How Trump’s Executive Order Harms Refugees

I’ve worked with refugees and asylum seekers since 1991. I can’t even tell you how many I have had the privilege to represent, yet I believe that I have only encountered two cases of fraud in more than 20 years. I have never encountered even a single client with any links to terrorism. The refugees and asylum seekers who I have met have been fleeing for their lives – sometimes, in fact, from terrorists.

The Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” signed on January 27, 2017 not only overreaches executive branch powers (under the plenary power doctrine, immigration policy is shared between the legislative and executive) but aspects of the order are both unconstitutional and violate our international legal obligations under the Refugee Convention (which we ratified in 1980). This at a time when there are more forcibly displaced persons (65+ million) than ever before in human history.

Here are some of the reasons why this Executive Order is bad policy that should not be enforced:

  •  Suspension of U.S. Refugee Admissions Programs (USRAP).
    • The order suspends all refugee admissions for 120 days.  Why?  Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, refugee admissions were suspended for less than 3 months.  Refugees are perhaps the most thoroughly vetted individuals who enter the U.S.  Refugee processing often takes up to 36 months and includes background checks, biometrics, medical screenings, and interviews with several federal agencies. I’ve met many people stuck in limbo in refugee camps, waiting to be cleared to join immediate family members in the U.S.  The refugees impacted by this aspect of the order includes many children –  the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 51% of refugees are under the age of 18.
    • Under the order, exceptions can be made on a case-by-case basis for national interest, if the person does not pose a risk, and the person is a religious minority facing religious persecution OR diplomats OR if the person is already in transit and denying admission would cause a hardship. It does not appear that clear instructions regarding implementation were conveyed to the Border & Customs Protection people who actually had to enforce the order this weekend, leading to chaos and lawsuits.
    • The order reduces the number of refugee admissions by more than half, to 50,000. The refugee admission number is set each year by the President, in consultation with Congress.  Historically, the number of admissions has fluctuated in response to the human rights crises in the world that produce refugee emergencies.  Frankly, the U.S had dropped pretty low in our history in refugee resettlement due to the overall lower number of refugees worldwide prior to the Syrian conflict. President Obama does not deserve accolades for many aspects of his immigration policy regarding refugees, particularly in regard to family detention and the “rocket docket” for Central American women and children fleeing violence.  But last year he finally did authorize an increase in the number of refugees the U.S would accept in response to the worldwide refugee crisis. The goal this fiscal year was to admit 110,000 refugees.  The government’s fiscal year began on October 1, so we have already admitted 29.895 as of January 20, 2017.  Under this new executive order, we will admit only about 20,000 additional refugees before the end of the fiscal year on September 30. That means that 60,000 refugees who have already been vetted will remain in vulnerable situations.  —
    • Once resumed, the U.S. will prioritize the religious persecution claims of minority religious groups.  Purportedly, this is to prioritize the claims of persecution on account of Christian minorities but the fact is that Muslims are also a persecuted minority in countries such as India. What does this mean for them?
    • The order suspending USRAP for 120 days also directs Department of Homeland Security to determine how state and local jurisdictions can have greater involvement in determining placement resettlement in their district.  This aspect of the order has not received a lot of media coverage yet, but it would allow states and cities unprecedented authority to say that they will not resettle any Muslim refugees. Bills have already been introduced in states such as North Dakota and South Dakota to ban all resettlement unless approved by the state legislatures.
  • Ban on Syrian refugees. The order halts the processing and admission of all Syrian refugees. Indefinitely. Syria is one of the worst human rights crises on the planet. Over the past few years, millions of people have fled from both the forces of President Bashar al-Assad (supported by Russian airstrikes) and ISIS.  It is worth noting that the U.S. finally stepped up last year and accepted 10,000 refugees – but that number is far, far less than most Western countries.  To date, the majority of refugees resettled from Syria to the U.S. have been women and children. 
  • And then there’s the ban on entry of nationals of Muslim-Majority countries.
