Seattle U Law students help Afghan, Ukrainian refugees apply for asylum

October 3, 2023 · By Nicole Jennings
Silhouette of refugee family against blue and yellow stone wall

An Afghan woman turned to the United States to flee a forced marriage to a Taliban member and the constant threat of being murdered for her beliefs.

She is one of more than a dozen refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine who received pro bono legal aid from Seattle University School of Law students through the Asylum Interview Skills Practicum, taught by Professor Deirdre Bowen, director of Seattle U Law’s Family Law Center, and Patrick Patton ’14, owner and managing partner at Salish Sea Law Group.

With this crucial assistance, the woman has been granted asylum just one year after applying, a process that typically takes years. She now has the ability to work, study, and live in freedom without fear of persecution for being an educated woman.

“It was really amazing to witness someone’s life transform from uncertainty to hope,” said Ana Romero ’23, who worked directly with the Afghan woman. “It’s very rewarding and a humbling experience.”

The practicum took place within a year of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“It was very timely because we were all watching the news and we were all very tuned into the War in Ukraine and the ongoing changes in Afghanistan,” said practicum student Mai Khue Nguyen ’23.

“Given the political climate, I wanted to do something useful and fulfilling with my degree,” Krystal Scavo ’23 said. “I had been doing more corporation-type work, so I wanted to do something that was rewarding and could help people.”

When refugees come to the United States, they must apply for asylum, after which they are interviewed by an asylum officer. The refugees must explain why they feared for their safety in their home country and describe any persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinions, or social group (which can include gender). Those interviews largely determine whether refugees will be granted asylum, which allows them to legally remain and work in the United States, with opportunities to secure green cards and, eventually, citizenship.

“These applicants are coming from nothing, and they really are the type of group that we should be helping,” Scavo said. “Seattle University fosters that sense of community and helping others. It just spoke to me that this is a need that must be filled in our community.”

With so much riding on one interview, the practicum focused on preparing clients for an intense and detailed set of questions. At times, the practicum seemed more like a psychology or sociology course than a typical law clinic.

“The focus was to make sure students were properly prepared in terms of how to interview a client who has experienced significant trauma. Medical schools do this quite well, but this is quite unique in a law school,” Bowen said. “You also have to understand how a client’s culture impacts them; intersecting how trauma is impacted by one’s cultural background provides additional layers of complication."

For example, Bowen said, asylees from some cultures may speak about traumatic experiences in ways that appear emotionless to an American asylum officer, as if they are simply reciting memorized, false stories.

“Certain cultures in Asia, including in Afghanistan, believe showing emotion and talking about your feelings are not appropriate and you must keep yourself under control,” she said. “And the Ukrainian families, when telling their stories, got right to the traumatic event and described it in a very straightforward manner that was detached and matter-of-fact. Their culture believes you show strength by being unemotional with trauma.”

Afghan clients may feel intense shame when recounting intimate details of sexual assaults to male asylum officers, so much so that they may omit the assault from their accounts altogether, even though it could strengthen their pleas for asylum.

“It’s important for them to know that one, their voice is important and two, that they’re not going to be judged for what they reveal,” Bowen said. They have to know that “their stories are important, and they’re going to be rewarded for talking about their feelings.”

Bowen invited an asylum officer to speak to the class about cultural norms that may be misinterpreted, such as not making eye contact, speaking silently, and, conversely, being overly emotional.

“The officer said they see so many applications that after a while they have a sense of what looks credible and what doesn’t look credible. The officer’s attitude was, ‘You just know,’” Bowen recalled. “The students were really shocked by that.”

“The system needs a lot of work,” Romero said. “It’s not fair for one officer to be the deciding person.”

During the practice interviews, some of which lasted more than four hours, Bowen said it was vital not to coach the clients to use specific wording. Instead, the students helped their clients get used to telling their story in their own words.

“What is important is for the individual to be their authentic self, that they can say the story in a way that makes sense to them, but that offers enough detail and doesn’t brush past the worst parts,” Bowen said. “We need to have them understand the significance of what they’re saying and why it’s important to the law.”

Additionally, the students explained how officers may judge their clients by American cultural norms and taught them strategies to avoid body language that an officer might deem suspect. For instance, when feeling anxious during the interview, the refugee could take a pause, but during that pause they should look up at the officer and make eye contact instead of looking down. Backtracking and rephrasing the same questions was also necessary to triple-check the order of events. Bowen noted that trauma can make a person misremember something or even block it from their memory.

“Asylum officers will dock people for very minor inconsistencies, like time of day when something happened,” Nguyen said. “For instance, did you leave the country in the morning or afternoon?”

“These people are having to recount their trauma, not once, not twice, but multiple times over their asylum process,” Romero said. “You want to make sure that you’re being very understanding of their trauma and cautious of how they are feeling, allowing them to take a step back and a pause.”

“You let them have that space, rather than digging for a juicy detail,” Nguyen added.

Bowen said that immigration attorneys in these cases can commonly experience secondhand trauma by listening to these harrowing accounts. Patton recalled the “looks of shock and disbelief” on the students’ faces as they listened to the distressing details.

“Some of the Ukrainian refugees lived in cities that had been occupied by Russia since 2014. They had basically the modern-day equivalent of concentration camps in Ukraine in some of those areas,” Patton said. “They were used to living under someone else’s rule and being discriminated against. People were beaten, starved, even killed.”

Those fleeing after the war started recounted memories of bombings and other types of attacks.

“One family had to drive with their headlights off and watch out for landmines — they ran over a landmine that was a dud. They got lucky they didn’t blow up,” Patton said. “As they were leaving, they saw in their rearview mirror missiles launching from Russia onto the city they had just left.”

The Afghan women told of being beaten for wearing clothing deemed inappropriate by the Taliban, getting put on “wanted” lists for working in education, and witnessing buses carrying their loved ones that exploded in the street, killing them.

“One woman was married, but her husband was abroad. She was scared because married women in her village were being kidnapped and remarried to Taliban members,” Patton said. “She and her relatives had to sneak out in the middle of the night and hide under blankets in cars to get to the airport.”

Scavo said that journaling helped her process the secondhand trauma, and she noted that the experience gave her a greater appreciation for the emotional component of the work that immigration attorneys perform each day. For Nguyen, the assignment brought back memories of her own family’s immigration from Vietnam when she was 14.

“Hearing the refugee story of the people from Afghanistan was very personal to me. When my family immigrated, there was the same confusion and same panic that we didn’t get something correct on paper,” Nguyen said. “The murkiness of legal terminology and the gatekeeping aspect of it plays a lot into the fear that immigrant and refugee communities feel toward the law. Part of the reason I went to law school is to bring that back to those communities and illuminate the murkiness of it."

This window into the refugees’ journeys made it all the more rewarding when, this past summer, the recent graduates learned that one of their clients was granted asylum.

Romero, who immigrated with her family from Mexico as a baby, was filled with hope for the future of the immigration system after the practicum.

“It reinforces my belief in the power of law as a tool for positive change,” Romero said. “It reaffirmed my commitment to advocate for those in need. And that is why I went to law school.”

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