Usama I., JD

Usama Ibrahim (JD ‘20) volunteered close to 300 hours of public service during his time at Northwestern Law and was recognized for his exceptional commitment to service. While at Northwestern Law, Ibrahim  facilitated a service trip to Houston, Texas to assist Lone Star Legal Aid practitioners providing emergency legal services to those impacted by the Hurricane Harvey disaster, participated in a service trip with the Children and Family Justice Center to Tijuana, Mexico to provide legal assistance to those seeking asylum at the height of the border crisis, served as a co-president and team captain of the Northwestern Law chapter of StreetLaw, and volunteered regularly with the Center for Conflict Resolution, Wills for Heroes Foundation, and Legal Aid Chicago. He was recently recognized by his Northwestern peers, faculty, and staff as the recipient of the Class of 2020 Courage Award, by the Student Bar Association as a Theresa D. Cropper Diversity and Inclusion Award recipient, and by the Northwestern Law Public Interest Center as a Class of 2020 Public Service Star. Here, Ibrahim reflects on his service experiences. 

There is no greater exercise of privilege than to assist others. To sacrifice time, energy, and resources to improve a fellow human’s disposition. To dare to envision that your contribution could better the world. And though it may not change your world, that sacrifice may be precisely what makes the world a better place for the people you serve. Each experience that I had the privilege of being a part of taught me that the legal profession, a profession built on prowess, intellect, and advocacy, is at its core a collective of passionate problem-solvers who represent others through crises. A courageous faction daring to believe the status quo could always be improved. 

In exercising the privilege afforded to me through serving others, I learned just how resilient and courageous people could be. As an educator in Chicago Public Schools, I mentored students who despite facing insurmountable barriers maintained academic excellence and aspired to become lawyers to advocate for their communities. At Lone Star Legal Aid, I volunteered with lawyers who were not only actively attempting to salvage work product and adapt to a new workspace because their headquarters had been destroyed by Hurricane Harvey, but were also actively conducting intakes in order to ensure that all who needed emergency legal services could be served. At Al Otro Lado, I met an impoverished farmer who had walked across seven borders, with the belief that seeking asylum into the United States could change his life motivating his every step. 

There was hope. There was hope in that Chicago Public School classroom. There was hope in Lone Star Legal Aid’s temporary office. There was hope in the eyes of the impoverished farmer. There is hope in this note. There is a hope that those who read it are inspired to commit an act of service. To indulge a sacrifice. To consider opening their schedules or wallets to assist others. To dare to improve the status quo.

Ian F., JD

Al Otro Lado

Winter Break 2020 was quite different as a result of the impacts of COVID-19, and I knew the holidays were going to be very different for families across the world. Understanding that these impacts would also affect legal services globally, I wanted to provide families that may otherwise not be able to afford competent legal representation an opportunity to have their legal issues diligently heard. When I was presented with the chance to assist the immigration and asylum advocacy organization, Al Otro Lado, I immediately offered my services. The existing immigration policies presented migrants and asylum seekers with a bleak outlook and due to the pandemic, essentially all forms of immigration were indefinitely shut down. During my week of service, I was able to lead the interview and intake process for multiple clients who were seeking asylum in the United States. One of my clients was a mere thirteen years old who was seeking asylum because his family had been targeted and tragically murdered by gang violence in his hometown. Each client had their own tragic story that led them to the border in hopes of obtaining a better life which made me realize how vital the volunteer work is to the lives of these clients. In my short time as a winter break volunteer, I truly believe that I was able to positively impact the lives of my clients. My volunteer experience with Al Otro Lado is one of the more powerful experiences I have had in law school.

Sunaya P., JD

Al Otro Lado

I had a great time volunteering with Al Otro Lado! I got the chance to really understand asylum work through an excellent pre-volunteering workshop, that nicely complimented the overview I had received in my immigration class the previous semester. Over the course of the week itself, I performed legal intake for English and non-English speaking asylum seekers. It was really moving to hear their stories and very humbling to be a part of the effort to help them find asylum in the United States.

