Nonprofit steps in to help with Afghan refugees’ needs

Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates’ legal clinic has had a busy first month.
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The New Americans Legal Clinic (NALC) is off to a fast start.

NALC was started last month in at two locations in Grand Rapids and one in Holland by Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates (LIA) to help Afghan evacuees achieve their immigration goals, providing legal services and hands-on assistance to people in need of refugee status.

The clinic started as an idea in fall 2021 and was formed as a response to the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in August. In what became known as the Afghan Crisis, almost overnight nearly half of Afghans faced upheaval, food insecurity and more.

Over 330 people from Afghanistan resettled in West Michigan, many without their parents, spouses or children. At that time LIA stepped in, doing intake processes for the entire group and determining which cases needed to be referred to other locations for assistance.

“We saw 337 individuals through that intake process,” said Eva Alexander, executive director of LIA. “That went from the fall of 2021 through February of this year. Through that clinic we identified that the next best step for a lot of these individuals was an asylum petition.”

It was determined that around 300 refugees needed to apply for asylum. LIA decided to represent all of them.

As a first step, the organization created a clinic specifically to address their needs and New American Legal Clinic was born, offering legal services and resources with the help of volunteers and partner organizations such as Samaritas.

Alexander

“We moved away from calling it an Afghan refugee operation,” Alexander said of the clinic’s name. “We really want to be inclusive about people who are being our new neighbors, how we are being welcoming and how we are receiving them.”

The clinic operates out of Bethany Christian Services at 1050 36th St. SE in Grand Rapids, Intersection Ministries at 945 136th Ave. in Holland and Samaritas at 2080 Union Ave. SE in Grand Rapids. NALC operates on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and sees five people per day in a full-day event that takes applicants from walking in the door to leaving with everything they need to apply for legal asylum in the United States.

“We are trying to tackle 302 (clients), five each day from now until October,” Alexander said.

The high volume of clients means the clinic needs to operate efficiently to guide each person through the labor-intensive process of asylum application, all in just a few hours.

According to Alexander, clients come in at 8 a.m. and meet with a volunteer who helps them fill out the first four pages of their asylum application. After that, catered halal food is provided for lunch, during which time volunteers meet with the pro-bono attorneys to inform them of each individual case. In the afternoon, pro bono attorneys walk the applicants through the rest of their paperwork.

“The goal being when that client walks out of that clinic for the day at 4:30 or 5 p.m. they will have a filled-out application with all of the documentation needed,” Alexander said. “The goal is for them to walk out with a copy of what will be submitted.”

After leaving the clinic, the documentation is sent to be translated. At that point, clients and LIA wait to see if the application will be approved or referred to court. If the application is approved, clients have a year and one day to file for a change of status, which puts them on the pathway to citizenship and, eventually, reunion with their families.

NALC provides volunteer pro-bono attorneys through the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, as well as application assistants and hospitality volunteers trained in trauma work and cultural competency who welcome clients and assist with collecting documentation.

“Because of the sheer volume of people that are going through the clinic, we rely a lot on the volunteer aspect,” Alexander said.

To help conquer the language barrier that often exists between volunteers and clinic clients, NALC uses a phone interpretation service. The service is dialed when clients arrive and enables assisting volunteers to welcome and engage with those they are serving.

Alexander noted the need for continued volunteer help in running the clinic, but also stressed the emotionally intensive aspect of the work is not to be taken lightly.

“The hardest part is understanding and hearing these (people’s) stories,” she said.

One story in particular has stayed with Alexander. She related a story of a young man who came through the clinic having been married 10 days before he was told he had to leave Afghanistan. He had just enough time to say goodbye to his parents before he was placed on a plane to evacuate. The man, whose name is undisclosed for privacy purposes, arrived in the U.S. unexpectedly, having thought he was, at most, bound for Iran. He arrived in America without his new bride or family, thousands of miles from his expected destination.

By October of this year, NALC hopes to have completed asylum applications for all 300-plus refugees. Going forward, the clinic intends to guide applicants through the next steps needed to legally change their status.

In October 2023, Alexander said she anticipates reinstating the clinic to help the group process their change of status applications. Between now and then, NALC will continue to work with individual cases.

“As a 501(c)3, our job is to take care of the client and their whole self and we want to see that through,” she said, adding that many of the volunteers and advocates working at the clinic have, themselves, had experience with immigration and can sympathize with the need that clients have for stability.

“We want to reduce the risk of any client or family falling through the cracks,” she said.

LIA is a nonprofit organization focused on bringing stability to families in West Michigan. The organization offers legal services, advocacy and education to refugees and immigrants in need as they seek to make a home in Michigan.

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