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.”