Zaid Ojjeh, a university graduate with a degree in business and marketing, never thought of fleeing his Syrian home before the country’s revolution in 2011, he told Main Line Media News in an article published on Dec. 3. Today, he understands he will likely never be able to return, and with the help of Villanova Law’s Clinic for Asylum, Refugee and Emigrant Services (CARES), Ojjeh was granted asylum protection in the United States in March 2016.
“I am here now,” said Ojjeh during Villanova’s Season of Solidarity interfaith vigil for Syrian and Iraqi refugees on Dec. 2. “This is my country now.”
CARES, an international human rights and immigration clinic, gives Villanova Law students the opportunity to represent refugees who have fled human rights abuses in their home countries and seek asylum in the United States. Twenty-eight year-old Ojjeh feared for his life when the Syrian government became aware of his activities on a social media website. He was able to flee to Jordan and then to the United States in 2013, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for his fellow Syrian countrymen to find safety.
“All my friends left the country,” he said at the vigil. They did not want to be forced to fight with the Assad government or to fight with ISIS. “People can’t go back anymore.”
Christine Marcozzi ’15 and Gregory Mathews ’15, took on Ojjeh’s case during the first semester of their third year of law school. Working in pairs, CARES students are given direct responsibility over their client’s asylum case. The students represent their client in either court proceedings before a Department of Justice immigration judge or during interviews before a Department of Homeland Security asylum officer.
“When students are representing a real client who faces potential torture, beatings or other forms of persecution if returned home, students understand how the law works in real life,” said Michele Pistone, Professor of Law and Director of CARES. “As Americans, we often forget that our founding fathers fought so that we could have certain freedoms. Our clients help us to remember what this county stands for and lets us celebrate the freedoms that our country represents.”
Working with Ojjeh taught Marcozzi and Mathews about the challenges of client interviewing, fact finding and case theory development. It instilled in them a deep commitment to their client’s well-being. When the semester was over and Ojjeh’s case was still unresolved, Marcozzi and Mathews enrolled in the Advanced Clinic for their last semester. Having a lawyer is critical to asylees fleeing persecution; genuine refugees are much more likely to gain asylum protection if they are represented by a lawyer. As alumni and practicing lawyers, Marcozzi and Mathews continued to work on the case on a pro bono basis.
Since its creation in 2000, CARES has represented and won asylum for more than 150 refugees from countries around the world, including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala, Guinea, Haiti, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Liberia, Mauritania, Mexico, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, The Ivory Coast, Uganda and Zimbabwe.