At Harvard, Niku Jafarnia J.D. / M.P.P. ’20 found a wealth of ways to advocate for refugees

“I have always felt very strongly that I need to work against inequality and the forces that make it possible,” said Niku Jafarnia J.D./M.P.P. ’20. For her, draconian and difficult immigration systems that favor certain populations are key sources of the disparities she hopes to eliminate.

When President Donald Trump instituted the first of many travel bans that targeted Muslim-majority countries in 2017, Jafarnia was a first-year law student and she was furious. She had not yet entered the legal clinics that would become like a home to her at Harvard Law School. Still, she emailed Sabrineh Ardalan ’02 and Phil Torrey of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, asking how she could fight back.

“Had I not been in law school when this happened, I would have felt at a loss with what to do,” she said.

At the airport, she stood with Ardalan and Torrey holding a sign offering legal assistance and translation services in Persian. No one took her up on the offer, but the moment stands out to her from the last four years of graduate school. From the energetic and welcoming response of HLS’s clinical faculty to finding a way to act, she had found a community and a path towards countering what she sees as oppression.

Jafarnia believes that she has been lucky. A constellation of factors, such as being born in the U.S., has provided her with a great amount of opportunity, she said. She is constantly tuned in to how she can use her privilege to dismantle the inequitable structures that cause harm to others. When her parents emigrated from Iran in 1977 to pursue graduate education, they did not necessarily expect to stay, she said, but the combination of the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War kept them in the U.S. Throughout law school, she has focused on issues related to migration, driven by a deep connection to people whose stories feel so familiar.

“When I’m sitting across from individuals who are seeking safety in another country because of the persecution they’ve faced, I constantly see people I’ve known intimately throughout my life who have been—or could have easily been—in their place. I see my aunts who were refugees in Europe after the Iranian Revolution, and friends who have been displaced by wars across the Middle East. I also know that had my circumstances been different, it might be me sitting in their place,” Jafarnia said.

Since that day at the airport, she has found a wealth of other ways to engage in legal advocacy for refugee populations. At HLS, she has assisted in the writing of amicus briefs against the travel bans, laid the groundwork for a refugee-led assistance organization, helped numerous clients navigate the asylum system and designed a guide for public defenders centered on combating illegal re-entry charges for their clients, to name a few.

As an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, Jafarnia first became interested in law as an avenue for change when she volunteered with the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant and OMID Advocates, organizations that worked to process Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals cases and asylum seekers. Later, she moved to Turkey as a Fulbright Scholar, where she fell in step with a large refugee population. There, she became emboldened to leverage her education to “help combat the opaque system of humanitarian aid that gives but does not empower,” she said.

When Jafarnia returned to the U.S. for law school, she dove headfirst into advocacy at the intersection of human rights, migration, and armed conflict.

“At HLS, I was amazed by the resources at my disposal,” she said. “More so, I was excited to meet others who hoped to utilize the power of the law to effectuate change for disenfranchised populations.”

Student in Kenya

As a student in HLS’s International Human Rights Clinic in Nov 2017, Niku Jafarnia J.D./M.P.P. ’20 travelled to the Kakuma Refugee Camp, in Kenya, with Anna Crowe LL.M.’ 12, HLS lecturer on law and the assistant director of the International Human Rights Clinic. Jafarnia is pictured here with a member of the Norwegian Refugee Council, a partner organization for that trip.

She took leadership roles in student organizations such as the HLS Immigration Project and HLS Advocates for Human Rights. She was a student in the International Human Rights Clinic, the Immigration and Refugee Clinic, and the Crimmigration Clinic, and acted as an research assistant for faculty in all of the above. During summers and J-terms, she conducted research and completed internships in Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Germany, and Jordan and worked with major human rights organizations such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Refugee Assistance Project. Academically, she took almost every available course at HLS relevant to these issue areas.

Despite toiling with clients in a system that so often seems bleak, Jafarnia finds hope in the community of advocates that she has found on campus.

“When I first started law school, I did not expect to find community in the way that I did. It feels almost serendipitous that the International Human Rights Clinic and Immigration and Refugee Clinic occupy the same suite, because that space—and the professors and the students in it—have been everything to me in law school.”

Still, she felt she had more to learn. Jafarnia recognized that the intersection of policies, laws, organizations, and governments had created a deeply entangled web for those seeking to improve conditions for refugees. After two years of law school, she started work on a Master in Public Policy degree at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

“Lawyers often swoop in after everything is already awful to provide remedy,” she said. “I wanted to learn about creative ways to preempt the terrible thing that happened, whether that’s through movement building or storytelling.

At the Kennedy School, she moved from direct immigration services to thinking more holistically about the circumstances that cause refugee crises, such as limitations on humanitarian aid or state responses to armed groups. In summer 2019, she conducted research at Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute for a report that examined the U.S. military’s investigations of civilian casualties during and analyzed the application of international humanitarian law (IHL) to airstrikes in Yemen. This research led to a more fruitful collaboration that would become her postgraduate project.

Following her graduation, Jafarnia will begin a Satter Fellowship at Mwatana for Human Rights where she will focus on mass atrocities in Yemen. Based in Lebanon, she will spend the year investigating violations of IHL and war crimes in the Yemeni civil war.

“In today’s armed conflicts, and particularly in Yemen, powerful countries like the U.S. often claim that all individuals killed were combatants, and therefore were legitimate targets. But this isn’t the case,” she says. “These claims have totally hindered the ability for victims of war to achieve accountability, and this has huge implications for civilian protection.”

Jafarnia does not know what lies after Mwatana. She lets the people she works with, and the stories they tell, inform her next steps.

“I always want to be serving communities who have been adversely affected by the residual damage of colonialism,” she said. “But, ultimately, what is really key for me is to keep listening and learning to find out where I can be most useful. And that’s what I’ll do next.

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