Wounded, frightened and in pain, Harriet Oyera arrived in Minneapolis on a tourist visa, alone.
A widowed mother of three, she had left her family and her home in Uganda terrified for her life. At the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army – a group that abducts children and forces them to become child soldiers and sex slaves – Oyera was tortured, and her husband was murdered. Suffering as a result of decades of conflict, she knew that if she wanted to live, she had to flee.
“I came alone. I came empty,” Oyera recalled of her 2006 arrival in America. “My family, I left them in tears – my children, my mother, my siblings. I didn’t have any idea of any place to go to; I was just going to hand myself to security and try to take care of my own life.”
Kathleen Lohmar Exel ’05 remembers that broken woman well. Working at the time as a fellow with Professor Virgil Wiebe’s Immigration Clinic at the University of St. Thomas Interprofessional Center for Counseling and Legal Services, she was the first person to meet Oyera at the clinic, where Oyera had been referred from the Center for Victims of Torture.
“Harriet had a real aura of sadness, but at the same time she was so fiercely connected to her children,” Lohmar Exel recalled of their first meeting. “I immediately knew she was extremely resilient on the inside and was willing to put in whatever hard work she needed to, to get her kids here.”
In the years that followed and with the help of law students and fellows working with the Immigration Clinic, Oyera was granted asylum by the United States and her children were allowed to follow. Today, each is a contributing member of society – Oyera, a community organizer; her younger son, Deogratious Munguriek, 20, a mathematics student and soccer player at Bethel University; her daughter, Patricia Alinda, 23, an employee of Wells Fargo; and her older son, Ronney Bongomin, 26, a student at Dunwoody College of Technology.
The work it took to save their lives and bring this family to the United States, said Jason Emery ’07, was about more than studying complex immigration law and conducting legal research. It was about telling their story.
“It was difficult for someone like myself, who has had a very privileged life, to wrap my head around what Harriet had gone through,” Emery said. “I was amazed at her ability to sit in a room with complete strangers and go over, again and again, these profoundly horrific experiences. Strength does not begin to describe what it would take for someone to do that, and Harriet was doing that at every one of our meetings. In that way, she was an inspiration of the human spirit and its ability to endure.”
Emery and fellow law student Mike Cass ’07 took on Oyera’s case for the Immigration Clinic from September 2006 through February 2007 while in their third year of law school. The two were charged with vetting her story, finalizing her application for asylum, and preparing her for and accompanying her to the asylum interview.
“When you break it down, what we really did was help Harriet tell her story in a manner which would convince the decision-maker that asylum was the only option,” Emery said. “There was a lot riding on this, more than anything I had been involved with in my life at that point. It was literally a life-and-death matter.”
That impact certainly wasn’t lost on Oyera.
“Jason and Mike – those two went through my pain,” she said. “I could tell that they were hurting too. But I’m strong because of them.”
Describing her state of being at the time as “full of tears; crazy and empty,” she put her faith in the clinic to help her stay in the United States legally, knowing that only then would she be able to petition for her children – just teenagers at the time – to join her.
Perhaps most important of all, Oyera said the students and fellows at the Immigration Clinic made her feel like a human being.
“I feared being illegal. It felt like being called a thief, and I hated to be called a thief after the war,” she said. “Kathleen kept on giving me courage. She told me, ‘We work according to the truth, and we will find out the truth to help you.’ I knew I was innocent, but with her help, my emptiness, my pain, my loneliness, my isolation began to go away. I felt like I belonged, to someone.”
For Oyera, who held a bachelor’s degree and had worked a respectable job as a judge’s secretary in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, simply being treated with dignity made all the difference. She believed most Americans thought immigrants came to the United States for money, and she was desperate to prove that her own journey was about survival.
That point sticks with Lohmar Exel, now development associate for the Immigration Law Center of Minnesota, to this day.
