, but if given the chance, I wouldn’t be here indefinitely,” he says. “I would like to go back, if Mugabe is gone and it is safe. I have a vision of having my own business again — a cellular network, a technology company, back in Africa, back in Zimbabwe, if I can.”
Client Profile: Felix Ndayisenga
The day Felix Ndayisenga passed his U.S. citizenship test, he was understandably “happy and proud.” He’d been working toward that moment — and the chance to take the oath of citizenship one week later — for more than five years. But that day, Ndayisenga had other reasons to be happy and proud. He was celebrating his two-year wedding anniversary. He’s a father of a little boy, with a daughter on the way.
Ndayisenga grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the South Kivu Province, a place where his ancestors lived for generations as far back as memory goes. But the ethnic and political fighting — the country has undergone much turmoil and violence in its history — is devastating his homeland, his tribe and his family. Members of his ethnic group have been attacked, abused, murdered and sent way from their land. Ndayisenga’s father, sister and other relatives were murdered or assaulted. He, too, was to be executed but a former schoolmate told him to run.
Ndayisenga was able to escape to neigh- boring Kenya, where he worked and waited for eight years. Finally, he was granted refugee status, giving him permanent, legal U.S. residence and he was sent to Greensboro, N.C. He found his way to Heather Scavone, now with the Humanitarian Law Clinic, who helped him get a work permit. Later, Ndayisenga brought other refugees to the clinic and served as their translator. Meanwhile, he met his wife. Elon law students helped her with the naturalization process, too. He was able to bring his mother, Marcelline Nyiramagaju, to the country; she was granted asylum in April.
When he became eligible to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, he worked with law student Katlyn Lantz L’13.
“It feels very good to be a U.S. citizen,” Ndayisenga says. “In Congo, I have no rights. They are murdering us, killing us, kicking us out, saying we are not citizens. I have been in this country for five years and I have rights, I have freedom. I can express myself, worship as I want, do what I want. To my family, it means a lot.”
Still, the journey for Ndayisenga and his family is not over. The family is now working with the clinic to bring his young nieces and nephews safely to the United States.
The preceding article was part of Elon Law’s 2013 annual report.