Pro Bono Spotlight: Seward & Kissel Team Wins Asylum for Refugees

We recently spoke to the three attorney team of Noah Czarny, Molly Kammien, and Angela Urbano of Seward & Kissel, LLP about their pro bono asylum work with Human Rights First, a non-profit, nonpartisan human rights organization with offices in New York, Washington, D.C., Houston, and Los Angeles.

Most recently, the attorneys worked on the case of a Tibetan man who was seeking asylum in the U.S. after fleeing religious and political persecution in Tibet. The client in this case was detained by the Chinese police after he attended a planning session for a peaceful birthday celebration for the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. Following the planning session, which the man attended on behalf of his village, the Chinese police detained him for a month and subjected him to shock torture. The Chinese police demanded that the client denounce the Dalai Lama upon his release. The client refused and fled to Nepal to escape further detention and torture. He was able to secure a flight to Newark, where he requested asylum upon arrival. U.S. Immigration authorities immediately detained the client. The case came to Human Rights First, who referred it to the Seward & Kissel attorneys. The client was detained for almost 7 months, until his contested asylum hearing in March, 2017, where the Seward & Kissel team successfully represented him and he was granted asylum.

This was not the first case that this team of attorneys had taken through Human Rights First. In August 2016, they represented a man who was fleeing persecution in Eritrea, a small country north of Ethiopia. In that case, their client had entered national service, which is mandatory for all individuals in Eritrea starting at age 18. According to the attorneys, the conditions in the military have been likened to slavery and while national service is supposed to be limited to 18 months, it could sometimes be indefinite.  The client in this case was from a minority group and he was severely mistreated during his national service. The client wrote a letter to a friend in which he voiced discontent about the treatment in the national service, and the government intercepted this letter. The client was placed in an underground prison cell for around a month, where he was tortured. The client was able to escape and he first fled to Sudan and then to Israel, where he lived for a few years. He was unable to achieve permanent status in Israel, so he made his way to the United States. He arrived in the United States in December 2015 and requested asylum. Molly, Noah, and Angela began working on the case in April 2016, and won a contested hearing in which he was granted asylum in August 2016.

In both cases, upon arrival in the United States, the clients were detained immediately and remained in detention until their asylum hearings. Asylum hearings are typically expedited for those who are in detention, but even with an expedited timeframe, the Tibetan client spent almost 7 months in detention and the Eritrean client spent almost 9 months in detention.  For asylum seekers who are not in immigration detention, they can wait two years or more for a hearing and decision on their asylum claim.  Both are now settled in the United States and are beginning the process of starting their new lives in a new country.

Have you kept in contact with your clients after the cases? How are they adjusting to life in a new country?

Angela: We do keep in contact and we were able to speak with our Tibetan client’s case manager from Catholic Charities recently. The Tibetan client is currently staying with a friend who he hadn’t seen for many years, but who our client knew in Tibet. This friend and the case manager are working with him on his paperwork to get his social security card and also helping him with the transition to life in the U.S.  There seems to be a very strong Tibetan community in New York.

Noah: After the Tibetan client’s hearing, he was released in the evening, after spending 7 months in detention. He hadn’t been outside and that evening was the first time he was able to step outside in the United States. We were able to give him a ride and we drove him to meet his family friend who he is staying with, someone he hadn’t seen in 20 years. We drove him through Manhattan at night, and I suspect that moment must have all been very surreal to him. It’s something that we all will certainly remember for a very long time.

Both of our clients are very dynamic people, they are really excited to start their lives in the U.S.  They don’t want to waste the day. Both applied for social security cards and began job searching right away. The client from Eritrea has connected with a great network of friends and seems to be very self- sufficient.  It’s remarkable, to see him come to a new country and completely start his life over, and he already has a great network of people supporting him.

Does your firm support attorneys doing pro bono work?

Noah: When we started with Seward & Kissel, we were told that they had some existing relationships with programs, but they also encouraged us to branch out and form our own relationships if there were areas of law that we wanted to take cases in.  We really had an interest in asylum cases, and are lucky because our firm is very generous in allowing us time to spend on these cases.  Overall, the firm really encouraged us to get involved in areas of interest and has a very supportive pro bono program.

Was this a new area of law for you, or had you done asylum work previously?

Noah: I had done some work in law school in internships and with a clinic that had done asylum cases. I was eager to see if I could continue that work and checked with our pro bono partner Jack Yoskowitz, who encouraged me to go ahead and pursue that relationships with Human Rights First.

Molly: I had done some of this type of work before, in law school.

Angela: I hadn’t done asylum or refugee work, but had done criminal defense work in a clinic during law school.

Check-in Friday for Part 2 of our Pro Bono Spotlight!

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