This post is one in a series of profiles of the 2010 class of Echoing Green Fellows. Through its two-year fellowship program, Echoing Green provides start up capital and technical assistance to young, emerging social entrepreneurs to help them launch their organizations and build capacity.
It was the summer of 2008 and Becca Heller had just completed her first year at Yale Law School. She was in Tel Aviv, Israel on an internship and she kept on hearing about the Iraqi refugee population living in Amman, Jordan.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had fled the war, scattered across the Middle East, many winding up in Jordan and Syria; their lives particularly tenuous because those two countries were not signatories to the 1951 United Nations convention relating to the rights of refugees. It’s illegal for them to work, many of their children can’t go to school, they can be deported at anytime, they have no legal protections. They are desperate to resettle to a third country – so they can be safe and start their lives anew.
Today there are somewhere in the neighborhood of three million Iraqi refugees seeking resettlement according to the latest United Nations figures, although numbers are hard to pinpoint since the population is so far flung.
“I just got the idea that I was going to meet some,” Heller recalls, her interest piqued. With the help of one of her professors, she traveled to Jordan and met with six families, spending time in their homes and interviewing them about their experiences.
She was surprised by what she heard. “Every single one of them identified their primary need as getting through the resettlement process,” she says, explaining that after her experiences working with needy populations around the world she had expected the Iraqi families to be most concerned about issues such as hunger and poverty.
The question: How to Help?
Heller knew she had to do something, the question was what. “The resettlement process is an incredibly complicated series of document collection. There’s a minimum of four, two to three hour interviews,” she explains. “I didn’t have much background in the Middle East, I’d only been to one year of law school, but I was confronted with these people who really, really needed help,” she recalls. “As an activist, you’re like ‘what can I do? How can I help?”
She turned to what she knew and came up with an idea. “I could get law students to help them navigate this process because that’s a resource that’s available to me that I think I could direct at this problem to address it,” she thought.
The Answer: Get Law Students on Board
When she got back to Yale that fall, Heller teamed up with fellow student Jon Finer and together they co-founded the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project. Their goal: to give Iraqi refugees legal help in resettlement proceedings. Finer, too, had a personal interest – he’d been embedded as a journalist in Iraq from 2003-2005 for The Washington Post, and had been trying to get his interpreters out of the country ever since.
“We literally just picked a name and made a poster board and set up at the student activities fair,” Heller recollects. She had no idea what to expect, but when she turned around 150 students had signed up. Not bad for a class of 540.
“I think at that moment were like ‘wow’ we can really do something with this. And that’s when we got the idea for a broader program than just work with the six families within Yale.”
A Groundbreaking Concept
What she didn’t know at the time was that no one had really done anything quite like this before. “When we first started I didn’t realize that what we were doing was really groundbreaking,” she says. “No one had tried to give a refugee a lawyer in refugee proceedings.”
Heller, admittedly naively, assumed that refugees had access to legal representation to help them navigate the thorny immigration system in the same way that asylum-seekers do. But she quickly learned that wasn’t the case. So she set out to change the system with a threefold mission: to provide direct legal assistance and representation to refugees, to advocate for policy reform, and to offer continuing assistance to those who have resettled.
“In the world of the internet and with law firms with offices all over the world, I didn’t really see why refugees shouldn’t have access to counsel the same way that asylum seekers do.” The numbers were particularly motivating: “In the asylum context, the General Accounting Office has found that having a lawyer makes you 400% more likely to be given refugee status,” she claims.
And Heller is well on her way to effecting change. Today at age 28, she runs the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, or IRAP, full time, and has been awarded an Echoing Green fellowship for young, up and coming social entrepreneurs, as well as a Skadden Public Interest Fellowship for outstanding law school graduates, for her work.
IRAP has chapters at twelve law schools across the United States, and works with over twenty law firms to help refugees in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe. The organization, which is also now part of the Urban Justice Center, has taken on more than 200 cases — for the most part families — and has successfully settled 90 of them to date.
Cases of Life or Death
“Our only intake criteria for selecting cases is urgency, and we take referrals from a really big network of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] on the ground, including the United Nations’ refugee agency — the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees — who refers about 30 cases to us every year – cases where resettlement is literally life or death for the person.”
Take a look at this video to see the legal challenges faced by this Iraqi family seeking resettlement and who are getting help from IRAP:
Heller’s advocacy work is paying off. “I was at a White House meeting about reforms to the special visa process for Iraqis who have assisted the U.S. military,” she tells me by way of example, noting how pleased she is that many of her organization’s recommendations have already been implemented. “So we’re seeing pretty good systemic change in the systems that process these people as a result of our work.”
She’s also just started a program on the IRAP website called Refugee Roadmap, essentially an internet hotline. “You can now go submit a question in English or Arabic that we’ll vet and get an expert to answer. And that’s not just for clients, that’s for any Iraqi here,” she explains.
Expanding to Other Countries
Now Heller is working on extending her reach to refugee populations in other countries. “We have developed a model of what refugee representation looks like in refugee proceedings, so my vision is that all you have to do is get an NGO on the ground that has access to this population and can tell you who has a really urgent case and then a law firm can work with them and they can actually have full legal representation in their proceedings.”
So far, it’s working. “This semester we set up a case in Sudan, and two cases in Afghanistan. All those cases have been going pretty well, so next semester I think we’re going to try to take some Pakistan cases,” she says, hopefully.
Heller says she’s often asked why she started focusing on Iraqi refugees. Part of it she concedes to happenstance: working in Israel that summer, hearing about the plight of the Iraqis in Jordan. But the other part, not so much. “Given the U.S. history, it’s a little less arbitrary. I don’t think there’s much disagreement that the Iraqi refugee crisis exists in large part due to U.S. actions.”
And at the end of the day, it’s really the people who count. As Heller tells me, “We have a lot of children who need emergency surgeries that they can’t get where they are. We have a lot of LGBT refugees who are facing really serious protections issues, women who are victims of trafficking, so to me, I feel best when we win,” she says of IRAP’s accomplishments. “There are about 450 people who aren’t going to die because we were successful in their legal cases.” And counting.
Photo courtesy of IRAP