In seminar, Pa. undergraduates help asylum seekers

January 8, 2012 - 1:10 PM
Seeking Asylum College Class

In this Dec. 21, 2011 photo, Kristen Stephen, left, from Philadelphia, and Morgan Marks, from Denver, pose for a photograph in Philadelphia. The two were in a unique human-rights course at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pa., that gave them the chance to meet with asylum seekers, research political conditions in their homelands and attend asylum hearings in immigration court. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A few years after leaving Franklin and Marshall College's leafy campus in Lancaster, alumna Kristen Stephen and Morgan Marks reconnected last month at an apartment on a gritty North Philadelphia street.

Inside, a 25-year-old woman from Sierra Leone rocked her new baby and mixed warm tea with cocoa for her 3-year-old as the college friends recalled the life-changing day in 2007 they had met the woman at the York County Prison.

"I was scared out of my mind walking into that prison. And she's in there with women who have actually committed crimes," Marks said. "She was just turning 20, younger than us. ... I couldn't imagine myself reversing roles."

The woman was seeking asylum. Marks, 25, and Stephen, 26, were assigned to help her case as part of a unique seminar at F&M called Human Rights/Human Wrongs.

Dr. Susan Dicklitch, an associate dean, started the class in 2002 to offer students a chance to see the nation's immigration policy play out on the local level, even in Lancaster, a hub of Amish culture that's hardly a cross-cultural hotspot.

Just 25 miles away, 700 immigrants are detained at the prison, along with 1,700 criminal inmates.

In the seminar, pairs of students are matched with asylum-seekers referred by nonprofits or local immigration lawyers. The students meet with the applicants and help lawyers prepare affidavits, briefs and country condition reports.

Dicklitch's students have worked on 63 cases since 2002, and 25 of them were successful, including two this past fall.

Those two cases involve a Coptic Christian teenager from Egypt who was arrested and tortured after distributing Christian literature on his college campus and a teen from Darfur arrested in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, allegedly over regional feuding, and subjected to electric-shock treatment.

Not every case proves successful. Dicklitch recalled the angst of students who work on losing cases or find applicants less than credible.

"You cannot take this class and not be transformed, whether you win or not," said Dicklitch, who believes it's the only undergraduate course of its kind in the U.S. "Sometimes I feel really badly about it. ... I've exposed them to the horrors of the world. But I've also given them the skills and the urgency to make a difference."

Senior Andrew Berg, 21, of Newburgh, N.Y., helped Harrisburg immigration lawyer Craig Shagin on the case of the Coptic Christian teen. While ostensibly a clear case of religious persecution, Immigration and Customs Enforcement lawyers initially questioned the teen's story.

Shagin had the F&M students dig up YouTube videos of the recent political violence in Egypt to illustrate the country conditions. The students also submitted news articles and helped with the applicant's brief.

"I want to make sure that this doesn't happen anymore," said Berg, who plans to go to law school, like about half of the seminar students over the years.

"There are all these stereotypes about lawyers that I don't want to fulfill. But then (you work on) something like this, where a really good kid wins asylum and can stay in America," Berg said.

Marks and Stephen devoted most of their spring 2007 term to their asylum case. They frequently visited the woman in prison, and pulled all-nighters at Stephen's apartment as they geared up for the court hearings. Stephen persuaded her parents in Glen Rock, N.J., to fund a prison account for the woman's personal items and phone calls to her new friends. The phone bill reached hundreds of dollars a month. But they gave the young woman a lifeline to the America that lay beyond the prison walls.

"It helps the detainees to know there's life outside, even if it just allowed her to hope or dream," Stephen said.

The woman did not want her name published or picture taken because her case remains in limbo five years after her 2006 arrest at Philadelphia Airport. Her asylum claim involves the grim ritual of female genital mutilation.

She had avoided the fate as a girl. But her childhood was shattered by the civil war that broke out in Sierra Leone in 1999, when she was raped by a soldier. Five years later, her mother died of malaria, and she was sent to live with her grandmother, who performed a botched circumcision on her young teenager. At 19, she was forced to perform the crude surgery on a 9-year-old girl, according to her testimony in her asylum case.

Against her will, the granddaughter was being groomed to succeed her grandmother as head of the Sowei, a secret society of women in Sierra Leone, according to her asylum claim. She instead flew to Amsterdam, where a friend met her with a passport and money for a ticket to the United States.

The woman's asylum hearings took place in March and May 2007, and a judge granted her petition in September. However, Immigration and Customs Enforcement filed an immediate appeal on grounds the woman was herself a persecutor, given her role in the girl's circumcision. The woman remained in custody for several more months, before she was released and moved in with Stephen's parents.

Four years later, it's unclear whether her case is being dropped amid a new Obama administration policy to focus deportation efforts on violent criminals.

Dicklitch argues that the woman took part in the circumcision under duress. And her new family circumstances should bolster her case. She is now married to a family friend from Sierra Leone, who came to the U.S. legally. Their two daughters are U.S. citizens. The girls would be separated from their mother if she is deported, or face the risk of forced circumcisions themselves if they go with her to Sierra Leone.

Stephen was in the delivery room for the recent birth of the woman's second daughter.

"I don't think blood defines family," she said. "I didn't know when I walked into that class I would get a sister, two nieces and a brother-in-law. She's changed all of our lives, and I think the class has as well."

Marks joined AmeriCorps after graduating, serving one stint at an inner-city school in Philadelphia and a second building trails in Montana. She recently earned a master's degree in international human rights, and may join the Peace Corps in Africa.

Stephen, by contrast, became disillusioned. She is now studying interior design in a graduate program at Drexel University.

"Initially I wanted to go to law school," Stephen said. "I became jaded of the scenario and a little bit discouraged by what I saw. ... I'm going to let Morgan save the world."

Dicklitch co-teaches the Human Rights seminar with immigration lawyer Megan Breamer of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. It's not offered this spring. Instead, Dicklitch will have her international studies class work with local churches on refugee resettlement. Hundreds of sponsored families are settling in the Lancaster area, many from Bhutan and Burma, she said.

She'll also be following the student asylum cases set for hearings this spring, one involving a teen stowaway from the Ivory Coast.

Her F&M students over a decade have worked with asylum-seekers from 35 countries. In her view, colleges should not be "just these ivory towers that don't really do anything."

"Most people think when you teach international politics, you can't do anything locally," Dicklitch said. "You can work locally and make an impact globally, too. Not to mention personally."