Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Refugees – Prisoners of a Single Story: The Cultural Competence Challenge

A refugee’s story is not just a single story – the story of war, deprivation, and pain. But more often than not, the refugee story is deeper and richer than their lucky escape. Our challenge as attorneys is to dig deeper to learn our refugee client’s story. A few examples will illustrate how to put this into practice.
There was a couple who met at the United Nations Refugee Camp in Guinea Bissau. She was from Sierra Leone, a young girl who got married at an early age. He was from Liberia, a child soldier recruited by the notorious warlord and dictator, Charles Taylor. Following traditional African customs, they were married in the presence of the elders. They both applied for refugee visas and resettled in Spokane. Despite vehement opposition from him, she started attending classes at Spokane Community College. There was comfort in education and it helped her overcome some of her fears.
One day there was an altercation over his sexual demands. She told him she had to be in class, but he tried to force himself on her.  She pushed him away. He picked up the car keys and as she reached for the keys in his pocket, his pants tore. He called the police. She was arrested and charged with malicious mischief.
The prosecutor looked only at the fact that she tore his pants; therefore, she was guilty of malicious mischief. The stakes were very high. She faced potential jail time, but also the fear of deportation, or worse yet, losing the opportunity to become a naturalized citizen.
One line item in the police report stood out like a sore thumb. The officer stated that during the questioning, the defendant refused to look the officer in the eye. To the officer, trained in the best Western traditions, this was a tell-tale sign of guilt. As an African myself, I know it is not a sign of guilt to look down when you are telling your story. In fact, it is a sign of disrespect to look an elder or an authority figure straight in the eye. The jury absolved the wife of all charges. The case was won purely on our ability to explain with clarity the complexity of an African woman dealing with new life in America. This illustrates the fact that cultural competency, like other legal skills, requires a disciplined approach to viewing the world from different perspectives.
 “An effective lawyer must possess skills for cross-cultural engagement by developing cultural competency.” 2 We cannot effectively advocate for our client when we know little to nothing about where they are coming from or what drives them. Culture encompasses a person’s ethnicity, race, gender, nationality, age, economic status, social status, language, sexual orientation, physical attributes, marital status, and a variety of other characteristics and peculiarities.
Many African refugees cannot understand a “no contact order” that restrains them from their residence. In African culture, a man’s very essence is tied up with his house. When you take him away from his “house”, you diminish him. In 2011, a Sudanese refugee was charged with a misdemeanor violation of a no contact order stemming from a felony assault – DV conviction. 
Through the interpreter, we learned that the client had no formal education, completely illiterate, and understood only basic Arabic, and a “smattering” of English. It was extremely difficult for him to grasp the meaning of the no contact order.  He did not understand why he could not go home if his wife wanted him there and they were not having problems.  How could a court keep him out of his own home? “Where am I supposed to go?” he asked. “What if I want to see my children?” The arrest was a culture shock moment for him. The plea taken through the help of a telephone translator, with little or no understanding, was later challenged. The felony guilty plea was withdrawn due to ineffective assistance of counsel for lack of meaningful representation based on the use of an Arabic interpreter. This case was later used to effectively solicit the assistance of the state legislature in procuring funding for training interpreters in Eastern Washington through Refugee Connections Spokane3.
Cultures, no matter how resilient, are not static. Our next example concerns the parents of a seven year old refugee boy who could not understand why they were charged with reckless endangerment because they left their child in the car in the summer heat. When counsel tried to explain the law to the parents, they couldn’t comprehend that a shopping mall is not equivalent to an African market. Every adult in an African village has the responsibility to care for all children regardless of their biological parentage. This particular Congolese family was connected with other African parents/grandparents living here. This led to a community effort that enabled refugee elderly grandparents to care for little children while their parents take a break.
A Burundi refugee was involved in an auto accident triggering a severe case of PTSD. Our phone conversation with the insurance adjuster helped the company understand the need for mental health counseling.  As an 11 year old young girl, she walked through a dense jungle in the night to escape the holocaust in her land.  Her recent auto accident brought back those six months of trying to elude the gendarme.

Cultural competency is an essential skill set for the 21st century attorney who seeks to deliver effective advocacy and serve justice. These examples are just a few reasons why we recently established the American Law and Justice Workshop in Spokane. This annual workshop which has been widely celebrated by many, including the Association of American Law Schools 4, will hold its next session in April, 2015. While we educate immigrants and refugees about different cultures, we also need to sensitize lawyers and legal practitioners about familiarizing themselves with their clients’ cultural background.  A single story does not define our clients, it’s our duty to dig deeper.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Defending the Indefensible: The case of Ex-Works Minister Onolememen

"You can't defend the indefensible - anything you say sounds self-serving and hypocritical." - Diane Abbott
It all first sound like a joke but the group of ex-political appointees of former President Goodluck Jonathan who had promised a robust defense of their time in office have started their responses to the numerous allegations of impropriety and corruption being levied daily against them by President Muhammad Buhari's administration. Some of the stuff they are trotting out as defenses would be a script on Baba Sala or Zebrudiah comedy shows but for the fact that we are actually talking about a country made poor not by lack of resources but bad leadership and corruption.
First out of the gate is the immediate past Works Minister, Arc. Mike Onolememen, who responded to an exclusive  report by Vanguard in which he was accused of smuggling four unnamed officials into the delegation that represented Nigeria at an international infrastructure summit in Paris, France, in 2011. If you thought his defense will be grounded in financial prudence and robust statutory riposte, you don't know Nigerian politician. 
According to Vanguard, "the former minister said the four unnamed persons referred to as “ghost representatives” by the newspaper were members of the Senate and House of Representatives committees on Works, who decided to accompany the ministry’s delegation to Paris after the necessary arrangements had been concluded." He stated that the total sum of 20.6 million Naira was earmarked for legislators who were added to the delegation hurriedly. For those familiar with Nigeria "double dipping legis-looters", you can bet the same expense was again paid for by National Assembly oversight budget! He also refused to tell us why it took 5 years to correct the books and who left it too late?
But the minister is not done with his "comical Alli" defense of his time as works minister, he went on to defend the inclusion of his wife and sister on the ministry’s list for a trip to Dubai in 2011 on the ground that the trip "was actually for ministers’ wives and top female ministry officials. Onolememen stated that his wife was specially nominated to lead the team from Nigeria to Dubai and she in turn picked three female officials to accompany her to the event, which lasted five days." What in the world is wrong with this picture?
An unconstitutional and illegal "office of minister's wife" now exist where the wife of a sitting minister can pick 3 other officials to go on junkets or is it shopping at Dubai? All of which are generously funded by Nigeria state money! Ever wonder why federal roads in Africa's most populous nation remains a debt trap? How can any sane mind given the level of squalor and poverty in today's Nigeria justify such expense? What is wrong with our so called leaders? And they wonder why the people of southwest where the Lagos-Ibadan expressway remains like a precolonial rain forest voted them out of office. In saner climes, folks like Onolememen will voluntarily return the money expended on his wife and be ban from holding any political office. But don't expect that in these climes, he will soon run as governor of Edo state or senator using the stupendous wealth he got from from his disastrous era as minister.