Molly B., JD

Al Otro Lado

As a 1L in a virtual environment, it’s been hard to become involved so when the opportunity to volunteer with Al Otro Lado came up I jumped for it.  It was my first experience working with clients in a legal environment and while I am sure doing intakes over WhatsApp doesn’t compare to being face-to-face, it was an amazing experience to listen to client stories and be a part of connecting them with the resources they need to navigate the immigration process.  I got to learn a lot about the immigration process from Al Otro Lado staff as well. I have always been interested in immigration law, and this experience only confirmed that desire!

Emily R., JD

Al Otro Lado

Over Winter Break, I was given the opportunity to collaborate with Al Otro Lado, an organization whose mission involves serving migrants, refugees and deportees in Tijuana, Mexico. Here, I was able to work in liaison with the organization’s attorneys to serve as an interpreter during client consultations, where I translated important documents such as asylum applications. In addition, I conducted client intake interviews on my own, collecting information regarding immigration status and history of persecution. As a first- generation Latina, this work is particularly rewarding and meaningful to me, as I have first-hand experience with the challenges immigrants face due to the systemic injustices that exist in the legal system. Ultimately, this experience granted me the ability to provide critical support to the migrant community, while expanding my views on the immigrant justice movement.

Jordana B., JD

Women's Justice Institute

I started volunteering with WJI's email initiative in August 2020, and I had no idea what I would write about or how it would be received. It turned out that talking about myself is a lot easier than I had imagined. I'm so lucky that through WJI's program, I have developed an incredibly beautiful friendship. My pen pal and I have exchanged emails regularly since August, and share stories about family, politics, love, animals - everything, really.

Especially during the first semester of law school, my pen pal was an invaluable source of kindness and positivity. She always asked about my pet and my partner, she always wanted to hear about how school was going. She believed in me even when I did not, and continues to pick me up when things get hard. Together we created this special time and space where we can both share openly about our lives.

Opening these emails is like opening a box of sunshine. Our conversations are filled with words of support and encouragement, plenty of laughs, and genuine care. And I am so grateful to WJI for making our friendship possible. 

Elizabeth W., JD

Mississippi Center for Justice and Legal Aid Chicago

I am very grateful to the Public Interest Center for continuing to find meaningful volunteer opportunities for law students like me during this period of remote instruction. These experiences have allowed me to develop critical skills, network with attorneys, and gain a greater sense of how powerful a law degree can be when helping disadvantaged communities. Best of all, the opportunities found for students this year have allowed me to learn about (and get involved in) some of the most in-demand legal issues- divorce and domestic violence, unemployment benefits, voting rights, and so on. 

One of the most exciting volunteer opportunities I was selected for this year was a week-long winter break remote internship with the Mississippi Center for Justice. Over the course of just five days, I learned so much about redistricting, the role of local politicians in voting rights, and education reform. The staff I worked with were very passionate and were always available for a phone call or zoom meeting if I needed any clarification. I felt like the work I was doing truly mattered. 

I have also been volunteering at the bimonthly virtual legal clinic hosted by Legal Aid Chicago and Katten Muchin Rosenman. This clinic has been both a wonderful opportunity to make connections with other attorneys and a window into the current issues faced by low-income Chicagoans. I have learned so much while being a resource for others. This clinic has shown me just how burdensome the legal system can seem from the outside and how important it is to use my “insider” status as someone with some legal education to help others. These volunteer opportunities have been some of the most rewarding of my academic career and make me glad I have gone back to school and to Northwestern specifically.

Jose I., LLM

Unexpected takeaways

It is amazing how fast and deep one experience can change your perspective. And by perspective I mean goals, ambitions and wishes. My name is Jose Ignacio De Ugarte. I am a Spanish attorney. I am at Northwestern University School of Law studying for my LLM. Like many other LLM students, I have spent a lot of energy and most of my time during the last few months looking for a job at a law firm. This would allow me to work in the U.S. for another year.

