11/05/2009

Students Help Secure Political Asylum Victory

  • http-blogs-fandm-edu-wp-content-blogs-dir-29-files-2012-04-dicklitchstudents-jpg Susan Dicklitch, associate dean of the College and director of the Ware Institute for Civic Engagement, with two students whose efforts helped gain political asylum for a woman from Cameroon: Tina Phillips ’10, left, and Grace Gallagher ’10.

Tina Phillips '10 checked her voice mail frantically, hoping for good news. She knew a message would come, but back-to-back classes made it difficult to communicate.

Finally, it arrived.

"Hi Tina, I just got a call about the hearing," said the tantalizing message from Susan Dicklitch, associate dean of the College and director of The Ware Institute for Civic Engagement. "You should call me back."

Phillips got in touch with Dicklitch and learned the exciting news: the woman seeking political asylum, a case she and three other students had worked on in Dicklitch's Human Rights-Human Wrongs class, was granted the right to remain in the U.S. Phillips immediately called Grace Gallagher '10, another student who helped the asylum seeker—a woman who suffered persecution in Cameroon due to her political beliefs (she is not named in this story to protect her privacy).

"I was just overjoyed, running around my apartment," Gallagher said. "We'd become engaged in the case and put ourselves in her shoes. That made it more important to us that she got asylum."

The celebration took place Oct. 15, nearly two years after the case first came to the attention of Dicklitch. She had received a call from a lawyer in Washington, D.C., who asked her to serve as an expert witness in the case. Dicklitch agreed, on the condition that her students could work with the client.

Ashley Marucci '08 and Nikki Meadows '08, who took Human Rights-Human Wrongs in the spring of 2008, spent hours with the asylum seeker to record her story of persecution. A member of Cameroon's Social Democratic Front, the main opposition to the Cameroon People's Democratic Movement, the woman had been raped by security guards who were supposed to protect her.

Phillips and Gallagher picked up the case last spring, when they enrolled in Human Rights-Human Wrongs. They were greeted on the first day of class by a whopping pile of notes and background information.

"You always think you know what you're getting into, but this binder is two inches thick," Phillips says, pointing to the binder in Dicklitch's office. "It wasn't until we were in the courtroom that I realized how important all the research was."

Phillips and Gallagher spent the semester compiling mountains of testimony, drafting the affidavit and the legal memo. The woman's detention and rape left a sharp impression on the students. "Rape is a violent act, and we thought about what its impact would mean for her," Gallagher says of the woman, who is approximately the same age as the students. "Rape is a young woman's greatest fear."

Still, the case was hardly guaranteed to gain asylum.

"So many variables go into it," Dicklitch says. "How will the judge gauge the client's demeanor? It rests on credibility. If the judge has never been to Cameroon, it might not be apparent how security forces could rape you because of your political opinion."

Expert witnesses provide context for the judges, outlining the political and cultural circumstances in the home countries of asylum seekers. "It's an opportunity for both students and faculty to do the liberal arts," Dicklitch says. "I'd encourage faculty to do pro-bono asylum. Personally, you'll never forget the feeling that you're affecting someone's life in a positive way."

The Cameroon case is the latest of more than a dozen successful asylum cases since the Human Rights-Human Wrongs class launched in 2002.

"It's an indescribable experience on so many levels, mentally and emotionally," Phillips says. "It's more than just a class or a grade. You're playing a large role in someone's life."

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