Good will, pro bono

Emily Bates and Katie Black stand next to a sign with the words Refugee Sponsorship Support Program on it.

“Lawyers bring the skills to navigate complicated bureaucratic processes, to fill out complicated forms and make sure all the t’s are crossed and the i’s are dotted.”

  – Emily Bates

By Mike Foster

Published Tuesday December 15, 2015

An expected 10,000 Syrian refugees will be brought to Canada by the end of the year, many as privately sponsored refugees, as part of the new Liberal government’s plan to resettle 25,000 by March 2016. Many uOttawa alumni have been at the forefront of finding ways to offer safe haven to those who have suffered so much. Their efforts are now coming to fruition.

Emily Bates (BSoc Sc ʼ09), director of The Refugee Hub at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, says news coverage over the summer, particularly images of the limp body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey, led to a “huge outpouring of support and mobilization” among Canadians. Suddenly, hundreds of people wanted to help by forming private sponsorship groups.

Bates, who has dedicated her career to helping refugees and conducting research into refugee law, swung into action with uOttawa professor Jennifer Bond, founder and faculty director of the Refugee Hub, home to a number of refugee-related programs. They reached out to contacts within the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, the Canadian Bar Association’s refugee section and the private bar to find lawyers willing to work for free to help groups navigate the complex private sponsorship system. With help from a core group including Katie Black (LLB ʼ09), Anne Levesque (LLB ʼ07) and Yan Zawiska (LLB ʼ10, LLM ʼ14), the uOttawa Refugee Sponsorship Support Program (SSP) was created.

“The Refugee SSP started with the idea of putting together Canadians who want to sponsor refugees with trained lawyers and law students who can support that process,” says Bates, adding that expert refugee lawyers have been training other lawyers in order to scale up the legal support available.

“Lawyers bring the skills to navigate complicated bureaucratic processes, to fill out complicated forms and make sure all the t’s are crossed and the i’s are dotted, so that these private sponsorship groups have a higher likelihood of success, bringing more refugees to Canada faster,” says Bates.

Notably, Professor Bond was recently named as a special advisor to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister John McCallum, assisting with the government’s Syrian refugee initiative.

The creation of the SSP is just one part of the University of Ottawa’s response to the plight of refugees fleeing war in Syria and other countries. In September, uOttawa pledged $200,000, to support the SSP but also to create at least five new scholarships for refugee students, as well as a new 16-month postsecondary program on community mobilization offered to Syrian refugees in Lebanon by uOttawa and the American University of Beirut. The University is calling on donors to contribute another $200,000 to support the initiatives.

The SSP and the Faculty of Law are also training the next generation of refugee advocates. Fifteen law students are taking part in a common law research course that will give them hands-on experience helping private sponsorship groups. Students, including Assma Basalamah, who has family members from Syria living in limbo in Jordan, and Mayoori Malankov, who came to Canada as a refugee from Sri Lanka when she was two years old, are paired up with pro bono lawyers. Coursework includes developing a manual for lawyers on legal issues surrounding private sponsorship, recruiting pro bono Arabic translators and interpreters to help process applications and visiting high schools to raise awareness about refugees.

A group of four people, including law students Mayoori Malankov and Assma Basalamah, sit around a table taking notes.
Law students Mayoori Malankov (to the left at the back) and Assma Basalamah (right) at a legal aid workshop during the Public Forum on Syrian Refugee Sponsorship. Photo: Bonnie Findley.

On October 1, more than 450 people in 150 private sponsorship groups attended a legal clinic at Ottawa City Hall, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson’s Public Forum on Syrian Refugee Sponsorship. Around 50 lawyers willing to work pro bono were matched with groups. Within days, the SSP had 75 lawyers in Ottawa willing to help, says Bates. Since then, the initiative has rapidly spread, with about 1,000 volunteer lawyers coming forward to be trained and to meet sponsorship groups in Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Vancouver and Victoria.

Black, a civil litigator in private practice at Caza Saikaley in Ottawa, is mobilizing the volunteer lawyers for the SSP. She says she felt compelled to act after feeling “utterly helpless” watching news reports about Syrian refugees and imagining that it was her own children and husband in the same situation. As she was driving to work in September, listening to a discussion on the radio about the bureaucratic barriers to gaining safe haven in Canada, a lightbulb went off.