    • Both non-immigrants (tourist, student, etc.) and immigrants (including legal permanent residents – although Priebus later said that, actually we didn’t mean THEM and a “waiver” process was subsequently added) from seven countries (some friends, some foe) – Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – are banned from entry for at least 90 days. The order also notes that other countries and immigration benefits may be added to the banned list later. Courts have already temporarily blocked the implementation of part of this order, the concern being the First Amendment Establishment Clause (which prohibits the government from preferring or disfavoring a religion) and the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection clause.
    • But part of the order also calls for the exclusion of individuals who “would place violent ideologies over American law” or “who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including ‘honor’ killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different for their own..” That is incredibly vague and potentially discriminatory.  But the truth is that there has been enhanced screening for everyone coming from countries with high levels of terrorism since 9/11. We’re already doing the highest level of vetting that can be done. I can’t help but think that you and me and the American public are being played here – to the great loss of everyone from these 7 countries.
  • In-Person interviews for most nonimmigrant visas.  The order suspends the Visa Interview Waiver Program (VIWP), which was primarily used by people who had been vetted already, were considered a low-security risk and were on renewable employment-based visas. The requirement for in-person interviews for nonimmigrant visa applications will create huge backlogs at embassies and consulates and slow down the process for anyone applying for a visa (including family members of legal immigrants, asylees and refugees).  Many of our asylum clients come to the U.S. on visitor or student visas and this processing backlog will thus prevent people like them from escaping persecution in their countries and leave them in vulnerable and insecure situations.
  • Screening of all for Immigration benefits.  While screening standards are already in place for identifying fraud etc.,  agencies are now directed to create a process to evaluate the person’s “likelihood of becoming a positively contributing member of society” and “ability to make contributions to the national interest”.  These are entirely new and subjective standards so it is not clear how anyone could even implement them.  More importantly, they are NOT statutory requirements for any immigration benefit (except a national interest visa). This is policy by fiat, going beyond Congressional authority. And did I mention the backlog we already have for processing any immigration matter?
  • Biometric Entry-Exit.  The order directs agencies to complete the implementation of the biometric entry-exit system that Congress mandated in 1996.  The Department of Homeland Security implemented biometric entry in 2006 but the exit system has proved logistically challenging.  Congress appropriated up to $1 billion in the FY2016 budget for implementing the biometric exit program but the Department of Homeland Security has noted that a comprehensive entry-exit system at all ports of entry will require additional resources.
The Executive Order signed on Friday, January 27, 2017 violates our Constitution, as well as our international obligations under the Refugee Convention to ensure that 1) refugees not returned to a place where they will be persecuted (non-refoulement), 2) there is an individualized determination of persecution on account of one of the 5 grounds (race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion – NOT just religion); and 3) refugees are not discriminated against.
This Executive Order is public policy based on myth instead of doing what is best for our country and our security. Every Department of Homeland Security professional that I have ever met has said that the problem is lack of resources rather than the need for new laws or regulations. Every refugee I know is a true American patriot, one who tears up when saluting the flag or appear at jury duty because they know – better than me – the true price of freedom.
Educate yourself (reading this post is a good start).  Call your Congressional, state and local representatives.  Volunteer to help refugees and asylum seekers in your hometown.  Remember that Einstein was a refugee – and so were the Pilgrims.  Providing a safe haven for those who are forced to flee persecution is a core American value.  This Executive Order will not make us safer but it will erode our moral standing as leader of the free world.

Serious Concerns About Lack of Access to Counsel for Asylum Seekers

Child from Honduras

U.S. Senator Al Franken has called on Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to ensure access to counsel for asylum seekers held in family detention centers. Joined by 18 Senate colleagues, Sen. Franken raises serious concerns regarding reports that U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) is interfering with the ability of asylum-seeking mothers and children to access legal representation. Recently, individual volunteer attorneys, who had travelled to the privately-owned prison in Dilley, Texas where approximately 2000 Central American refugee women and children are detained,were barred from entering to provide  pro bono representation.

