This past summer the sophomore class read The Displaced, a collection of first-hand accounts by refugees (edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen) for their history summer reading and the novel Exit West by Mohsin Hamid for their English reading. As a culminating interdisciplinary experience, KO hosted a webinar with three former fellows from UConn Law's Asylum and Human Rights Clinic on September 21 who discussed their experiences last year working on asylum cases through the clinic. Eight sophomore students facilitated the event, wrote questions, moderated the discussion, and managed the open Q&A. Those students included: Sophia Brunalli, Lucia Castro-Martinez, Jordan DiMauro, Ellen Jacobson, Lena Nowaczek, Emil Rainer, Luke Roen, and Alyssa Temkin. After the webinar discussion, the students will write a reflection piece for both classes on the ways in which their learning overlapped across the disciplines, migration, nationhood, home, and other overarching themes.
The three third-year UConn law students working on asylum cases, Paola Leiva, Tennyson Benedict, and Guneet Josen were powerful advocates for these asylum seekers that faced an uncertain future in the United States. For two of the students, immigration matters were personal as both students had parents who immigrated from other countries to the United States, one from Guatemala and the other from India. The third student became interested in immigration while he worked on a farm and befriended an undocumented migrant worker from Mexico.
Leiva represented a woman from Central America who sought asylum because she was persecuted as a woman by her very powerful political family determined to thwart her advancement. Leiva explained, “She was a feminist who felt that a women’s job doesn’t stop in the kitchen, and believed that women should be able to seek any profession they wish without having a man tell then that they can’t.” Josen’s client, also from Central America, came from a family that opposed the ruling party. The young man attended opposition rallies and was targeted by the majority party and threatened with a gun pointed at his head. “It is a really crazy situation to have someone’s life in your hands. But even crazier because my client was younger than me. Crazy to think that someone so young can go through so much hardship and violence at such a young age and go through it all alone,” Josen said. Benedict’s client was also a political dissident from Venezuela whose family was targeted by the authoritarian regime. When the asylum seeker came to the United States, her situation became even more complicated. Due to her homeless status, she sought shelter and lived with a manipulative man who abused her. “We spent a lot of time not on the asylum case but on a daily basis just to get her out of her dangerous living situation into a safer one,” Benedict said. In the end, the United States granted asylum to all of the students’ clients.
Dealing with the unbearable stories and traumas of the clients took a toll on the young law students, but they learned to cope with these feelings if they were to be effective in their position as advocates. Leiva would speak with her supervisor when she felt overwhelmed emotionally. She said, “You have to keep it together, but you’re also human so my supervisor was perfect for me to talk to.” Josen learned how to compartmentalize his feelings for he felt that too much emotion would get in the way of successfully accomplishing the goal of establishing asylum for his client. “You have to think about the future for these people. Focus on their bright future instead of things that already happened and the things that you can’t change. There’s a balance, and you try to do the best you can,” Josen said. Benedict also experienced a big learning curve in dealing with vicarious trauma. He learned to establish boundaries with the client, for instance, by not giving her his cell number, so he was not always on call.
The KO students asked what was the main reason why people were not granted asylum. The law students gave a number of responses including a client’s story that appeared to be exaggerated, the lack of legal representation for asylum seekers, language barriers that inhibit the ability to navigate complicated bureaucratic matters. Josen said, “The standard is higher than it used to be. If you were running away from domestic violence back in the day it would be easier for you to gain asylum in the States than it is now.” Escaping gang violence is no longer considered a valid reason to seek asylum.
The future attorneys discussed roadblocks to asylum and the racism that immigrants face. Despite the obstacles, Josen felt that immigrants are still motivated to come to the United States to fulfill the American Dream. “The American Dream is still relevant for a lot of people. My parents came with that mentality.” As far as the three law students are concerned, there will always be people seeking asylum. “There is war and violence everywhere. A group of people will always be a target of the majority. There will always be refugees because there will always be that power dynamic.” Josen said. Benedict believes there will be more displaced persons in the future due to climate change. “Scientists have made a correlation between an increase in temperatures and an increase in armed conflict.” He noted that the Syrian refugee crisis began as a drought in 2005 that then morphed into a civil war forcing a major migration of refugees into the European Union.
This intermingling of the English and history departments arose last January when English chair Cathy Scheiffelin and history teacher David Baker realized that both their summer readings aligned about the immigrant experience. Looking for ways to overlap themes in the curriculum, over the course of the summer the departments worked together and talked about what they wanted to achieve in the first two weeks of school and coordinated teaching in their classes resulting in the culminating experience of the students speaking with the law fellows. Schieffelin said, “From the English perspective, the refugee experience gave us a way early on in the year to focus on identity and home to decenter some traditional narratives and instead remind the students how important fiction is in developing empathy and providing windows into other’s experiences. And, it’s also an amazing book.” Shieffelin was impressed in the many ways the students stepped up and became part of the experience. “They were eager to jump in and do work behind the scenes and moderate a discussion. For sophomores, that’s remarkable,” she said.
Baker felt that the topic of migration is very relevant to the modern world studies curriculum which focuses on the creation of nations and conflict among nations. “The good thing about history is that it’s more about looking at the evidence and drawing conclusions from it rather than taking our political views and making it the main point," Baker said. Ultimately, in the class, there is an emphasis and discussion on human rights. For Baker the key takeaways for the students are many. “I want to show the students how various disciplines weave together, realizing how fiction and nonfiction can inform you more of what is happening in the world. Another goal is showing to the students our current country or world that they don’t know much about, understanding international relations, and recognizing the challenges and troubles of proving refugee status. It is real-world stuff and takes us away from the small things in life. Students realize how much is going on in this country and the world that they might never think about,” Baker said.