Earlier this semester, I saw flyers asking for volunteers to do pro bono work with immigrants in South Texas with an organization called ProBAR [The South Texas Pro Bono Refugee and Asylum Project]. I thought this might be nice and interesting opportunity to do something different. So, I decided to spend Spring Break doing so. The experience turned out to be even more intense and overwhelming than I could ever expect.

I was lodged at La Posada Shelter, a catholic mission which hosts immigrants who are released from the Port Isabel and Willacy Detention Centers. While I was there, I had the opportunity to hear several people's stories. Whether I was playing basketball or walking around with my roommates, those night talks gave me a different perspective of life.

At La Posada, I had many life-changing experiences. I shared a room with people who have been tortured and have scars to prove it. I talked to a guy who was arrested for gun possession and robbery. He had been released and I was with him during his first free night after seven months of being detained. We talked about his life, why he ended up detained, and how grateful he was for a second chance. He was deeply committed to using this opportunity to start his life over and walk the right path. He completely changed my mind about rehabilitation of criminals and showed me the importance of second opportunities. This is just a sample of the stories I heard every night at the shelter.

At the children's division of ProBAR, I spent most of my time working on the case of a sixteen year old kid. His father was murdered, and he and his fifteen year old pregnant fiancé had to flee El Salvador because their lives were threatened. A few hours before meeting him I received an e-mail from a U.S. law firm with bad news, I didn't receive the job I'd applied for. I was really depressed because it was my last chance to get a job in the US. By the end of that day, I was so impressed with the kid's story I put aside my problems and focused on how I could help him. I still thought about my rejection but it was no longer as important. Surprisingly, in a short time, I developed different priorities and needs.

The Texas experience made different things important to me. It created another scale of values and provided me a new conception of the world we live in. Everybody knows about poverty, developing countries and human tragedy, but just a small percentage of these people experience what it means. During Spring Break, I witnessed one level of human suffering and it has made a huge difference in my life.

The need for deeper exploration of this experience is leading me back to Texas to spend this summer helping others. I do not know how I am going to feel after the summer but, at least, I am sure I will definitely contribute to changing people's lives; and that is enough.

Shira R., JD

Life Without Parole Project Interviews

Interviewing inmates for the Life Without Parole Project ("LWOP") was one of the most powerful legal experiences I have had in Law School. I never thought after two days locked in a maximum security prison, I would leave with the sense of insight, awe and motivation. But I did. I went with some attorneys involved in LWOP down to Menard, an enormous penitentiary in Southern Illinois. We interviewed juveniles who have been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The men were serving various times of their sentences- some were in their 20's, others in their early 40's. Some of the inmates had been given their sentence at age 16, others as young as 13 years old. They were children when incarcerated and still were children in some sense as adults. They never had to encounter the challenges of living as a grown-up, with responsibilities, families, bills and jobs, though many of them had trying and complicated childhoods. Most of the inmates were charged with murder, though a number of them deny they committed the crime. Additionally, most of them understand they did horrible, heinous things, but they questioned whether locking someone up for the rest of their life was the answer.

I found some of the men to be extremely astute, clear and insightful, sort of prison philosophers, destined to reflect on life behind bars for eternity. One man told me that "after adults and teachers and people in the neighborhood all tell you that you won't add up to nothin' you start to believe them. I was never as bad or as dumb a kid as people said I was, but I started doing bad things anyways cause people said that is what I was doing." He learned to read and write in prison and was incredibly articulate and eloquent. He felt terrible about what he did as a child. Another inmate commented that "common sense isn't all that common," and that, as a 13 year old, he didn't understand the consequences of his actions. "How can you lock someone up when they are 14 years old and toss the key. We say we want to help kids, but we aren't rehabilitating them. Think about how you were at 13 years old. Everyone grows up." Another man told me that he feels like a box sitting on a shelf for the rest of his life. Like he is in a warehouse and someone forgot about him. A life sentence is a long punishment to impose on a young child. There are no incentives when you are given this sentence, there are no privileges to obtain, no classes to take, no recreation to look forward to. There is no chance of every getting out. Another man said, "I miss my family, my cousins and nephews. I feel as though I never really got to know them and they will never get a chance to know me. I feel rehabilitated, it is still changing but big changes have happened to me, I woke up one morning and knew I had grown up. If I got out I would work as much as I can so as not to be a burden on my family."