Access to counsel can be the difference between life and death for asylum seekers in the United States. Asylum seekers who have lawyers are more than three times as likely to be granted asylum as those who do not.  Having an attorney is “the single most important factor” affecting the outcome of the case. Yet individuals in immigration detention face the biggest challenge in obtaining legal representation.  The American Bar Association estimates that a whopping 84% of immigration detainees nationwide were unrepresented in their removal proceedings.

At the international level, The Advocates for Human Rights drew attention to the appalling lack of access to counsel for asylum seekers during the UN reviews for U.S. compliance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, and the Convention Against Torture.  Most recently, The Advocates raised the continuing failure of the U.S. to recognize asylum seekers from Central America’s northern triangle in its statement to the UN Human Rights Council during a September 28 interactive dialogue on the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights:

As an NGO that provides free legal services to asylum seekers in the United States, we would particularly like to draw attention to an issue that we see on a daily basis: the impact that violent transnational criminal gangs in Central America, fueled by profits from the trade in illegal drugs, have on the lives Central Americans, forcing thousands of women and children to flee and seek safety in the U.S.

Transnational gangs extort, threaten, and forcibly recruit people living in strategic drug trafficking corridors. States in the region are ill-equipped to deal with crimes by these gangs, leaving victims unprotected from serious harm, including torture, disappearance, sexual violence, and murder. And the violence continues to grow, as gangs seek to solidify their control over valuable drug trafficking routes.

For example, gang members threatened to kill one of our clients, who I’ll call “Teresa”, after her family could no longer afford to pay protection money for the family business. Armed gang members abducted her, threw her into a truck, and took her to the leader’s house, where he beat and raped her. Left with no choice but to flee, she sought asylum in the U.S.

Yet the U.S. violates the fundamental rights of asylum seekers like Teresa by failing to recognize victims of transnational criminal gangs as refugees, even when such gangs operate as quasi-state actors that routinely torture, rape, and kill those who resist support or recruitment.

Asylum seekers face other violations, including arbitrary detention and prosecution for illegal entry. Mothers and their children are detained in difficult conditions pending preliminary credible fear determinations in two privately-owned prisons where attorneys have been denied access to clients and even summarily barred from the facilities.

The Advocates for Human Rights calls upon:

  • the Human Rights Council to include this issue in the discussion about the impact of the world drug problem on human rights;

  • the United Nations member States to ensure that their national drug policies consider the impact on the human rights of affected individuals and their countries; and

  • the U.S. to end family immigration detention and expedited removal procedures and to treat all asylum seekers in accordance with international standards.

See The Advocates’ volunteer Dr. Bill Lohman deliver the oral statement to the Human Rights Council:

In July, The Advocates launched a bilingual National Asylum Help Line to connect families released from U.S. immigration detention centers like the one in Dilley with free legal services. Migrants are encouraged to call the Help Line at 612-746-4674 to receive basic legal screening, information about the legal process, and referrals to agencies in areas in which they live.

By Michele Garnett MacKenzie, The Advocates for Human Rights’ Director of Advocacy, and Deputy Director Jennifer Prestholdt

Originally published at theadvocatespost.org on October 29, 2015.

Voices from Silence: Personal Accounts of the Long-term Impact of 9/11 #NeverForget

The foreword from The Advocates for Human Rights’ report Voices from Silence: Personal Accounts of the Long-term Impact of 9/11. Published in February 2007, “Voices of Silence” details the impact of 9/11 on the lives of immigrants, refugees, and religious minorities in Minnesota. It documents personal stories of fear and discrimination in a post-9/11 environment and contextualizes them with an overview of laws and policies that have affected these communities. As a staff member of the organization that published this report, I was privileged to play a small part in the drafting and editing of this report.

