– How did you become interested in the field of international refugee law?
In addition to the interest sparked in me by my own family history of migration, as a teenager in Houston, TX, I accompanied my mother as she volunteered to assist resettled refugee families from Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Helping children with homework and arranging furniture donations influenced my decision to pursue an understanding of refugee law while a student at Fordham Law School. Committed to public interest but not sure where exactly to focus my attention, I was drawn to refugee legal aid as an opportunity to work directly on pressing human rights issues facing millions of the most vulnerable people worldwide.
– How and when did you become involved with the Refugee Solidarity Network?
The idea behind RSN was formulated before I began working for the Helsinki Citizens Assembly Refugee Program (HCA-RASP) in Istanbul. When I joined the NGO in 2010, I was immediately impressed with the level of professionalism and expertise demonstrated by the organization, but was also struck by their funding and resource limitations. When I heard that an idea existed to make a connection between our NGO and the United States, I was inspired to make it a reality. With the help of current and former colleagues, we formalized this idea and began thinking of all the ways in which refugee rights advocates in Turkey and the U.S. could engage with and learn from one another.
– What do you consider to be the greatest achievement of the Refugee Solidarity Network?
The project is new but we have already made great progress in raising awareness and building a network of interested parties in the U.S.. I am very proud of our board of directors and advisory board who have helped us start the transition between the initial start-up phase and an operational one. We have already launched a research support project in partnership with Northwestern University’s Center for Forced Migration Studies, and are continuing to develop two very exciting legal engagement projects in which we hope to bring together the American and Turkish legal communities to discuss how pro bono hours and law school clinics can be institutionalized in Turkey. We also continue to explore ways to raise funding for refugee legal aid in Turkey, and hope to have our 501c3 status soon to start soliciting donations.
– How are refugees treated by the Turkish government and people?
In Turkey, only European refugees are given the option for long-term integration into Turkish society. Asylum-seekers from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, the largest groups seeking asylum each year, are only given temporary asylum, which means even if recognized as refugees by the UNHCR and the Turkish government, they await resettlement to third-countries (U.S.A., Canada, Australia, Norway), which is limited. That being said, the Turkish government is trying to make changes to its incomplete asylum system through new legislation, but we are talking about a very substantive challenge. Turkey is a major country of asylum and transit, currently hosting about 200,000 Syrian refugees as well as receiving around 20,000 applications from individuals from other countries in 2012. Despite huge increases in arrivals on a yearly basis, Turkish people are not generally aware of what asylum-seekers have been through. Like any population, there are elements that are xenophobic, while others are generous. We think that there is a lot of potential for sensitization and awareness-raising among all sectors of Turkish society to the issues and experiences of refugees.
– Is there anything different in your approach from other organizations that work in the field of refugee law?
RSN does not seek to reinvent the wheel. RSN believes that there are already committed organizations and individuals working within Turkey’s civil society on asylum and migration issues and they need to be supported. Many times organizations working overseas want to impose solutions or programs. RSN hopes to organize and coordinate willingness to help on the American side and translate that into effective ends for Turkish refugee rights advocates.
-What advancements in the law do you think would help improve the situation for refugees?
Refugees around the world face similar difficulties, like being prohibited the legal right to work or gain access to basic services. RSN and its local partners work on such issues, at the national, regional, and international level. For example, HCA RASP was actively involved in influencing Turkey’s first-ever comprehensive legislation on asylum and refugee issues last year, a law that has been introduced to Parliament for consideration, while also working at the European level. Such advocacy hopes to raise the bar not only in Turkey, but across the world. RSN’s role is to take best practices from the American model and try to apply them to Turkey, while leaving the worst practices behind.
-Any advice you would like to give to law students and attorneys who are looking to work with international refugees?
Funding is readily available for international internships over 1L and 2L summers, but those are only periods of about 10 weeks, and therefore not enough time for NGO’s in the field to train students and also allow them to contribute meaningfully before their departure. RSN hopes to engage in training programs to help address this issue, but law students should put pressure on their law schools and legal communities to fund post-graduate opportunities overseas. Funding for 6 months or more is much more valuable to NGOs. Getting familiar with refugee law, client interaction, language skills, and securing funding are concrete things that can be undertaken to make oneself a more productive volunteer or potential employee.
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