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Student’s fellowship helping clients seek humanitarian aid

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

After receiving the Voice for Justice Fellowship from Detroit Mercy Law School last summer, Elaria Essak used it to fund an internship at the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC), and worked at the HIRC office housed in Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) in the North End—Boston’s Little Italy.

“GBLS has a very client-centered focus, so most of my work was to develop client cases—interviewing clients, filling out forms on their behalf, writing briefs for their cases, and strategizing with them to come up with the best legal relief for their immigration cases,” she says.

The Harvard Clinic, serving people who cannot afford to hire an attorney, has clients from all over the world, and Essak worked with people from Latin America, Haiti and Jordan.

“All the clients I worked with were seeking some sort of humanitarian relief, including asylum, and various statuses available for crime victims and victims of domestic violence and abuse,” she says.

The cases she spent the most time on were for two Spanish-speaking women from the Dominican Republic and El Salvador, both victims of domestic abuse who had fled to the United States.

“I was very happy to be able to use my language skills,” Essak says. “Both appreciated having someone who understood their language, culture, and positions as women in society.”

On account of Essak’s immigration law experience before law school, much of it as a translator at an immigration firm in Troy, and her experience gained during law school, her supervisor allowed her to see these cases through from start to finish, doing background research to understand the facts of the case and the country conditions, in order to create a case strategy and outline all possible legal options. She then interviewed the clients to draft affidavits to accompany their filings.

“Many times, it was very difficult to speak to these women about their abuse,” Essak says. “This served as an opportunity to learn about client relations, secondhand trauma, and how to be a better listener and advocate. The most rewarding part was how much the clients appreciated our work at the clinic.”

Essak also worked with an Arabic-speaking woman going through a divorce from her abusive husband.

“The challenge was helping the client understand her options in the United States, since domestic abuse is not something women in the Middle East are typically encouraged to denounce in the courts,” she says. “It was difficult to break down some cultural barriers, but my upbringing in an Arabic-speaking community helped me understand the obstacles this woman was facing in getting out of an abusive relationship.”

Essak also had the opportunity to visit a couple of clinics and community centers with clinic staff, and served as an interpreter at a bimonthly clinic in Chelsea, Mass., where she also counseled some clients and worked with them one-on-one to reach a legal solution, under the direction of a supervising attorney.

She also visited a Brazilian women’s community center, where the Harvard clinic co-directors brought her on to the cases they had been overseeing.

“It was great to see members of the community working hand-in-hand with the Harvard attorneys to help advance the local immigrant community,” Essak says. “It gave me some hope in a time that has been very trying for both attorneys and immigrants, and it highlighted to me the importance of maintaining good relationships with community representatives.”

One of Essak’s first clinic assignments was to write for a First Circuit of Appeals brief; and she observed oral arguments in the federal court.

“We made a novel legal argument that we expected to change immigration policy in the Boston area—that was very exciting,” she says.

She took the knowledge about this new case law to the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) conference in Orlando, for which she received a Diversity and Inclusion scholarship. There were panel discussions with former immigration judges about how to construct cases around this new line of cases; and she met the attorneys who argued the groundbreaking case, right out of the Boston Immigration Court. She also saw two former immigration judges that the Immigration Law Association at Detroit Mercy had hosted as guest speakers.

Essak valued the sense of community at the clinic.

“All the staff members were focused on putting the clients first and prioritizing the clients’ needs. I really appreciated this approach, and as the summer went on, I came to see how that paid off,” she says.

“I also established a great relationship with my 11 co-interns—we became like a family. I was fortunate to work with students from all over the world, from different law schools, and everyone had his or her own unique story. One fellow student lived for three years in Poland, where he opened his own English-language school. Another spent significant time in Africa, focused on maternal health. A third was from South Korea, and planned to focus on helping refugees to South Korea from other parts of East Asia. I had the opportunity to work closely with several co-interns on different projects, or even just to help them communicate with clients in Spanish or Arabic. All the staff served as excellent mentors to me, as well.”

