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From Refugee to Legal Advocate

Luis Canales
Credit: Center for Migration Studies of New York

Resilience and perseverance. Two qualities that helped to save the life of Luis E. Canales ’17, now a 3L student at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. When Canales was 16 years old, he fled gang violence in his native Honduras, making the trip to the United States, not once, but four times. Now, he’s studying the law and advocating for fellow refugees at Villanova’s Clinic for Asylum, Refugee and Emigrant Services (CARES) and the United Nations.

“From the time I was a child, I always told my parents that someday I would like to do something better for my family, but I would like to help other people, too,” explains Canales. In Honduras, his altruism was not met kindly. When Canales was 14, he worked at a radio station which broadcasted his opposition to gangs and drugs.  During one broadcasted speech, he went in front of the city government and called for more security in his hometown. Gang members heard his broadcast and decided that he was a problem.

“One morning I was on my way to work at the station on my bicycle, and a gang member started to chase me,” said Canales. “I began to go downhill on a gravel road where there was a fork in the road. The gang member stopped his bicycle and got out his homemade gun and he shot. At that very moment, I fell from my bike and was knocked unconscious. That saved my life. The gang member thought he had killed me, so he took off. I still have the scars from falling. That’s when I told my parents, this is serious, I must leave.”

It took three unsuccessful attempts to make it to safety in the United States. On January 13, 2005, he made it into the United States and was released to a family member living in Scranton. He had traveled almost 7,500 miles in the same pair of shoes—shoes that are still with him.

Canales’ case was active with immigration for five and a half years before he was granted asylum. A week after his final hearing, he started college at Marywood University.

“I always said to my lawyer that I would like to become an attorney someday,” he said. “Because I want to help others. Especially those who have been in the same situation as me. I want to give back to the community—to give back a lot.”

“When I was looking at law schools, I looked at their missions. Reading Villanova’s mission, knowing all the work they’ve done and that it was founded for immigrants—I knew I must go to this university,” said Canales. Hearing University President Peter M. Donohue, PhD, OSA, speak to the law school’s recent incoming class about the University’s history inspired Canales further.

“Father Donohue reminded me of the foundation of the University. It was for immigrants and their children. It’s a legacy that’s never forgotten at Villanova, and I’m proud to now be a part of that tradition.”

Now, Canales is paying it forward as an advocate. He is a student representative at CARES where he and fellow student, Ruby Khallouf ’17, represent clients in immigration court under the supervision of Professor Michele Pistone, founding director of the clinic.

Canales has also become a passionate advocate for refugees. In September, he was invited to share his story at the United Nations as part of its Summit for Refugees and Migrants. Canales brought along those fateful shoes, which carried him from peril to freedom as a teen. Today they are a reminder of his journey.

Canales reflected, “I believe in paying it forward. Sometimes we cannot help en masse, but we can do it on a personal level. It creates change. I want to continue my walk and see how far I get.”