Rebecca Heller, director and co-founder of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York has been named the recipient of the 2015 Charles Bronfman Prize.
Heller spoke with The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday to discuss her work at IRAP to help people from countries across the Middle East and North Africa who are seeking refugee status and resettlement.
The idea for the organization started to emerge when Heller visited Israel between her first and second years of law school at Yale back in 2008, when she heard about the plight of Iraqi refugees living in Jordan.
She arranged to speak with some; one common problem they told her about concerned the legal aspects of applying for resettlement.
As a law student and a US citizen, Heller felt she had an obligation to help, and back at Yale, she got a group of five law students together and founded IRAP.
The students, not yet admitted to the bar, were limited in the extent of legal advice they could offer; IRAP soon expanded to include services offered pro bono by lawyers at top law firms around the US.
Today, the organization has a core staff of 14, half of whom are in the Middle East and half of whom work from the US, volunteers at 26 chapters on campuses across the US and Canada, and attorneys and paralegals working pro bono at more than 50 top law firms and in-house councils from five multinational corporations.
IRAP helps the most vulnerable populations, such as women at risk of sexual and gender-based bias, LGBTI individuals persecuted for their sexual identity, children with medical emergencies, and those who work as interpreters for the US Army and are subsequently persecuted as traitors to their countries, Heller said.
Many of them need assistance applying for recognition by the UN as refugees and then in applying for resettlement in the US or a number of other countries, depending on the languages they speak, where they have family members, and where resettlement slots are available, she said.
“It’s really difficult. It’s not supposed to be, but it is,” Heller said of the process refugee- seekers must go through.
Some are illiterate and cannot fill out forms without help.
Others suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and are required to relate their experiences to a stranger – a UN or government official – assessing their situation in an interview that can take more than seven hours.
“The definition of a refugee, summed up, is someone who has been severely persecuted – singled out and persecuted. So there’s an extremely high rate of post-traumatic stress syndrome and mental illness amongst refugees. The focus of the interview is always on the precipitating event. So if you’re trying to prove that you qualify as a refugee you need to testify credibly that something really awful happened to you, and a lot of the time it’s really difficult to talk to a stranger in a high degree of detail about the time that a militia game to your house and killed your child,” Heller explained.
These situations and a range of other difficulties faced by the refugees are difficulties that IRAP helps them overcome, said Heller.
IRAP helps applicants fill out forms, collect the necessary paperwork, prepare for the minimum of three or four mandatory interviews that can take hours and a heavy mental toll.
IRAP law students work with lawyers to assist the refugees in overcoming these difficulties. The organization leverages its million dollar budget into 10 times the amount of legal aid through the pro bono work by the students and lawyers, she said.
More than 3,000 refugees have been resettled due to the work of IRAP.
In addition to the organization’s efforts in helping individual refugees, Heller also talks about its work on systemic changes to the system.
During the 113th Congress that sat from January 2013 to January 2015, IRAP had a hand in the passing of five pieces of legislation.
Heller said that through the work it does on the thousands of applications, it learns where the most significant barriers are in the process, and that is where it focus its US legislative efforts.
One such problem is the ban on refugees having legal representation present in interviews. IRAP worked on passing a procedural law that lifted that ban for a subset of refugees.
“The point I try to make is, if you were in Israel or you were in American or a country with a really developed legal system and you were going through some legal process and your life depended on the outcome, you would probably want a lawyer. Especially if that legal process was happening in a language that you didn’t speak and it was all surrounding basically the worst thing that ever happened to you,” Heller said.
The Charles Bronfman Prize is awarded annually to a person whose work is informed by Jewish values and has global impact. Canadian-American businessman and philanthropist Charles Bronfman, for whom the prize is named, said of Heller, “Countless people have been helped by her tireless efforts, and I’m thrilled to recognize someone with such vision, aptitude and a proven track record of success. My hope is that this prize will allow her to impact the lives of many more people on a global scale.”
Heller said she was “amazed and humbled” to be named the recipient of the award. “It’s obviously a huge honor. I’m really grateful for it and I hope that some of the attention that the prize brings can show people that refugees should have legal rights and especially that the situation for the refugees in the Middle East is not hopeless.”
The prize, and an accompanying $100,000 award, will be presented to Heller by the Bronfman family in the fall.
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