Letter from Pearline Guillaume '07, originally published in the spring 2013 issue of Albany Law Magazine
I work as a Legal Advocate for refugees and asylum seekers at Asylum Access in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Africa. I work with “invisible people,” people who most international governments refuse to acknowledge. Such people go to extremes to blend into society because they fear the consequences of appearing different. They struggle every day to access basic human rights such as food, shelter, education and employment. They are urban refugees and asylum seekers in their first country of refuge. I help this growing population reclaim their lives while also assisting them to redefine their new existence in a new home.
During my practice as an immigration attorney in New York, I developed a strong interest in the refugee and asylum process since many of my clients and my acquaintances were people who had sought refuge in the United States. I was able to bear witness and play a role in the “post” refugee and asylum process experience, but I wanted to explore the beginning. What catalyst set this process into motion? Why did these people seek refugee or asylum status? What had they left behind? In August 2012, I welcomed the opportunity to work as a Legal Advocate with Asylum Access in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and to find answers to my questions.
As a law student at Albany Law School, my interest in international law was sparked in Professor Halewood’s International Law class. His class was a primer on international policy, practice and accountability. My experience in Tanzania has reaffirmed my initial assumptions: policy and practice are two very different beasts. Theoretically, the laws that govern refugees and asylum seekers offer broad protections, rights and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers in a country of refuge. There are numerous internationally recognized and adopted conventions and local laws that guarantee at least basic human rights to refugees. In practice, I have found that in Tanzania and other countries of refuge, the reality of the refugee process can be disheartening. Instead of the aforementioned broad protections, rights or assistance, new refugees are funneled into overcrowded, underfunded and low resourced refugee camps. They wait for an indefinite period of time to safely return home, to integrate, or to be resettled in another country.
I work with urban refugees, those who choose not to reside in the refugee camps for various reasons, including safety concerns. They hide in the cities and large towns, attempting to integrate and to evade the stigma attached to their refugee status. Hosting governments burdened with accommodating refugees and protecting their citizens establish policies that, essentially, strip the refugees of basic human dignities. Refugees and asylum seekers are generally not allowed to live outside of the camps, work or attend school. As a result, most urban refugees remain hidden and choose not to assert their rights. To combat this fear, I conduct legal empowerment community trainings to empower and educate refugees about their legal rights.
The majority of my clients are from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); they fled from a civil war that has claimed the lives of over 5 million people since 1996. They fled to Tanzania to escape the violence and chaos in the DRC. I work with a gentleman, a former teacher in the DRC, who fled his country after a rebel attack on his town. In the chaos of the attack he ran and left everything he had in the DRC. For weeks he hid in the forest while trying to make his way safely out of the DRC. Prior to the rebel attack, he and his family lived in separate parts of their province. To date, he has not been able to find any of his family members, including his wife and children. Upon arriving in Tanzania, this gentleman contacted Asylum Access, where I helped to register him as an asylum seeker. Currently, we are preparing for his interview with the Tanzanian government committee that determines refugee status. If he is accepted as a refugee, he will be allowed to stay in Tanzania on a long term basis. While his status is pending, he is attempting to rebuild his new life in Tanzania. I am helping him to obtain the proper work permits since refugees are not allowed to work, attend school, open bank accounts and participate in society. We are also searching for his family with the assistance of other organizations that specialize in family tracing. We have not had a breakthrough in six months.
Additionally, I helped clients with the most serious refugee claims apply for direct resettlement to the United States. I have a client who was beaten, threatened and arrested in his home country because of his sexual orientation. His issues are twofold because he is a refugee and because it is illegal in most countries, including Tanzania, to be homosexual. Despite this entire ordeal, he is still one of the funniest and positive people I know. I helped him apply for direct resettlement to the United States; I am encouraged that such status will be granted.
I intend to continue working in the refugee and asylum field when I return to the United States. I want to be a part of a solution that grants refugees an opportunity to live full lives, free from fear and persecution.
-Pearline Guillaume '07