September 11, 2014 was a day of terrible tragedy, on every level -personal, community and national. We must always honor the memory of those who lost their lives to acts of terrorism, as well as the courage of those who worked so hard to help others. But neither should we forget what happened in the United States after the terrible events of 9/11 and the impact that fear and discrimination had on a personal, community, and national level. #NeverForget

The Advocates Post

candle from morgue fileLate in the afternoon of September 13, 2001, a Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights (now, The Advocates for Human Rights) staff attorney was meeting in our office with two of our pro bono clients, a Christian couple fleeing religious persecution in Egypt. Although it had been rescheduled from the afternoon of September 11, this meeting to prepare their application for asylum was routine for our organization, which provides legal representation to hundreds of asylum seekers each year. During the meeting, however, two uniformed Minneapolis police officers obtained access to the locked offices of Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights and, without warning, entered the room where our clients were meeting with their attorney. Th police apologized for interrupting the meeting, but sated that they were obligated to investigate a report that a “Middle Eastern” man had entered the building, which was located next to the Federal Building in downtown Minneapolis. After…

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The Other Greek Crisis: Xenophobia and Mass Detention

Amygdaleza migrant detention center

Landing at Elefthérios Venizélos in Athens, you can’t miss the sprawling blue and gold IKEA near the airport.  While tourists arriving  in Greece may recognize the siren call of cheap and trendy furniture, they are not likely to notice that there are also detention centers in Athens.  The brand-new Amygdaleza migrant detention center was opened in April in western Athens, shortly before the election. There are plans to build many more detention camps – and quickly.  Greek police reported this week that they have arrested thousands and temporarily detained more than 17,000 migrants, mostly from Asia and Africa, since August 4, 2012.

I traveled to Greece for the first time in May.  I was there briefly and only as a tourist. I stayed in tourist areas, encountering very few Greeks who didn’t work in the tourism industry. Perhaps this is an occupational hazard, but I can’t help but look for human rights violations – even when I’m on vacation.   So I listened carefully when my brother, who had been living in Greece for some months, mentioned that recently the government had started arresting, detaining and deporting migrants.  In fact, the first 56 migrants arrived at the new Amygdaleza migrant detention center on April 29 – only a week before the national election. Undocumented migration had become a major issue in the May 6 election, with several parties pledging to crack down on migrants. Based largely on this issue, the far-right Golden Dawn party gained seats in Parliament for the first time.

While Greece may be idyllic for the foreigners who are tourists, many migrants and asylum seekers have a very different experience.

Since the early 2000s, Greece has been a major entry point to the west and Europe for migrants and asylum seekers from Asia and Africa.  Many of them cross the border with Turkey, which up until August was fairly porous.  By some estimates, a million immigrants live in Greece, which has a population of barely 11 million.  Add to this demographic change the deepening economic crisis and rising social tension and you get a volatile situation in which undocumented migrants and asylum seekers have become the targets of xenophobia.  According to a July 2012 report from Human Rights Watch, “Xenophobic violence has reached alarming proportions in Greece, particularly in the capital city of Athens.”

None of this was apparent to me when I was a tourist in Athens in May.  Even the economic crisis in Greece was surprisingly – shockingly, in fact – invisible.  I tried asking a couple of people about it.  People seemed annoyed with the politicians, but unconcerned that Greece would leave the Euro zone.   The waitress at the take-out place where I got my Greek salad just rolled her eyes when I asked about it.  “Try a FIX Hellas,” she said, proffering a pale Greek beer in a clear plastic cup.  “You can walk around with it.”  So I walked around Plaka like I was on Bourbon Street, thinking about the ironic name of my beverage. Lots of people were shopping.  The Barbie store was doing a particularly brisk business.

Later, I walked over to the Parliament.  Even though it was the middle of a workday, it was as still as a tomb.  I started to understand the Greek frustration with politicians.

I followed the news on the “other Greek crisis” after my return.  In early August, there was a mass crackdown on “irregular migrants”.  Greek authorities deployed 4,500 police around Athens to arrest and detain more than 7,000 migrants in less than 72 hours.    In another example of ironic naming, the Greek authorities called the operation Zeus Xenios after the Greek god of  hospitality and guests.  The Greek office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern that legitimate refugees and genuine asylum seekers could be among those who are summarily deported, but the round-ups have continued.  On September 5, Greek police reported that 17,000 migrants have been temporarily detained in these round-ups, with 2,144 of them arrested. One of the concerns is that the ongoing sweeps target suspected migrants based on little more than their physical appearance; the proportion of temporarily detained to arrest numbers seem to bear that out.  In addition to the problem of arbitrarily detaining migrants, visits to some of the migrant detention centers have documented inhuman and degrading conditions. 

