With fears of retaliation from al Qaeda following Osama bin Laden’s death, one Penn Law group’s mission to resettle Iraq War refugees is more urgent than ever.
Penn’s chapter of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project assists Iraqis who fled Iraq because of threats to their safety. These refugees were either employed by American or international forces during the war or feared persecution for their ethnicity or religion.
IRAP, a national organization that has provided over $2.4 million in pro bono legal services since the first chapter was founded by Yale Law School students in 2009, estimates over two million Iraqis were displaced by the war.
Scattered across the Middle East, these refugees live in a state of uncertainty as they are unable to return home or secure legal status in their current countries.
“A lot of them feel justly that they have been abandoned by the people they’ve helped,” said Penn’s IRAP executive director Kate Norland, a second-year Penn Law student. Founded in 2010, Penn’s IRAP is comprised of 24 law students and 11 students from other Penn graduate schools who work in casework, policy activities and community service.
With the help of eight attorneys, the law students are currently assisting 10 refugees apply for resettlement. Penn’s IRAP clients are based in Jordan, Syria and Thailand.
With the recent unrest in Syria and other countries in the region, Norland noted that resettling Iraqi refugees has become even more urgent.
Some Iraqis have been forced to flee the country where they originally sought refuge, according to an April 2011 IRAP report.
With the recent death of bin Laden, an increase in al Qaeda violence could further exacerbate negative feelings toward refugees, Norland wrote in an email, noting that “after the devastating hotel bombings in Jordan in 2005, carried out by affiliates of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Jordan closed its borders to all Iraqis.”
“If the governments of Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon fear increased terrorist activity in retaliation for the killing of bin Laden, they may become even more suspicious of Iraqis,” she wrote.
Refugees often hide their identity because they fear deportation, making it difficult to find housing, employment and schooling for their children, outgoing Penn IRAP community outreach director and second-year law student Noor Najeeb explained.
For the first time last March, six students and Penn Law professor Fernando Chang-Muy, one of the eight assisting attorneys, traveled to Amman, Jordan, for 10 days during spring break. While in Amman, the students met with some clients whom they had only previously spoken to on the phone or on Skype.
Students also collaborated with 17 law students from the University of Jordan to interview new potential clients, bringing in 10 new cases.
“Students working on this program have a real global perspective,” said Andrew Soven, one of six attorneys from the Reed Smith law firm that assist with casework. Soven noted that handling real cases is “tremendously valuable” to students and that “there is nothing like having a real client motivating you.”
This year, Penn’s IRAP also began helping Iraqi refugees who have resettled in Philadelphia.
The Pennsylvania Refugee Resettlement Program reports that 417 Iraqi refugees resettled in Pennsylvania in 2010. Moreover, the Office of Immigration Statistics reports that 18,016 Iraqi refugees arrived in the United States in 2010.
Law students help refugees with legal-oriented work like applying for green cards, and other graduate students assist with translation and more service-oriented work such as enrolling refugees’ children in school. Next year, the group hopes to involve undergraduate students in its work.
IRAP has chapters at nine law schools, including Penn, Columbia Law School, Stanford Law School and the University of Jordan. Worldwide, there are more than 270 participating law students and supervising attorneys involved in IRAP.
Though none of the cases taken by Penn’s IRAP have seen a refugee resettling, national IRAP has successfully resettled more than 400 refugees.
Norland said the resettlement process is made difficult by the distance and the State Department, which does not have a set timetable for processing applications.
However Norland is not discouraged. “I think we have a moral duty to those Iraqis that helped U.S. forces and then put themselves in danger.”