How I Spent My Summer Vacation—A Law Student's Experience at the HIAS Tel Aviv Office

Posted by Aliyah Phillips on Tue, Oct 12, 2010 at 16:34 pm

Below are the reflections of Aliyah Phillips, as she progressed through her legal internship at HIAS' office in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Crash Course in Israeli Asylum Law

I couldn’t have asked for a better first week at my internship in HIAS’s Israel office. When I came in to work on Monday morning, I met with my supervising attorney, Sivan Carmel, and she gave me an in depth introduction to refugee law in general and in Israel, and HIAS’s activities here. She explained how Israel began reviewing asylum seekers’ claims in July 2009, less than a year ago. Before that, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Israel was reviewing some claims, but it was overburdened by the high demand for review. The government requested that HIAS assist in the training of Ministry of Interior (MOI) workers to take on the task of Refugee Status Determination (RSD), according to the 1951 Refugee Convention’s definition of a refugee.

On Monday, I sat with the Director of HIAS in Israel, Joel Moss. Joel is originally Canadian, and he made aliyah to Israel with his family. He was an immigration judge in Canada for many years. I am so impressed that in such a short time, he managed to organize a training course on RSD for the MOI so that Israel could begin to process its own asylum claims in a fair, professional, and judicious manner. Joel has made amazing connections for HIAS in Israel and manages to accommodate many competing interests harmoniously.

The greatest challenge I faced so far is the emotional experience of listening to asylum seekers describe persecution they have faced. When an Eritrean client talked about how much he missed his family and how disturbed he was that he has no hope of being reunited, I had trouble holding back tears. I could not have imagined what it would be like to interact with asylum seekers nearly every day at work, and it’s challenging. These people have faced unimaginable persecution and suffering, and every day is a struggle. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to help, even in a small way.

Learning and Teaching – The Impact of HIAS’ Work

This week I delved into some challenging legal research. My assignment required weeding through many dense cases from all over the world. My expectations for how long it would take me to complete this assignment were way off! In my legal writing course, we learned how to write legal memos based mostly on a single statute and the relevant cases that cite it and interpret it. It took about two weeks of handing in drafts, and then we had a final version ready to be graded.

My memo assignment at my internship is completely different in scope and in nature. Despite that, I still thought I could have it done in a week since I’m giving it all my time. One week has passed and I still haven’t gotten it done because of the process involved. I have been using Westlaw, Lexis, Refworld, and the Canadian case law database, Canlii. It has become very time consuming to find cases that deal with this very specific asylum issue.

This week I began to appreciate the knowledge I’ve gained so far, and my ability to speak to people who know nothing about refugee law (or law at all, for that matter) and educate them about the topic. I went to a potluck dinner at a friend’s apartment this week and there were young adults from all over the world there. They were so interested in my work and in the whole situation of non-Jewish asylum seekers in Israel. I’m so glad that I was able to answer all their questions, and explain all the interesting dilemmas that Israel faces, and how Israel is confronting them as well. I’m really proud to take part in HIAS’s mission in Israel and I feel very passionate about assisting Israel in taking responsibility for the many asylum seekers within its borders.

Today I sat in on an interview of a Sudanese asylum seeker organized by a partner NGO, Operation Blessing. Operation Blessing sponsors flights of Sudanese refugees who would like to voluntarily return to South Sudan. Many of them have been separated from their families for years and endured terrible mistreatment and cruelty in Egypt or Libya.

My internship with HIAS is teaching me to appreciate many things I took for granted. I will never look at my precious American passport the same way after this experience. I have been blessed with such enormous privilege as an American citizen who, as a Jew, can take advantage of Israel’s Right of Return. I’m an American with the option of becoming an Israeli should I ever need or want to.

The Challenge of Active Listening

I completed my first solo interview today. Many Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel no longer fear persecution in South Sudan and actually want to return. Operation Blessing sponsors flights back to South Sudan for those who want to voluntarily return. HIAS helps to interview all applicants to make sure that they truly want to go back to South Sudan out of their own free will. This is important because if they are considered pressured to return, it could seem like Israel is deporting them without providing a proper refugee status determination, which is in violation of the “non-refoulment” principle.

Joel worked with me on interviewing skills before I interviewed. I had no idea how hard it is to be good at interviewing. The first thing he discussed with me was active listening. It sounds much easier than it actually is. He described how important it is for the interviewee to lead the interview, and to ask open-ended questions. This way, the most relevant and authentic information comes out. He also discussed how it’s our natural instinct to be uncomfortable with other people’s terrible and heartbreaking stories, but that it’s very important to not be afraid of those stories, and even to ask questions like, “How does it make you feel to discuss that?” or, “What do you mean when you say they tortured you?” When Joel was training me, I knew these things would be hard for me, but I didn’t realize how hard.

During my interview, I made some mistakes by asking yes or no questions, and I was a bit nervous. Also, Joel told me it’s better to say, “I understand,” instead of “ok.” It was extremely hard to avoid the word “ok.” But I can tell that with practice, I’ll definitely improve. I’ll be doing another interview next week and I hope it will be better. Joel gave me a great deal of constructive criticism at the end of my interview, and I thanked him for it, and I plan to implement his suggestions next time.

I believe that it’s important to do the things that make us uncomfortable. These things help us grow. Interviewing applicants for voluntary return to South Sudan will be one of those growing experiences for me.

 

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