Of course Greece has the right to control migration, to set and enforce their country’s immigration laws.  But Greek authorities must comply with their international and European human rights obligations.  Above all, they should not arrest, detain, and deport foreigners based on appearance or ethnicity – in contrast to the the welcome received by an American tourist like me.  The left-wing main opposition Syriza party has been critical of the crackdown and claims that the migration issue is being used to divert attention from the more difficult and unpopular issues of the economic crisis and the spending cuts that the EU and IMF require in exchange for assistance out of the economic quagmire.  From my limited observation of the situation in Greece, I have to agree.

Honoring The Defenders

I wrote this post for Bloggers Unite.

On Human Rights Day 2011, we pay tribute to all human rights defenders.  What is a human rights defender?  The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders describes them as people who act to address any human right (or rights) issue, anywhere in the world, on behalf of individuals or groups.  Human rights defenders can be individuals acting in their professional capacity or volunteering their time to work with an association or group.  If you add it all up, there are thousands – maybe millions – of human rights defenders in the world.  Each of us that takes action to promote and protect human rights is a defender.

As a human rights defender working in the United States, I have the freedom to work without fear of reprisal. For many defenders around the world, however, this is not the case.  Because of they act for human rights, human rights defenders are often targeted for human rights violations, including executions, torture, beatings, arbitrary arrest, trial without due process, detention, death threats, harassment and discrimination.  They face restrictions on their freedom of movement, expression, association, and assembly. In addition to targeting human rights defenders themselves and the organizations through which they work, the human rights violations frequently target members of defenders’ families.   Women human rights defenders confront risks that are gender specific.

What happens to human rights defenders when the targeting gets to be too much? For more than seven years, I represented human rights defenders who were fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in the U.S.   Though I may not have seen them for years, I often think about my former clients.  On this Human Rights Day, I am thinking about James and Julia (not their real names). James and Julia were human rights defenders in their native Kenya, speaking out against an oppressive government.  They had a little boy who I’ll call William.  When the police came to their house to arrest Julia, a police dog had bitten William on the head.  You could still see the wound a year later when, having left everything they owned behind to escape Kenya, they were seeking legal assistance with their asylum claim in the U.S.

In police custody, Julia had been brutally and repeatedly raped.  Julia testified about her experiences in a straightforward manner and in excruciating detail, but with such poise and dignity that both the asylum officer and I were in tears.  It is one of the very  few times that have I seen an asylum officer (specially trained federal officials who make decisions about asylum cases based on a written application and an in-person interview) actually cry during an an asylum interview.  I remember well how James sat next to her, utterly still. Anguish is the only word that could possibly describe the look on his face as he listened to her testimony.

Years later, after they got their citizenship, James and Julia had a party to say thank you to all of the people who had helped them.  In addition to their attorneys, there were people from their church and other members of the Kenyan community. They now lived in a big, new house out in the suburbs. Julia was close to graduation from nursing school  William, who I hadn’t seen since he was three, was now in middle school.  He was a straight-A student and talented musician who had just gotten braces.  They had had another child, too – a daughter born here in America.

The ending is not always this happy for all human rights defenders.  That is why, this Human Rights Day, we all need to honor the work of human rights defenders and promote human rights both at home and in other countries.  One way to honor the work of the defenders is to be a defender yourself – take action.  The UN is asking you to Make a wish for human rights today!

To learn more about protecting human rights defenders:

http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/SRHRDefenders/Pages/SRHRDefendersIndex.aspx

http://www.protectionline.org/-Home-.html

http://www.fidh.org/-Human-Rights-Defenders,180-

Three Minute Fiction

Photo from the BBC

Are you familiar with MPR’s Three Minute Fiction? I was not until January 8, when I heard the announcement on Weekend All Things Considered of Round Six: Laughing and Crying.  The premise is simple:  a fictional story of 600 words, which, it turns out, actually takes closer to four minutes to read the story out loud.  Each round has a different theme and this time the celebrity author/judge mandated that one character tell a joke and that another cry.

