Monday, May 2, 2011

Tibetan Refugees in Pokhara: Part One

Say what you will about corporate law and corporate lawyers (and please don't get me started), but my experience in that field and playing that role wasn't all bad. Beyond meeting a handful of really great people, the greatest part of my experience was the pro bono work I did.

I worked on a wide range of pro bono projects and cases during my two-and-a-half years at the firm, but I tended to gravitate toward cases aiding and representing refugees seeking asylum in the US. Under US law, a refugee is someone who is unable to return to his country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Most cases unfortunately cover more than one of those bases, and in my work I saw the range: the political journalist in the Democratic Republic of Congo whose life was threatened and hunted before she fled, the student activist in Ethiopia imprisoned, beaten, and tortured prior to escape. While life in their home countries was worse, life in the States seemed difficult for the refugees, especially with family and friends they may never see again left behind in countries to which they may never return. Yet, the refugees persevered and did what it took to survive as their cases wound their way through the system, a process that takes months and can last years.

I learned a lot through these cases. First off, the work of these cases was a daily and often graphic reminder that the world can be a tough and awful place. And I don't mean "you missed the bus for your commute and had to walk to work in the rain after your umbrella broke" awful (although that sounds totally gripe-worthy at the water cooler). I'm talking about "unjustly locked in a crowded prison cell for weeks where you endure daily interrogations and beatings and use the corner as a shared toilet" awful. Second, for as difficult life in this world can be, the human spirit has the potential to meet and overcome unimaginable adversity. As they say, "tough times don't last, but tough people do." And sometimes tough times do last and you have to risk your life and leave everything you know in order to escape them. Working with these women (all of my clients happened to be women) was like watching real-life profiles in courage unfold before my eyes.

As I witnessed these refugees receive asylum in the United States, I couldn't help feeling that my country got a great bargain. After fighting for a chance to survive and coming so far, these battled-tested women were willing to do what it took to thrive in America, grateful for a new lease on life and fresh start. America would not be sorry for allowing them to stay. But more than envisioning what my clients, an aspiring doctor and lawyer, would make of themselves here, I liked to envision their future grandchildren, straining to understand their grandmother's distinct accent, only faintly aware of all the bravery, hard work, and sacrifice that went into setting the ground work for the birthright of their own American dream. I know these grandkids well because I am one of them, only now gaining a real appreciation for what my own grandparents endured as they fled post-war Europe for the US. My work with refugees was inspiring on a number of levels, not least of which was a lesson in the assumed and unappreciated good fortunes of my life circumstances and the inspiration to stop unthinkingly taking so much for granted. To borrow a theme from the novel I'm currently reading, "Use well thy freedom."

It's with this background that I set out last week for the city of Pokhara, located about a seven-hour bus ride from Kathmandu. Before I moved to Nepal, my latest asylum client in the US was a Tibetan refugee from a Tibetan settlement in Pokhara (more on Tibetan refugees in Nepal tomorrow). Her case is still pending, so I do not yet know if she will receive asylum in the US, but after working closely with her for over a year, I was excited about the opportunity to go to her home and meet her family, adding more life to the story she shared with me through tears and an interpreter on the 28th floor of a Chicago skyscraper.

I set off on the seven-hour bus ride, not realizing that my trip would entail a journey through decades of Tibetan history and family stories. It's a tale worth telling, and I look forward to sharing it tomorrow (with pictures).

Click here to read Part Two.

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