By Jake Stump
Fearful of their country’s ongoing civil war, a Syrian mother and son have gained asylum in the United States, thanks to West Virginia University College of Law students and professors.
The clients, who prefer to remain anonymous, endured harassment and lived in a dangerous part of the country, where “bullets whizzed by their home” at any given moment.
Four students with the College of Law’s Immigration Clinic helped the family gain asylum, adding to a list of cases the students have won since the clinic was created in 1996.
“The mother couldn’t leave the house,” said Dominque Razzook, a third-year law student who worked on the case. “She spent most of her time in the bathroom of her house hiding.
“She came home from work one day when supporters of the government regime attacked members of the community in the street with large sticks. She ran away and fell down, bruising her eye.”
The Syrian civil war grew out of the Arab Spring movement in March 2011 as a conflict between forces loyal to the Ba’ath Party and those seeking to oust it. Since then, as many as 56,000 people have been killed — half of them civilians.
About 1.2 million Syrians have also been displaced within the country, according to the United Nations, and tens of thousands have been imprisoned and tortured.
“It is precisely this kind of case, and this kind of success, that makes our sometimes painstaking and difficult work so worthwhile,” said Michael Blumenthal, co-director of the clinic and visiting professor at the College of Law, “and our sincere congratulations and appreciation go out to all those who worked on this case under severe end-of-the-semester time constraints and pressures.”
The son came to the United States on a student visa to pursue a college education. He had hoped to take knowledge earned in the U.S. back to the Middle East, but those goals took a drastic turn with the emergence of the war.
His mother came to visit him in the U.S. during an outbreak of violence in Syria. Because of the dire situation at home, she decided to stay.
In an affidavit, the son described how several of his friends, who peacefully protested in Syria, were tortured and killed by the government.
“My friend since middle school and a past roommate was shot and killed by a sniper after trying to deliver food and medicine to the damaged neighborhoods in Syria,” the client wrote. “So, not only are (Syrian President Bashar) al-Assad’s forces murdering the political protesters, they are also murdering those who merely provide aid to the victims of this violence.”
The client also said a friend who rode around in his car to protest through a loudspeaker was detained and tortured to death by police. Another friend was arrested for possessing signs that said “Free Syria” and “Stop Killing the People.” He, too, was detained and killed.
“Understandably, no one wants to go back to the chaos there,” Blumenthal said. “Their lives would’ve been in danger if they’d gone back. We were determined to help them out.”
“People currently living in the neighborhood where the mother lived are now living in abandoned schools with no food, water or electricity,” Razzook said. “To get water for drinking, these people have resorted to collecting rain water. If she were to return to Syria, she would likely be living in a school under similar conditions. She also could be arrested upon her arrival and held hostage.”
The Immigration Clinic has served international residents throughout West Virginia and western Pennsylvania with deportation, asylum and other legal proceedings. Over the years, students have won political asylum cases for clients from Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and other countries. Earlier this year, law school students gained asylum for Yuri Pushkarev, a Russian blogger who had been critical of President Vladimir Putin and fearful that his country’s government would retaliate.
Immigrants must meet certain poverty guidelines to receive help from the clinic. It operates only during the fall and spring semesters.
“It is a great source of satisfaction to the clinic and our students that we are able to successfully support clients with very little in the way of financial and other resources in claiming their rights against an enormous bureaucracy with massive resources,” Blumenthal said. “Many of these people would be left without recourse but for our assistance, and I’m extremely proud of our students for having successfully taken on so many of these cases against sometimes appreciable odds, and requiring a great deal of administrative and other work.”
The clinic was the brainchild of James J. Friedberg, its former director and the Hale J. and Roscoe P. Posten professor of law at the College of Law. Friedberg founded the project at the urging of his international law and human rights students as a volunteer pro bono undertaking. He then turned the project into a clinical course.
Not only do the clients benefit, but so do law students, who gain real-world experience by working on actual cases.
In addition to Razzook, other law students to work on the Syrian case were George Junkins, Lorena Waddell and Greg Pennington.
“It’s a great feeling helping them on the pathway to citizenship,” Razzook said. “They’re really great people. The mother cooked us a bunch of food and we had a celebration.”
After graduation, Razzook hopes to become an immigration lawyer. Her father is from Iraq and her grandparents are from Germany and Russia.
“I’m an American of immigrants,” she said. “That, and seeing the result of our work in the clinic, definitely fuels my interest in immigration law.”