I heard the MPR piece and the following story “Why?” sprang fully-formed into my head. It did’t win (the winning story will be broadcast this weekend); it didn’t even get selected as one of the weekly “Favorites”, of which there were 22.   That wasn’t really much of a surprise since a) I haven’t written fiction since the 6th grade, b) my juvenilia is Crap! with a capital C;  c) there were 4000 entries; and d) there were apparently a disproportionate number of stories about chickens.   If I had won, though, I would have told Guy Raz all about how I wrote it (only during the minutes that my son Simon was not playing) at a hockey rink in a suburb called New Hope and how, on the way to the rink,  I had to drive in the middle of the snowy road to avoid the African refugees walking, not on the sidewalks, but in the road just like I have seen so many people do on roads in West Africa.

Why?

“Here’s a classic: Why did the chicken cross the road? Ever heard that one before?”  He was a good man, a volunteer with the resettlement agency.  He drove her to doctor appointments and to the Asian grocery store that sold palm butter.  They sat across from each other at her kitchen table, drinking tea.  He had helped her find this table at a secondhand store.  He had brought her this blood-red teapot, had showed her how to use the gas stove.  He was doing his best to help her understand America.   Today he was teaching her American jokes.
But those words…chicken ….road…brought her back to her village, back to that day.  She looked down at her hands, folded politely in front of her.  It was as if the months, the miles had evaporated. She saw it so clearly. Her little son and the chicken, in the road.  Blessing loved that chicken – a small white hen, feisty and independent.  Little Blessing loved that chicken and he worried about her, following her around much of the day as she scrabbled in the dirt.  People in the village thought it was odd, laughed at the thought of treating an animal like it was more than something to eat.  That was one of the things she had noticed that was different in America.
That day, when they heard the trucks, they had all run inside to hide.  The rebels had passed on the road many times before without stopping, but it was best to hide, to do nothing to draw their attention. That day in her village, she was on her knees on the dirt floor.  It was the rainy season and there was water on the road.  She heard the squeal of the brakes, the flat splash of water when the truck stopped.  She squeezed her eyes shut and prayed harder.  But Blessing, her little Blessing, saw his chicken crossing the road. He watched the truck stop. When one of the rebels grabbed his chicken, Blessing ran out of the house. 
It was a boy who did it.  He was carrying a gun almost as big as himself.  He could not have been more than a few years older than Blessing.  In different times, he may have kicked a ball to him and laughed when Blessing ran after it on his chubby little legs.   But this was a bad time. Everything had changed when the fighting began.  The rebels took what they wanted, hurt who they wanted. That boy was carrying a gun almost as big as himself.  And it was the young ones who were the most dangerous because they were unpredictable.  
She remembered everything else that had happened that day.  The bullets that blazed her temple, her leg, her arm as she ran to Blessing.  She remembered the women from her village who were raped, the men who were killed, the children who were taken to be porters and fighters.  The rebels took all their animals, all their food; they burned all their buildings.  She remembered her months in the refugee camp, her long journey to this strange, cold country.  But she had built a wall inside around that part of herself since the moment when her little Blessing had crumpled to the ground.  Until this moment, this unexpected American joke about the chicken and the road. 
She saw that her hands, balled into fists now, were glistening with wet.  Another teardrop fell, rolling over her her knuckle, pulled inexorably down.  She looked up and saw that he, too, had tears in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.  “Please tell me.  Why did the chicken cross the road?”

(597 words)

When I wrote this, I remember thinking that this story would also be an appropriate blog entry.   I hoped to show with this story the connection between two people who outwardly don’t have much in common.  He doesn’t know why she is crying, but still feels and bears witness to her pain.

