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.