December 6, 2019
By Greg Sharenow
An asylum seeker is not a desperate person or a beggar coming to enjoy the privilege of being in the United States. Many of us find ourselves here because we don’t have anywhere to turn. If I knew that I would come here to experience everything that I am going through right now, I’m not sure that I would choose that. But at the same time, my purpose and my only idea was to save my life and my family’s life. I have no doubt about it—with me being a well-trained engineer and my wife a doctor—when this nation stretches their hands out to help us, to welcome us here, we are ready to give back.
These are words offered by Mr. Hope*, an asylum seeker from Cameroon who spoke at Refugee Action Fund’s event in Orange County on Wednesday.
Mr. Hope fled Cameroon after being tortured by the government for his political beliefs. Escaping to the airport with only the clothes on his back, he boarded a plane to the United States in an effort to save his life. Now that he is here with his wife and two small children, Mr. Hope describes the challenges of the asylum process- “a ladder to climb where you can’t see the top.” How do you build your life anew when you are a stranger without a homeland? Mr. Hope described the challenges he and his family face – from renting an apartment without a credit score or housing history, to securing a job as a security engineer without security clearance, to getting health or car insurance without any established history.
As Mr. Hope articulated so eloquently, refugees and asylum seekers are individuals facing impossible choices—imminent danger, or the possibility of safety at unimaginable costs. Mr. Hope’s journey to building his life anew is a long road, but it is made hopeful by the support he receives along the way.
Joining Mr. Hope at the event was Kai Medeiros, his attorney. Mr. Medeiros is a staff attorney for the American Bar Association's Immigration Justice Project (ABA IJP), an organization supported by Refugee Action Fund. ABA IJP provides pro-bono legal representation to immigrants and asylum-seekers in the San Diego, California border region. Today, asylum seekers are four times as likely to have their application granted if they have an attorney. Yet, an unacceptably high percentage of asylum-seekers lack representation. Asylum-seekers must prove in court that they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. The case law is highly complex and procedures difficult to navigate. Organizations like ABA IJP are able to make a tremendous difference in the lives of their clients, but more resources are needed to ensure access to lawyers for everyone in the system.
These statistics highlight the critical importance of philanthropic support. We have the capacity to change the trajectory of someone’s life—to prevent them from being returned to a place where their life is at risk. And yet, we need more resources to ensure that everyone can access this life-saving service.
Today, the “refugee crisis” is not only a humanitarian crisis, it is a philanthropic one. Less than one percent of U.S. philanthropy goes to support immigration issues at a time when the need has never been higher.
Mr. Hope chose his pseudonym to represent the hope that he feels. In spite of the torture he fled, in spite of the long journey ahead, Mr. Hope maintains his hope because his lawyer is fighting with him. At the end of the ladder he is climbing, he is hopeful that he can rebuild his life and his family’s, and ultimately, give back. After the event, Mr. Hope said to me: “One day, I will be standing with you to give back to others in need. The cause of social justice is what forced me to flee my home, and I will not stop fighting to help those in need.”
*Mr. Hope is using a pseudonym to protect his family’s safety in Cameroon.