I also hoped to show that plenty of normal-seeming people are walking around with hidden scars, pain that is kept at bay, but only just and that might be suddenly triggered and result in a full-blown flashback. This story is fiction, but I have been in situations where something I said sent a human rights victim back into a bad time and place.  Here is an example, if I gave you Coca Cola in a glass bottle, what would you think of?   I think of the Coke machine in the basement of Audubon Hall on the LSU campus.  When I visited my dad at his office, I was allowed to go down to the basement and put a quarter in the old-fashioned machine, open the door and retrieve an ice cold bottle.  So for me, a bottle of Coca Cola has entirely positive connotations.  But I had a client once who was tortured with an empty glass Coke bottle.  For her, the thought or sight of a glass bottle could cause her to panic.

It’s scary when someone suddenly begins to disassociate.  And like the guy in this story, you feel guilty when something you do triggers it.    Ideas for stories (some realistic fiction like this and some not) spring into my head all the time, but I the reason that I took the time to write this one down – in that ice arena in New Hope, MN – was because I think more people need to be aware that many of us (not just refugees) are carrying a heavy burden of memories from a painful time.  More of us should be on the lookout for how we can make that human connection.  It won’t change the world, but it might just help make it a little bit better.

Making Something Out of Nothing

If you knew me in my twenties, you probably remember me as a KOW (Knitting Obsessed Woman).  I didn’t learn how to knit until I was 19, but after that I was rarely without a pair of knitting needles in my hands.  My PR is knitting a pair of mittens in 5 hours the night before Valentine’s Day as a gift for my future (and current) husband. Because I learned to knit as an adult, I distinctly remember how difficult it is.  You feel awkward as you struggle to make the needles do what you need them to do. It’s difficult to make sense of the stitches and frustrating to decipher the patterns, which seem to be written in secret code.  If you make a mistake, you have to rip out your work and start over.  But what I absolutely love about knitting is the satisfaction that comes from taking what is basically a couple of sticks and a ball of string and, through sheer effort and determination, turning a bunch of knots into something that is beautiful and useful. You are making something out of nothing.

photo from brella
 http://www.flickr.com/photos/13750491@N06/3842647159

I haven’t done much knitting in the past decade.  There are several half-finished projects at the back of my closet,  hidden behind my boots so I can’t see them and feel guilty about them.   But last weekend my friend Amy showed me some mittens that she is making for her son.  They are My Neighbor Totoro mittens and they seriously could not be cuter.  I saw them and my fingers started itching – literally – to knit them.   You can find the pattern for Totoro Mittens on Ravelry.com or by clicking on this pdf. (Special thanks to brella for allowing me use both the image and the pattern in this blog!)


For the first seven years of my career, I represented people who were fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in the U.S.  Though I may not have seen them for years, I often think about my former clients.  On the day that Amy showed me the My Neighbor Totoro mittens, I happened to think of James and Julia (not their real names). James and Julia were politically active in their native Kenya, speaking out against an oppressive government.  They had a little boy who I’ll call William.  When the police came to their house to arrest Julia, a police dog had bitten William on the head.  You could still see the wound a year later when, having left everything they owned behind to escape Kenya, they were seeking legal assistance with their asylum claim in the U.S.  

In police custody, Julia had been brutally and repeatedly raped.  Only a few times have I seen an asylum officer (specially trained federal officials who make decisions about asylum cases based on a written application and an in-person interview) actually cry during an an asylum interview.  Julia testified about her experiences in a straightforward manner and in excruciating detail, but with such poise and dignity that both the asylum officer and I were in tears.  I remember well how James sat next to her, utterly still. Anguish is the only word that could possibly describe the look on his face as he listened to her testimony.


Years later, after they got their citizenship, James and Julia had a party to say thank you to all of the people who had helped them.  In addition to their attorneys, there were people from their church and other members of the Kenyan community. They now lived in a big, new house out in the suburbs. Julia was close to graduation from nursing school  William, who I hadn’t seen since he was three, was now in middle school.  He was a straight-A student and talented musician who had just gotten braces.  They had had another child, too – a daughter born here in America.

It had taken a lot of hard work for James and Julia to get to where they were.  I’m sure that they were frustrated at times with life in this strange, new country.  But they persisted and, through sheer effort and determination, made a new life for themselves and their family.  In some ways, they had even followed a pattern – the American Dream.  It wasn’t easy, but James and Julia had done it.  They had made something out of nothing.