Women refugees and why law matters

In many ways, Jane’s life in Kenya was idyllic. She was an educated, confident professional woman with a flourishing career. She owned her own perfume business, and was four months into a prestigious new job in the banking sector. She was an active member of a close-knit church community, and she was raising a daughter she dearly loved, whom she had named “Angel” after her miraculous recovery from infant health problems.

There was only one problem in her life: her husband. In the privacy of their home, he had become increasingly violent and abusive.

When her husband deliberately burned their four-year-old daughter’s hand, and then brutally beat Jane and tried to strangle her, she realized that he was truly capable of killing her. She knew that he had powerful connections, and could find her anywhere in Kenya. Using a tourist visa she had obtained to visit her brother in the U.S. later in the year, she and her daughter quickly booked a flight to Boston, with no long-term plan.

After landing, Jane took her daughter directly to the Boston Children’s Hospital to have the dressing changed on her burned hand. There, a social worker put her in touch with Greater Boston Legal Services.

Jane often wonders if things might have gone differently had she gone to a different hospital – somewhere more hectic, with harried doctors who quickly treated household injuries and sent people on their way. Until the social worker explained that she might have legal options, it had never occurred to her that the abuse she had suffered in Kenya could qualify her for asylum protection in the United States. Indeed, many women who come to the U.S. after fleeing abusive homes have no idea that domestic violence is a form of “persecution” under asylum law, which can, in many cases, make women and their children eligible for protection.

This legal question was a contentious one for many years, including when Jane filed for asylum in 2008, with different courts and judges frequently reaching disparate results. In 2014, it became significantly less complicated for abused women to win their asylum cases, when the Board of Immigration Appeals issued a ruling establishing that women who were unable to leave their husbands were eligible for asylum.

When she thinks back to those days, she remembers her asylum case simply as one stress among many, as she struggled to adjust to life in the United States. Though she had been in the U.S. several times before as a visitor, day-to-day life was very different. She had to deal with intimidatingly unfamiliar accents, with confusing money, with her first New England winter—the only time in her life she had ever seen snow. Most difficult of all, she had to completely rebuild her life and her sense of self. Having given up her dream job in Kenya, she now found herself unable to get hired at Dunkin Donuts.

But Jane had always been resourceful—a “go-getter,” as she calls herself–and now sought to make the most of the opportunities around her. With the help of her attorneys, she found a church in her area, whose congregation became a source of support. She learned the schedules of all the food banks in her area. “It took me a lot,” she says, to go to a food bank for the first time: in Kenya, these kinds of support weren’t readily available, and the only people who relied on public charity were people who were doing “very badly.” However, she soon found that being able to provide for herself and her daughter increased her sense of control and direction in her new life. She made it her mission to ensure that her brother’s fridge was always stocked, so that “if I wanted to take a glass of juice, I could do it knowing I was the one who put it there.”

Jane’s interview with the Asylum Office went smoothly, in her opinion, because she had been so well-prepared by her lawyers at the clinic. She had told her story so many times to Sabi Ardalan ’02, her attorney at the clinic, and her clinical student advocate, Ting Chen ’09, that she was able to enter her interview with confidence. She, Ardalan, and Chen had role-played encounters with different styles of asylum officer, including a “mean” officer who treated her with suspicion and asked hostile questions. But the asylum officer in the real interview was respectful and patient.

Now, nine years after being granted asylum, Jane has rebuilt her career in the United States and become a board member at Greater Boston Legal Services. She looks for opportunities to advise women in her community—both immigrants and non-immigrants—about the legal support that is available to them. When she hears about women struggling in abusive homes, especially women who feel trapped in relationships because of their immigration status, “my heart cries out” to them. Even with all her education and advantages, she remembers how hard it was to finally leave her own husband.

Jane also organizes a clothing drive through her church, remembering how important such services were to her during her early days in the U.S., when she struggled to afford the basics. “To me,” she says, “clothing is dignity,” and she makes sure that all the clothes she collects from the drive will be items that people are proud to wear, not merely old castoffs. She stresses the need for grassroots efforts to help survivors of domestic violence, especially immigrant women who may not know their rights. “What we need are people to be champions and advocates.” For Jane, openly telling her story is an important way to help other women. “People have to not be ashamed. People should look at me and say ‘if she made it, I can make it.’ If I don’t tell people there’s a way out, they’ll never know.”


On Friday, October 27 Jane will be appearing alongside several panelists for a discussion on “Women Refugees and Why Law Matters,” part of the HLS in the World bicentennial summit. The session will bring together former clients–including an activist for gender equality, teachers’ rights, and human rights from Honduras; and an opposition-party supporter and advocate against female genital mutilation from Guinea–as well as immigration policy makers, Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic students, alumni, and clinical faculty and instructors to discuss the evolution of gender asylum law. The discussion will highlight the impact of direct representation and advocacy in shaping the development of the law.

Video of this and many other summit sessions will be available in the days following the event on the Harvard Law School YouTube channel. Selected sessions will also be streamed live—more information, including a full list of those sessions is available at 200.hls.harvard.edu/livestream