Refugee advocate: Year in Cairo sparks interest in immigration

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

In undergrad at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Erin Hoya particularly enjoyed classes in Middle Eastern history, and Arabic. When the opportunity arose to spend a year in Cairo studying Arabic and teaching English, she jumped at the chance.

“The experience absolutely changed my life because of the people I met, and I wanted to bring those experiences with me to law school,” she says.

“Michigan was one of three I found that had dual degree programs involving the Middle East, but it had the most expertise and opportunities concerning refugee, human trafficking, and other human rights issues.”

Hoya, who is working towards graduating from U-M Law in December 2018, and earning her master’s degree from U-M in Modern Middle Eastern & North African Studies the following year, is the first in her family to pursue a graduate or professional degree. She was encouraged by her parents to study law, to ensure a financially stable lifestyle.

“When I started college and got really involved in the university’s human rights program, the sheer volume and variety of injustices I learned about really spoke to the core values my family had instilled in me—choose what is right no matter the cost to you, do whatever you can for those in need, and work hard with integrity,” she says.

“In light of what I learned, I decided that meant pursuing a public interest legal career. Our family joke now is that I took their lessons more seriously than even my parents did.”

A recipient of a 2018 MLaw Dean’s Public Service Fellowship, Hoya will spend 10 weeks this coming summer in the Juvenile Division of the Cook County Office of Public Guardians in Chicago. “They keep an immigration specialist on staff, with whom I’m hoping to work closely, if the caseload includes any immigration issues by the time I get there,” Hoya says. “Even if it doesn’t, I still plan to pick their brain as much as possible.”

Last summer she interned under Nuala Mole, founder and senior lawyer at the AIRE Centre in London, England, to help prep for the center’s conference on “Separated Children in Judicial Proceedings of the European Union.”

“Most of my time was spent researching about unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, which is how I got so interested in refugee and child welfare issues,” Hoya says. 

A highlight was working on the Centre’s intervention to the European Court of Human Rights concerning Darboe and Camara v. Italy, relating to two unaccompanied minors living in a reception center for adults in Cona. The ECHR ordered the Italian government to transfer the minors to a facility adapted for children.

Hoya is enjoying her law school experience in Ann Arbor. “I love the people,” she says. “Whether it’s fellow classmates with whom I’ve become incredibly close because of our ‘trials by fire,’ or staff members who are constantly checking in to see how they can support me as both an attorney and a human being, to the professors who inspire me to make the same kind of positive impacts they have and give me the tools to do so through their classes. If there’s something you want to do, there’s someone here who will help you figure out how to do it and walk beside you as take each step.”

Hoya serves as intake director for the Michigan Chapter of the International Refugee Assistance Project, a national organization headquartered in New York City. “I enjoy the fact I can be an advocate for someone on the other side of the world who is in a desperate situation, and I can do something very practical, and legal, to help them before I’ve even passed the bar,” she says.

She also is associate editor of the Michigan Journal of International Law. “Joining the journal this year has been very fortuitous because most of the articles I’ve been helping to review and edit are about refugee law, so it has meshed well with my other coursework and activities,” she says.

Hoya, is staying flexible on her career goals. “But my dream would be to work with children from the Middle East who are facing problems involving refugee law, or immigration law more broadly,” she says.

The first family member to live outside of Texas since her great-great-great-grandfather emigrated from Prussia in the 1830s to Nacogdoches in the eastern part of the Lone Star state, Hoya is enjoying life in Ann Arbor.

“I’ve found an absolutely fantastic community of people here, both inside and outside of the law school who have made me feel more at home here than anywhere else I’ve ever lived since I left my parents’ house for college at 18,” she says.

In her leisure time, the Texan native is an avid cook and hosts her closest law school friends once a month for “Breakfast for Dinner.” Dancing is another passion, as is fantasy literature. “I’m a Tolkien nut,” she says. And in September, she will take part in a Spartan Race with her boyfriend and best friend, both fellow law students.

She also is very involved in Antioch Community Church, where she helps out with the children’s ministry and worship team when needed.

The church also wants to get involved in a “Problem Solving Initiative” Hoya developed as part of a team of U-M law, business, and social work students. The program will help resettle refugees socially and economically and integrate them with the broader community. “If things work out for Antioch to take that on, I’ll spend a lot of time helping them launch it,” she says.

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