Halfway Around the World, An Immigration Lawyer On-the-Ground in a Refugee Crisis

3/2/18 Asylum

The refugees in Greece consider themselves “lucky” in at least one way: they hadn’t drowned in the Aegean Sea in their journey to asylum. To them, and now to me, the idyllic Mediterranean Sea represents a graveyard for those who didn’t make the journey safely. By the end of 2017,  more than 150,000 refugees arrived in Greece by sea. A few thousand had been marked as dead or missing. The numbers themselves are sobering, but they don’t tell the human story.

I have volunteered in Greece twice now, an immigration lawyer abroad. As Syria and other parts of the world continue to heave with violence, refugees continue to pour into Europe, fighting for survival. The first year, I was not inclined to talk about my experience because I didn’t know how to reconcile my everyday reality with what transpired. But this year, I am sharing, because I want my immigration lawyer colleagues, and the world, to know what’s happening. We often talk about giving our time, talent and treasure, but I want to also provide my testimony. If this persuades even one person to change their perspective on refugees, then it will have been well worth it.

My second year I was based in Athens. Skaramagas, the camp outside Athens, was in some way a physical manifestation of the range of the human experience found in the refugee crisis. On the one hand, refugee families, many of whom had children who had never been to school because of the war and conflict, started a thriving school in Skaramagas. Parents persevered through dark times because of the hope of a new life for their children. On the other hand, some of the most harrowing stories of what humans can do to each other were told to me in that camp. My first visit there, I met with a Yazidi family who, led by a mother of immense strength and hope, had escaped ISIS. Despite her husband having been murdered and the women in her village raped, this mother had done the statistically impossible. Her five-year old child, Suleiman, was her joy and reason for persevering. The juxtaposition of Suleiman’s enthusiasm for life and squeals of joy contrasted so sharply with his mother’s description of lived torture. Through it all, I attempted to be stoic and offer a reasoned legal assessment.

As an attorney, I was there to offer legal advice and help refugees navigate the complicated asylum process. I don’t know why I felt like I needed to be so clinical – perhaps it was the only way that I could handle hearing stories of beheading, rapes, murders, and persecution that has ravaged parts of the Middle East. Perhaps keeping up this façade was the only way I could handle the fact that most refugees are placed in squalid living conditions, with unaccompanied children sleeping in the streets. Perhaps being professional was just a cover for the truth that we were in Europe yet it felt so much like a giant prison.

That façade, however, only lasts so long. It crumbled when our Yazidi interpreter confided that his own mother and father had been executed in front of him. My heart broke when our Arab Christian interpreter told me that the Greek Orthodox churches had shut out the Christian refugees who had wanted to worship with them. He shared this insight with me about a week before Christmas – the irony was bitter.

As we left Skaramagas that evening, a group of Yazidi men approached us for advice but we couldn’t stay that day. They said they would be waiting and not to worry, we would find them by their extra-large mustaches. They must have seen the puzzled look on my face, and they explained that in Yazidi culture men do not shave their mustaches. I pulled out my phone and showed them a picture of my own grandfather, who had a full, bushy mustache. They passed around the phone, made approving sounds, and then pointed at my own upper lip. We laughed at my far less bushy mustache. My own grandfather was a refugee to the United States and familiar with being singled out for persecution, and for making his way to a new country. What a small world, and how sad these same stories occur generation after generation.

While our attention in America has turned further inward recently, we must not exclude and ignore global affairs. For immigration attorneys over the past year, there have been far too many injustices domestically which are worthy of our advocacy and pro bono contributions. But that focus does not need to come at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable and needy. While it has been a crowded arena since last January, there is room for both.

Fundamentally, the struggles of these brave individuals are similar to our own. The unbelievably brave refugees I met share American and human values – providing a safe and healthy life for their families. It’s easy to distance ourselves from these travesties, but when you think about refugees empathetically, it is clear that we have good fortune because of pure circumstance of birth. Ask yourself: “Could this be me?” More often than not, the answer is a resounding yes.

As rulers continue to persecute innocent people, nighttime continues to provide the cover of darkness to flee. Refugees, both those who have not yet left and those who fill Europe’s refugee camps, continue to be pawns in the geopolitics of this world. Do not forget them. They are a part of this world’s story, as we all are.

How to help:

From the author: Anyone can donate to NGOs who provide much needed services. Like in the U.S., no attorney is provided to asylum seekers. The organization I volunteered through is Advocates Abroad – Advocates Abroad allows both in-person volunteering on the ground overseas, or by doing remote research. Another great organization to donate to is Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without borders), which provides medical assistance to the vulnerable.

by Larry Sandigo