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Bringing refugee families back together through the Refugee Family Reunification Project
On Friday afternoons, the Schulich School of Law’s Weldon Tradition of public service is in motion at the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS), which is located at the Mumford Professional Centre in Halifax’s West End Mall. Since January, a team of volunteers from the law school has been supporting refugees from such countries as Uganda, Kenya, and Eritrea who are desperate to reunite with a family member they had to leave behind when they fled their homeland.
The Refugee Family Reunification Project is led by supervising lawyer and director of Dalhousie’s Health Law Institute Professor Constance MacIntosh and retired law professor Richard Evans. Eight law students – Jennifer Power, Nadia Shivji, Cat Torraville, Nathaniel Ng-Cornish, Paul Chudnovsky, Ryan Gauvin, and Sarah Boucaud – and two practicing lawyers, Lori Hill (’03) and Lara Green (’14), round out the team.
The group mobilized quickly from ground zero. Evans attended a public meeting after the call to help Syrian refugees in HRM went out late last fall; after it was over, he asked the organizer what he could do. The response? Help refugees reunite with their families. Evans approached MacIntosh with the request, knowing that she had been supervising a Pro Bono Dalhousie legal-information clinic at ISANS for almost a decade.
MacIntosh put out a call for student volunteers at Schulich and through the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers’ student branch, and that’s how the Refugee Family Reunification Project was born.
The students have quickly come to understand that good lawyering turns on developing relationships of trust and being honest with your clients, especially when the news is not what they are hoping to hear. — Professor Constance MacIntosh
“We suddenly were a team of 12, and we held our first meeting in December,” says MacIntosh. “I’m so happy that most of our student volunteers were first years. This means they are available to mentor incoming students and to offer clients continuity, as these files may take years to complete. We are learning the substantive law together, as we meet with clients and learn about their unique situations. The students have quickly come to understand that good lawyering turns on developing relationships of trust and being honest with your clients, especially when the news is not what they are hoping to hear. I think that having retired Professor Dick Evans take a lead role, with his decades of experience with Dalhousie Legal Aid, has been key for the project’s success.”
Passion project carries responsibility to improve immigration law, policy
The team works with government-assisted refugees who have been referred by ISANS (so far none of the families have been Syrian, but that could change in the future). Family reunification is an objective of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act; refugees can apply to reunite with defined family members left behind – but they must do so within a one-year window of being granted protection in Canada (the Government of Canada application is called the One-Year Window of Opportunity Provisions).
“We can’t guarantee any kind of outcome,” says MacIntosh. “We’re giving the clients hope insofar as we’re giving them legal information about their rights and responsibilities, and a guide through the unbelievable bureaucracy. We’re working on the ground here, with each refugee and a translator, on the application. Then the application has to go to the relative, who might, for example, be in a labour camp in the Congo. The relative makes corrections, then has to send it back to us to revise, then we need to get it back to them to finalize for them to submit to an assigned consular office.”
We’re always conscious of the clock ticking because of the one-year window for getting that application finalized and submitted overseas. — Professor Constance MacIntosh
In addition to the logistical challenges, the applications are in English, so a translator is needed at the other end too. “Even when things go smoothly, each step of the process can take months,” says MacIntosh. “We’re always conscious of the clock ticking because of the one-year window for getting that application finalized and submitted overseas.”
The student-volunteer team lead is Jennifer Power, a 28-year-old former Canadian naval lieutenant who saw a lot of pain and suffering when she was deployed in the Middle East. Last September when she started law school, she began volunteering at ISANS through Pro Bono Dalhousie. “After my experience in the military, I wanted to help people who were coming to Canada to make a better life for themselves and their families,” she says.
Power plans to volunteer with the Refugee Family Reunification Project until she graduates in 2018. She wants to be a corporate lawyer and calls this her passion project. “This issue isn’t going to go away,” she says. “There’s no question that we’ll have more clients in the queue who will need students to help them.” In addition to reuniting families, Power believes the student volunteers have a responsibility to lobby the government to improve refugee and immigration policy and legislation.
Using student teams to support clients – and each other
The students work with each refugee in teams of two, which allows them to support each other while they listen to what are often upsetting stories. Sometimes they have to tell a refugee that they can’t help them because they don’t fit the application criteria.
“It can be completely heart-wrenching,” says Power. “I try to convey compassion through the translator, but I also use body language and I’ll reach across the table to hold a hand. ISANS has great supports if a situation gets too emotional, but we know that we have a job to do – to tell the clients’ story in the best, most honest way we can. You have to try to set your emotion aside.”
The clients are so appreciative – they often hug us, and they look at us like we’re a beacon of hope. You think, I’m just a first-year law student! But then you realize that you do have some power to help them. — Law student Jenn Power
The initial training provided by MacIntosh, Evans, and ISANS is invaluable. “We know what we’re getting into,” says Power. “We’re very careful with our wording, and we try not to oversell what we can do for the clients because we don’t want them to be even more disappointed. But they’re so appreciative – they often hug us, and they look at us like we’re a beacon of hope. You think, I’m just a first-year law student! But then you realize that you do have some power to help them.”
Inviting others to live out the Weldon Tradition
Lara Green and Lori Hill practice at North Star Immigration Law, the largest Canadian immigration law firm in the Maritimes. They were happy to lend their support to the project as pro bono legal advisors. “We’re a resource for the students, and we meet with them one-on-one if they have questions about their client files, which are very complicated,” says Green. “It’s rewarding being part of a team that’s trying to reunite families, especially if they’ve been separated for years.”
This project is making a huge difference in people’s lives, and the process is part of their healing. — Mira Musanovic, ISANS crisis intervention counsellor
Mira Musanovic, ISANS’s crisis intervention counsellor, can’t overstate the value of the project. “It’s wonderful how quick and passionate the response was of the Dalhousie Pro Bono student program,” she says. “The volunteers jumped in to help at a time when there was no similar service available. If you’re separated from your family, you can’t move on with settlement. It gives people so much hope when they hear that someone is going to help them with the family-reunification application. This project is making a huge difference in people’s lives, and the process is part of their healing.”
The Refugee Family Reunification Project is now under the auspices of Pro Bono Dalhousie, which will help it create more of a structure as it evolves. “We have so many big questions about how to pass on knowledge and keep the momentum going when students leave the project,” says MacIntosh. As of mid-May, several files were well advanced and looking promising for reuniting a spousal separation where a husband was left behind in Turkey, and also reuniting parents with two of their sons who were left behind in Uganda. The volunteers have also made connections with the Canadian Council for Refugees, which will help with the files involving children left behind.
MacIntosh looks back at the past four months in awe. “It’s incredible how quickly a community of support was mobilized, because we all felt so compelled by the horror of family members being separated and unable to find a way to reunite with their relatives because the regulatory regime requires language and bureaucracy skills that they don’t have,” she says. “But in order for this project to stay viable we need more pro bono help from practicing lawyers, legal organizations, and students.”
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