When she stepped off the bus in Portland on a spring afternoon three years ago, Judi Irakoze held tight to the handle of her suitcase.
Packed inside were a few of her favorite dresses, scented oils, her Bible, a pink diary, and a photograph of “mamoutchka,” her mother.
One suitcase. Small enough to carry on her journey from Burundi to the U.S. Big enough to hold the dreams of an 18-year-old in search of a new life. Judi had survived the ethnic civil war and was fleeing persecution and the threat of violence in her home country. Now she would have to adapt to a new culture, in a place where everyone seemed so busy, rushing past her and speaking a language she struggled to understand.
“It was crazy. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know where I was going to live,” Judi recalled. “I wasn’t sure if I could do it.”
That same spring, Clinical Professor Anna Welch was finishing up her first year overseeing the new Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, a program of the Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland. Under the supervision of Welch and other faculty members, law students provide free representation to immigrants and refugees seeking asylum and other protections.
As part of their outreach into the community, student attorneys from the Clinic often speak with homeless and at-risk teenagers at Preble Street’s Teen Center. That’s where they met Judi’caelle Abigaelle Irakoze. Judi, for short. With help from a relative, Judi had obtained a student visa to enter the U.S. But she would need help to stay, because she was no longer safe in her home country, and couldn’t risk going back to Burundi.
That connection – between a young woman who needed help and law students enrolled in a program designed to take on that challenge – started a three year legal journey that concluded with a victory this spring. That victory changed a number of lives along the way.
This April, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved Judi’s asylum petition. She is now on the path toward citizenship.
“We couldn’t be happier for Judi, and for our students who were so invested in her case and in her as a person,” Welch said. “The stakes are incredibly high in almost all of our cases, and our students put the weight of that on their shoulders. Winning this case, ensuring Judi’s health and safety, means so much to the Maine Law community, and it is a tremendous accomplishment for our students.”
‘I knew that I had to go’
Burundi, a nation of about 10 million people in East Africa, is among the most volatile countries in the world. The majority Hutu ethnic group and the minority Tutsi group have engaged in armed conflict and genocide for much of the past 40 years.
Judi lost relatives and friends during the Burundian Civil War, which raged from 1993 to 2006, claiming an estimated 300,000 lives. Though not as widespread, the fighting has continued since the war ended.
On top of those threats, Judi faced persecution within her own community in the capital city of Bujumbura. She realized that if she stayed, not only would her life be at risk, but she would never have an opportunity to pursue secondary education. At various times, Judi dreamed of becoming a doctor, writer, and fashion designer.
“The time came when I knew that I had to go,” she said. “You have nothing if you do not have safety.”
An aunt of Judi’s who lives in Canada visited Bujumbura and made arrangements for her to obtain a student visa. In April 2013, Judi flew to New York. Her aunt encouraged her to seek refuge in Portland, which was fast becoming a destination for refugees from the wars in Central and East Africa, largely because of its low crime rate, good schools, and social services.
After arriving in Portland, Judi took temporary shelter at the Teen Center at Preble Street. City officials helped her enroll at Portland High School, and she began to meet other refugees and immigrants from Africa who spoke French and Kirundi. But the transition was overwhelming.
“In that time, I regretted ever coming,” Judi said. “I was so worried, my heart wasn’t at peace. I started feeling better when I met Anna (Welch) and the law students.”
‘She did not seem defeated’
Maine Law’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic began the intake process for Judi after meeting her in the summer of 2013, and agreed to formally represent her in her asylum claim.
Elizabeth Valentine, ’14, and Pardis Delijani, ’15, were the student attorneys assigned to the case that fall. Clinic students work in pairs.
“I was immediately drawn to Judi,” said Valentine, who has since graduated and works as an attorney at the Maine Community Law Center in Portland.
“When we met with her at the Teen Center, Judi struck me as profoundly lonely, but she carried herself with such dignity,” Valentine said. “She stood out from a lot of the other teens whose demeanor and body language suggested defeat. She did not seem defeated.”
The asylum application is exhaustive. It requires a letter that is similar to a legal brief, a comprehensive statement from the applicant, corroborating evidence including lay and expert testimony, and a detailed analysis of the conditions in the country of origin.
To prepare the documents, Valentine and Delijani interviewed Judi, her family members, community leaders, and country-condition experts, often at odd hours because of the time difference between Maine and Burundi. They gathered statements from people who interacted
with Judi here in Maine, including mental health practitioners, social workers, teachers, and clergy. Valentine and Delijani also conducted legal research for the case. They knew that beyond the paperwork, Judi would also face at least one formal, in-person interview with immigration officials.
Valentine and Delijani filed the asylum application in December 2013, and passed the case on to the students enrolled in the Clinic for the next semester.
“It was a challenging experience, having the burden of helping her through her own mental anguish, being aware of the trauma she suffered, and sorting out the legal issues that would hopefully allow her to stay in the U.S., and have a bright future,” Valentine said.
“Then it was a matter of waiting and hoping, and having faith in the subsequent students. We knew that Anna would have them completely prepared.”
‘Judi instilled confidence in me’
Judi continued to settle into her new life in Portland. She had moved into an apartment with an older woman, also from Burundi. She found a supportive church community, a job at Maine Medical Center, and an outlet for her creativity at the Telling Room, a nonprofit writing center.
By the time she graduated from Portland High School, Judi was already taking math and science courses at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, where she enrolled full-time in the fall of 2015.
Also that fall, the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic was informed that Judi would need to appear in Boston for a second interview with immigration officials. Amber Attalla, a third-year student, was assigned to the case.
“That was an intense time. We met three times a week or more to prepare,” Attalla said. “Fortunately I was able to get up to speed quickly because of the work and organization done by the student attorneys who passed along the case.”
The hearing took place in October 2015, and Judi was articulate and poised. Attalla felt good that they had done everything in their power to win the case.
“Judi instilled confidence in me,” Attalla said. “I was amazed by how she was able to juggle everything going on in her life. She was a full-time college student, she worked 20 hours a week at the hospital, she was working with us on her asylum case, she did a lot of writing on the side, and she was also very involved in the community in other ways.”
‘I was so full of joy and I felt free’
When Judi’s asylum petition was approved on April 8, 2016, Professor Jennifer Bailey, who was supervising the Refugee & Human Rights Clinic while Welch was on maternity leave, asked Attalla to make an important phone call.
“It was just amazing. She was crying and saying thank you over and over,” Attalla said. “That was the first asylum case that was approved that I was part of, and to witness her reaction, it really brought it home about why we do this work.”
“As the attorney, sometimes you get so focused on the process and the details, you forget about how much this one case affects a person’s life.”
Judi, now 21, feels that a huge weight has been lifted, and she can pursue her studies without fear. She is studying biochemistry at SMCC, with a goal of becoming a dermatologist. But she also loves writing and fashion design, so she hasn’t ruled out any career paths.
“I screamed. I was so full of joy and I felt free,” Judi said, recalling the phone call from Attalla. “It was taking so long, I was thinking that it would not happen. Now I feel free to do what I want, and that is what I call living.”