The most rewarding experience I’ve ever had

by Megan McKenna   on November 22, 2019

KIND spoke with Inès Zamouri, Head of Pro Bono at Meagher Emanuel Laks Goldberg & Liao, LLP, about her dedication to representing unaccompanied children pro bono in New Jersey.  Recently, Inès represented and helped change the lives of Osmar from Honduras and Adele from Nigeria.

“You have to be prepared to not just be their legal representative, but also offer some kind of mentorship. It’s not just about obtaining legal status for them, but also making sure that they are well adjusted to their new environment and their new life.”

  1. Why did you and your firm decide to do pro bono work for KIND?

When I joined the firm last January, I expressed my interest in doing pro bono work alongside my commercial litigation work. I have a background in human rights law so it was important to me. The firm was thrilled about the initiative—they basically gave me free rein to set up and run a pro bono program. I already knew I wanted to focus on immigration and asylum law, so I reached out to a number of relevant organizations for referrals, including KIND. I was immediately drawn to KIND because of the amount of resources available and the mentoring system. I knew I would get all the support I needed, and my colleagues would be more comfortable joining in on the work as well. Now there are several of us doing work for the program, and we’re always trying to recruit more volunteers.

 

  1. Can you briefly describe how you felt during the process of representing each child?

It’s been a whirlwind! I prepared myself for a long process, and expected that we might have to go through some appeals. But fast-forward 6 months, my Honduran client Osmar has already been granted asylum, and my Nigerian client Adele was found eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, for children who were abused, abandoned, or neglected. All in the same week! I couldn’t be happier. Of course, there have been some challenges. At times it was stressful, emotional, even frustrating. Thankfully, KIND provides you with a lot of support—not just legal, but also logistical and personal.

 

  1. Please describe any personal connection you felt towards the clients and their stories. Did their stories or their situation resonate with you in some personal way?

My father, who is originally from Tunisia, was granted political asylum in France when he was 25. He was facing persecution from the Tunisian government because of his political opinions. It took 12 years before he was able to go back to Tunisia to visit his parents and siblings. Had he not found refuge in France, I probably wouldn’t be here today. While the circumstances were of course much different in my clients’ cases, their stories definitely resonated with me. Plus, I’m new to the U.S. as well (I moved here from Europe a year ago)—I, too, left my home country, and English is not my first language either. I think that helped me connect with my clients. It also made me more aware of the cultural differences they might be experiencing, and perhaps helped me adapt my approach and language to them.

 

  1. What did you learn during the process?

I quickly realized that developing a personal relationship with the children, beyond the standard attorney-client relationship, is the most essential part of the process. Working with a child client, and especially one who has suffered significant trauma, involves a number of additional considerations. Oftentimes, communication with the client is hindered by the impacts of the traumatic events they have experienced, and the fact these are children who are already distrustful of adults. Taking the time to build trust, and adapting your behavior and language to the child, is critical to the success of the case.

The first few meetings will be uncomfortable for the child, and they might be uncooperative. They will likely be shy, nervous, or even scared. They may find it hard to relive certain events. Sometimes, they’ll start mixing things up, or they simply won’t remember due to their young age. It’s not unusual for the story they tell to change over time, sometimes even drastically, which can get frustrating. It’s important to meet with them regularly and as many times as possible, keep in contact between meetings, and engage with them—not just about the case, but also their lives in general. Patience is key because you want to get the most accurate picture possible in order to build a strong case that the judge or asylum officer will approve. Getting to know them beyond the circumstances of the case, asking them about their hobbies, their friends, their family, will contribute to developing a trusting relationship.

In sum, you have to be prepared to not just be their legal representative, but also offer some kind of mentorship. It’s not just about obtaining legal status for them, but also making sure that they are well adjusted to their new environment and their new life. Usually, these children don’t have much support or guidance available to them. The language barrier also makes everything more difficult. For example, I had a client who for a while claimed he was going to school here, but there were some inconsistencies that made me question it. Eventually he admitted that he had never enrolled, and he had been too scared/embarrassed to say it. We helped him register with his local school, and finally he was able to start last August. Now he’s making friends and learning English, which will no doubt help with his integration.

I still keep in touch with my clients regularly. We talk about how they’re getting on, what’s happening at school, their plans for the future, etc. One of them even recently asked me if she could come shadow me at the office for a school project on “A day in the life of a lawyer”. She told me she’d like to go to law school in the future, and become an immigration lawyer so she can help kids who’ve gone through the same things as her. I can’t think of a more rewarding outcome than that.

 

  1. Will you and your firm take more KIND cases? Why?

Absolutely, we want to get involved even more. Throughout this process, it’s become clear to me how crucial legal representation is to those who are going through the U.S. immigration system. It is hard enough to navigate the system as an attorney—but to expect children to go through this on their own is beyond irrational. The amount of unrepresented individuals I have come across at court is astonishing, and it is distressing to think of how much this will affect their chances of getting a successful outcome. There is obviously a huge need for pro bono lawyers, now more than ever.

On a personal level, it’s been the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had. I’ve become really attached to my clients, and I hope we’ll stay in touch for a long time. Professionally, it’s also been such an interesting exercise. Typically, your KIND clients will need representation at the immigration court, the family court, and the asylum office. As someone who’s been in the U.S. for only a year, it was quite incredible to be able to experience the judicial system in this way. I also get to practice my Spanish which is always a bonus!

 

  1. Why did the clients come to the United States / why did they need protection?

Adele from Nigeria needed protection in the U.S. because she had been abandoned, abused, and neglected by both of her parents. Adele’s mother left her father, an alcoholic who abused her, and married a man who had three other wives. They rejected Adele. Adele and her mother eventually left the household and lived on their own. Adele’s father never tried to contact her. Adele’s mother took Adele to the United States when she was 16. She enrolled Adele in school, but then returned to Nigeria, leaving Adele to fend for herself in the U.S.   .

Adele moved into a room in a shared house. She began working several jobs on top of school to pay for her rent, food, and other expenses. She was completely alone with no support.  After about a year, Adele confided in her school counselor about the struggles she faced. Moved by her circumstances, her counselor invited her to live with her, and she has been caring for her since. Adele needed to obtain legal status in the U.S. so she could stay with her new family.

Osmar came to the U.S. to escape gang violence and persecution. Osmar was born in a small town in Honduras. His father, who had been abusive to his mother for many years, abandoned the family when Osmar was only three months old. Osmar’s mother was left on her own to care for and support her six children—which quickly became very difficult as the father had been the main breadwinner. When Osmar was 9 years old, she decided to go to the U.S. to better provide for her family. The children stayed in Honduras, the older siblings responsible for taking care of the younger siblings. Shortly thereafter, members of the Mara 18 broke into the children’s home and began to harass them. One of the gang members repeatedly sexually assaulted Osmar’s sister inside their home, while Osmar and his brother were there. When Osmar and his brother tried to defend her, other gang members attacked and beat them with a machete, a whip, a metal bat, and rocks. Osmar and his brother still have scars from these wounds. The gang members told Osmar and his siblings that they would be killed if they ever reported the gang to the police. The violence escalated until finally a relative was able to take Osmar with her to the U.S. A few months ago, Osmar’s mother learned that her cousin had been killed by the gang after a dispute. Oscar and his family knew they could not return to Honduras.

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