I had never spent such a long time in prison or had spoken to an incarcerated person about anything other than their current case or sentence. It was incredible to get a key into these men's lives and to talk as people, not as a lawyer/client. They were starved for a conversation with someone other than a fellow inmate or prison guard and some had not talked about their case in years. It seemed so futile to me, to put capable, strong, in many cases, smart men in jail forever, with no hope placed in rehabilitation. As a law student, it is easy to focus on the law, the statute, the cases and the legal reasoning behind it all. But we must not forget about the humanity of the law. For the law is about people and the consequences of their action. It is these stories, these miseries and successes, these failures and triumphs that resonate with me. I would recommend anyone to spend some time with a juvenile given a life sentence. I think you would be surprised to see what you learn about yourself.

Milton C., JD

Saturdays with Marco

"It looks messed up," I remarked as I sat there watching Marco weave the blue and white yarn I'd brought him into some sort of friendship bracelet. The starting knots looked pretty tangled, so it was difficult to discern the bracelet's pattern or even get a picture of how it would eventually look.

"Don't worry about it!" he replied, characteristically confident as ever. "It always looks like that at first, but you'll see. In the end, it'll turn out alright."

A few months ago, when Marco and I had first met, I had just completed training to become a Child Advocate (guardian ad litem) for unaccompanied immigrant minors. These are undocumented children under the age of 18, who have traveled by themselves, without parents - they are arrested and detained by immigration authorities as they try to enter the United States. Whether being the victims of human trafficking, escaping their war torn countries, or just here in search of better lives, these children cross our borders without their families. Once apprehended, the children are sent to child detention centers, where they await decisions about whether they can be reunified with family members (if they have family in the U.S.), whether they are eligible for asylum or another protective visa, or whether they have no choice but to return to their country of origin. Upon arrival at the center, the child is appointed a case worker and an attorney. Some of the children are assigned an Advocate. The Advocate's job is to get to know the child, help sort out his story, help identify his eligibility for legal relief, and advocate for the child's best interests.

Born in a Central American country, Marco's parents abandoned him before his first birthday. Thankfully, his aunt raised him until he was 5, but then she passed away. A friend of the family took him in and immediately put Marco to work. While most kids were busy learning their ABC's and watching cartoons, Marco toiled throughout the day to pay his way. At times, Marco was homeless, but he quickly learned to survive, taking on countless jobs, all the while trying to attend school like a normal kid. For several years, Marco lived in a tin-roofed, dirt shack he had constructed for himself, but even these deplorable conditions didn't stop him from dreaming of a better life. In turn, he witnessed many around him, young and old, who were so fed up with the political corruption, the widespread gangs, the incessant poverty, and the just overall bleak conditions in their country that they began leaving their homes in droves to search for a better life in America. Inspired by the promise of a new beginning and following his own instincts of survival, Marco packed what few belongings he had and began the long trek northward...

As soon as we met, we were instant pals. Visiting him every Saturday morning, I'd bring games for us to play or even lessons in English for him to learn. He'd tell me about his life story and I'd practically wince at some of the grim details. As an Advocate, however, you've got to be strong. For a role model, I need look no further than my young friend, who has been through enough trials in his short life to inspire strength in anyone. His weakness, though, is that which has eluded him from the very moment he was born: a real and loving family. He yearns for this more than anything else in this world. As an Advocate, helping him petition for a SIJ visa that could make this dream come true, it's my duty to ensure that in the end, just like that tangled bracelet he started on last Saturday, Marco's life will turn out alright as well.