Essak enjoyed living in “Beantown.”

“I lived near Chinatown, a bustling area full of things to do, places to eat, and sites to see,” she says. “I enjoyed the blend of innovation and history in Boston, as well as the fact that it’s very walkable. And I was able to visit places like Maine, Vermont, and Cape Cod easily.”

Late last summer, Essak received a Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction Excellence for the Future Award for her work at the Detroit Mercy Immigration Law Clinic; and a Service Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Law School Community, for her work in reinstating and leading the Immigration Law Association, one of her biggest projects.

“The organization had been dormant for a while, so in September, a classmate and I petitioned to have it reinstated,” she says. “We were excited to build up a substantial membership in a short amount of time—it served as a testament to the importance of immigration law in our legal community, especially in an international border city like Detroit.”

Through this effort, Essak received a scholarship to attend this year’s National Immigrant Integration Conference, held in Detroit for the first time.

“Attendance was the highest ever, and it was wonderful to connect with people from all over North America to learn what they are doing to help integrate immigrants into the American fabric,” she says.

Late last year, she began a position as a law student researcher at the American Civil Liberties Union, and continues assisting with reviewing government documents to gather information in support of litigation that involves the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

She has also continued to be active as a board member of the Hispanic and Latino/a Law Students Association (HiLLSA), serving as vice president during the 2019 school year. In September, the law school sent her to the Hispanic National Bar Association conference in New York City, an invaluable networking opportunity and opportunity to meet law students from around the country.

Essak is grateful to the community at Detroit Mercy Law, especially her immigration law clinic professor and her mentor at the law school.

“I believe attending a small, service-oriented institution has afforded me the opportunity to get to know the faculty well, and, in turn, they are aware of my interests and endeavors, and recommend projects,” she says.

Those include assisting at a couple of Know Your Rights training sessions in Detroit. Last May, she accompanied a professor to La Casa Guadalupana in Detroit, where as an undergraduate she served as an interpreter for a group of women and started an ESL class.

“Now they have a grant-funded adult education program in a newly renovated building across the street from the house where I would teach classes in the basement,” Essak says. “It was very special to reconnect with them years later and continue the communication with that sector of our community, as a law student and future attorney.”

For September’s Know Your Rights session, Michigan United invited Essak to give a presentation in Spanish to the Hispanic and Latino/a community about constitutional rights for immigrants in the Detroit area. That same day, she volunteered at AILA’s annual Citizenship Day, helping people eligible for citizenship fill out paperwork and gather documents.

In January she served as an interpreter at a Lincoln Park community event designed to bring together community members and business owners, community organizers, and others, to discuss with the City Planner how to make the community a better place for immigrant residents.

In addition, staff at the Southwest Immigrant and Refugee Center (SWIRC) invited her to interpret for Spanish- and Arabic-speakers.

“I enjoy volunteering every Wednesday at SWIRC’s walk-in clinic,” she says. “It’s a highlight of my week, and it’s been a staple activity during my time in law school.”

Essak, who graduated In December, will take the bar exam and then move to the Washington, D.C. area to work as a federal Judicial Law Clerk through the Attorney General Honors Program. Her two-year appointment, beginning in September, will be at the Executive Office of Immigration Review's Office of Policy.

Currently working at Merced Law in Detroit, Essak plans to continue volunteering in the community, as an interpreter and in other capacities. She also volunteers each summer in Bolivia.

“Last year’s trip was very special to me for several reasons, and I look forward to visiting this year,” she says.

In August, she will attend an international conference for Egyptian young adults living in the diaspora.

“I’m very excited to have been selected for this conference,” she says.” I’m enthusiastic about visiting my family’s homeland and meeting other young people from all around the world.”

Essak is excited for the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

“I remain thankful for all the skills and opportunities I gained in law school,” she says. “Michigan will always be home, and I hope to make my way back to the Detroit area after some time in D.C.”



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