“As a very pragmatic person it occurred to me: this is easy, lawyers can fill out forms. This is what we do for a living. We slice through bureaucratic language and we accurately fill out paperwork,” says Black. “I believe that lawyers have a positive obligation to act as stewards of the community, much like a doctor, and to contribute back to that community. It is rare as a lawyer that you have an opportunity to actively contribute towards alleviating an international crisis.”

She contacted City Hall to suggest setting up a legal clinic at the mayor’s event, and contacted Professor Bond to find specialist refugee lawyers to assist. The efforts all meshed together.

Black says that during lawyers’ training sessions she learned that applications were failing sometimes due to small errors, or because one family member had not been listed in the application. The need to account for employment history and addresses of every adult over the past 10 years is also a challenge, she says.

One specialist refugee and immigration lawyer involved is Laila Demirdache (LLB ʼ97, LLL ʼ98), who works for Community Legal Services in Ottawa.

Demirdache had already worked overseas for the United Nations development program in Cape Verde when, at age 30, she decided to start a law degree. She says she wanted to become a lawyer to tackle refugee and immigration issues, partly due to the experience she had helping four young Liberian refugees who had been left stranded in Cape Verde after being found as stowaways on a ship bound for the U.S. After spending a year in Cape Verde, the men disappeared one day and she has no idea where they went.

“I started volunteering at (the Community Legal Services) clinic in my first year of law school. I wanted to make sure I had made the right decision by going into law,” she says, adding that she had not intended to practice law in Canada and wanted to keep her professional focus on helping others. After graduating from uOttawa, she spent 17 months in Ethiopia working for the International Committee for the Red Cross as a protection delegate. She returned to Canada to start practicing immigration and refugee law at the clinic where she had volunteered during law school.

Demirdache has been paired to work with two private sponsorship groups. However, she and a group of around 30 people will also privately sponsor a Syrian family. Another alumna, Isabelle Solon-Helal (LL.L ʼ94), is heading up the group.

Many other alumni are taking action. Krissi Michaud (BA ’03, BA ’04, Master’s in Conference Interpretation ’05) and Carly Johnson (Master’s in Conference Interpretation ’13) are two of several involved in another sponsorship group.

Michaud says the group is working with a sponsorship agreement holder, the Anglican Church, which has access to a list of refugees ready to enter Canada. The group has collected over $24,000 and was connected with a lawyer after attending the mayor’s public forum. Johnson says the group has been matched with a family of four — a father, two daughters and a pregnant mother — who will be arriving around Christmas.

The government’s five-phase plan is to resettle 15,000 as Government-assisted refugees (GARs) by March 2016 and another 10,000 as privately sponsored refugees. Into 2016, it plans to reach the target of 25,000 GARs. Many like Demirdache are feeling optimistic that these efforts will ease some of the suffering. Find out how you can help, too.

A champion for refugees

Long before the recent focus on refugee issues, Emily Bates had set her sights on championing the rights of displaced people. During her undergraduate degree in international studies and modern languages at uOttawa, she studied Arabic and concentrated on the politics of the Middle East.

“I became very interested in the various refugee populations in that area and the way that international politics, international relations and social sciences address those questions, and the human element of what that means for the people involved,” says Bates.

She went on to do a master’s in forced migration and refugee studies at the University of Oxford in 2010-2011, before returning to uOttawa to work as a research associate for the Refugee Forum, a think tank overseen by Professor Peter Showler. In 2012, she was hired as director of the newly formed University of Ottawa Refugee Assistance Project (UORAP), which conducts research into access to justice within the asylum system, funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario, SSHRC and uOttawa’s Faculty of Law. Recently, UORAP has released a foundational paper, Troubling Signs: Mapping Access to Justice in Canada’s Refugee System Reform, as part of its qualitative study of 40 case files from the Immigration and Refugee Board processed since refugee reform in 2012. UORAP has also produced written materials and training workshops to help community workers understand the refugee process and assist claimants.

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Katie Black devant une étagère remplie de livres de droit. | Katie Black stands in front of a shelf filled with law books.
Laila Demirdache works for Community Legal Services in Ottawa. Photo: Robert Lacombe.
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