Gripped by high-stakes of asylum cases

Emily Arnold-Fernandez's first client was a Liberian teen who would be forced to go to war without her help.

Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor
Emily Arnold-Fernandez, Founder, Asylum Access.

When Emily Arnold-Fernandez realized the stakes of her first summer internship task, she remembers, "I sweat blood."

The Georgetown University law student volunteered to help a Cairo nonprofit with asylum cases in Egypt, but she'd never filed an asylum brief before.

Her first client was a teenage boy from Liberia, where the war made infamous by the film "Blood Diamond" was raging, and boys from minority tribes were being snatched from their homes to fight. His own family had disappeared.

"They put machetes in their hands and said, 'Go kill those people,' " she recalls. "This was the fate that awaited my client if I didn't figure out how to bring his case to a successful resolution. I'd never even represented a client in a legal proceeding before."

The stakes of that single case were so high, and she felt so responsible, that the experience defined her future.

Ms. Arnold-Fernandez had to find a way to navigate the politics of Egypt and the bureaucracy of the United Nations with her brief. It meant translating the boy's compelling story into a convincing narrative that also hit all the necessary legal notes, or, as she put it, checked "all the boxes you needed to check to prove you were a refugee."

In the end, the Liberian teenager received full refugee status, a de facto ticket in a lottery whose fortunate winners get resettled in the United States. The chances are slim: UN data show that refugees spend an average of 17 years living in camps, and fewer than 1 percent are resettled, half of them to countries in Europe and half to the US. The statistical gantlet they faced, and her personal experience helping one boy navigate it, motivated Arnold-Fernandez to start Asylum Access.

Her nonprofit, which won her an Echoing Green fellowship, provides legal advice and representation to refugees in Thailand, Ecuador, and Tanzania; the group also pushes "test cases" in local courts as a way of developing legal precedent that can help future refugees.

The organization works directly with 1,000 clients a year, though their advocacy work stretches further. A case they pursued in Ecuador resulted in a constitutional change that gives the children of the 250,000 refugees living there the right to go to school.

She has five full-time staffers in her San Francisco headquarters and 35 volunteers who work in the field in six-month rotations. Arnold-Fernandez calls the work "my passion," but she admits it's also a slog that "was most stressful when the Asylum Access office was in my house. One summer, I had seven interns ... coming to my house every day, sitting on the couch with TV trays." That meant her husband couldn't take a sick day – or if he absolutely had to, she says, "I had to call all my interns and say, 'Work from home today.' It was very awkward and not something I would willingly replicate."

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