Student Voices: A Lawyer’s Limits

Student Voices: A Lawyer's Limits

Credit: Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs Solange Etessami (right) spent Winter Term 2019 advocating for refugees at Moria, a refugee camp in Greece, notorious for overcrowding and poor living conditions.

The following post from the HLS Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs (OCP) blog is one of a regular series of student accounts of their experiences working with Clinics and Student Practice Organizations (SPOs) at Harvard Law School. During the 2019 Winter Term, over 200 students traveled off campus for three weeks, gaining hands-on experience addressing the legal needs in communities across the globe. Here, Solange Etessami ’20 recounts what she learned using her skills to help refugees seeking asylum at Moria, an overcrowded refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, widely known for its dire living conditions.

In the middle of January, the town of Mytilene on the island of Lesvos is stuck in holiday mode. Christmas songs are still streaming, decorations are still up, and the bakeries still have “Happy 2019!” cakes in the windows. Just a few miles away from this idyllic little Greek town is Moria. Moria is an entirely different world—just the name itself evokes some Lord of the Rings like-nightmare. The infamous camp houses refugees hailing primarily from Afghanistan, Yemen, the DRC, and Iran. 8,000 men, women, and children—all living in freezing, flimsy tents in a shanty town on a hillside.

Most of these refugees are stuck in Moria for months at a time, waiting for the date of their important asylum interviews. This interview will determine whether or not they are granted asylum in Greece, or whether the European Asylum Office (EASO) or Greek Asylum Service has determined that their country of origin or port of last entry (usually Turkey) is safe enough for them to be deported back there. Upon arrival, many of these asylum seekers are asked which European country they would like to go to upon their arrival, and most are not aware that they will not be allowed to remain anywhere besides Greece, if allowed to remain at all.

As the daughter of Iranian immigrants, I was extremely fortunate to have the Farsi language skills to be able communicate with many of the refugees. In 1978, both sides of my family led happy, middle class lives in Iran. My maternal grandfather grew up extremely poor, but managed to put himself through engineering school and had finally reached the stage where he was able to provide for his family. My paternal grandfather was third in command of the Central Bank of Iran, the highest position he could obtain in the government as a Jew. But with the stirrings of revolution and the subsequent overthrow of the Shah in 1979, everything changed. My mother’s father was warned by a friend that the Jews would be thrown into ghettos, and my father’s father was sentenced to death in absentia, owing to his close ties with the newly deposed Shah. Both sides were forced to flee the country they had called home for generations.

Like most children of immigrants, growing up with stories of my family and how they had to start a new life in a foreign land has played a huge role in who I am and the way I see the world. I have always been acutely aware of the true fortune my family had in being able to come to the United States when they could no longer able remain in Iran. Though it took many years and a lot of struggling, my family eventually rebuilt a life in the States. And I’m not sure, given the climate of today, if they would be so lucky…

Because of my family history and with the knowledge that Farsi language skills are desperately needed on the ground in Moria, I jumped at the opportunity to spend my Winter Term in Lesvos. It was the first time I witnessed firsthand the power I could have as a lawyer and advocate. I helped clients prepare and practice for their asylum interviews, and made sure they knew their rights during the process. I accompanied clients to the EASO office to explain their questions and help them get the papers they need. I assisted our lawyers with filing family reunification papers to unite family members with relatives in other countries. I helped a severely mentally disabled man to get guardianship from his cousin, and got him registered with EASO so he could get his papers, a doctor’s appointment, and soon, an open identity card that would allow him to travel to Athens.

My time in Greece was also the first time I had to confront the limits to what I could do. I simply did not have the power to fix the food in Moria, which is so unpalatable that one woman told me she eats just enough to keep herself alive. I did not have the power to compel the man in the Greek post office to surrender a letter to a minor containing the identity card he needed to prove his age. I could not change the interview dates of a mother and father who had to wait in Moria for another 6 months. I could not bring back electricity when it got cut during the freezing cold night. And I simply did not have the power to erase the pain of the man who had witnessed his family members die in front of him.

Although I faced these significant limitations on my ability to change the desperate situation of the people of Moria, I also witnessed firsthand the incredible power I could have as an attorney in helping others attain their legal rights, and in serving as an advocate and confidante for those that are not in the position to advocate for themselves. My experience in Lesvos was the first time I felt truly rewarded in my decision to pursue the path of the law.