“Harriet is the one client whose story I think about when I am dealing with a person who says an immigrant should ‘get in line’ or they shouldn’t be here,” she said. “What would you do if your livelihood was threatened, your husband was killed and you had to get out? What would you do to save your children?”
The Immigration Clinic was formed in 2003 and has helped many people like Oyera make the United States a legal home. Professor Virgil Wiebe, who leads the Immigration Clinic, represented hundreds of immigrants and spearheaded the creation of immigration clinics in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and at the University of Maryland School of Law before he joined the University of St. Thomas School of Law as director of clinical education. Oyera’s case, he said, is a textbook example of why the Interprofessional Center works both for students and clients.
“Our students are trained in identifying the legal elements for obtaining asylum, but they also work with our social work and psychology colleagues to learn how to question someone who has faced this kind of trauma,” Wiebe said. “How do you do it in a way that is going to help them win their case without pushing them to suicide? Sometimes it can be that stark. We’ve had clients who have been hospitalized as a result of the legal process, and that’s where the social work and psychology components of the center really come into play.”
Even after her successful bid for asylum, Oyera faced anguish in the immigration process. The effort to bring her children to the United States was long and arduous, requiring record retrieval and verification from a part of Uganda that had all but been abandoned due to the war. She and the clinic lost an effort to get into the United States several orphans whom she had raised as her own children.
As that effort played out, Oyera settled in North Minneapolis and went to work for Redeemer Lutheran Church, where she led an effort to establish a community garden in a nearby vacant lot. Growing vegetables with neighbors and friends, her emotional wounds began to heal as she served her new community. Amidst a flourishing garden, she taught local children how to grow, care for and cook their own food.
But after witnessing a nearby shooting, the pain of war crept back into Oyera’s life, and she returned to the Interprofessional Center seeking counseling. Still without her children, she struggled to find her place in the United States.
It wasn’t until Nov. 29, 2011, that her three children were granted access into the country – five years after Oyera made the trip. Students working with the Immigration Clinic helped file the paperwork to obtain their work permits.
For Oyera, that made all the difference.
“Basic human needs are very important. Give a person the opportunity to live and work in a good environment, and they will produce more than you expect,” she said. “In the clinic, I found a place to belong to – a place I could rely on. The team was so good and Virgil was really outstanding – a man with a very big heart. My children are here and are working hard to pass it forward, and it is all rooted in their support.”
Emery, who now practices Social Security disability law with Greeman Toomey PLLC, looks to his work with the Immigration Clinic as the defining opportunity in his legal education.
“While the core classes in law school are absolutely necessary in order to provide a foundation of how to think and write ‘like a lawyer,’ the tangible, hands-on aspects of the clinic were invaluable,” he said. “It was radically different than reading a bunch of old Supreme Court cases and discussing them with classmates. Instead, we were meeting with an actual client, charged with formulating a plan and then seeing it to fruition. This was real responsibility. Something wildly more significant than a grade point average depended on it.
“The weight of an attorney’s responsibility was one of the most important lessons I got from working in clinic,” he added. “It was no longer just about working toward my personal goals; there was someone else depending on my work.”
Even with Oyera’s case come and gone, Emery still works day in and out on life-changing work.
“Every day, I assist individuals who are faced with the challenge of obtaining benefits they need,” he said. “Quite often these benefits are literally the only means of survival that these people have available to them. My time in the clinic gave me a valuable foundation ... in empathy and understanding the significance of the attorney’s role.”
Lohmar Exel agrees.
“If you’re going to become a doctor, you have to do a residency, but there’s no requirement in law school for that. You can finish without ever talking to a client,” she said. “The clinic is a service not only to the clients, but to the students who can then say, ‘I’ve worked with clients. I’ve not only filed documents, but I’ve gone in front of an adjudicator.’”
Add in the opportunity to work on cases alongside psychology students and social work students, and the Interprofessional Center becomes “an unbelievable opportunity,” she said. “How can you fix the law issue if you don’t have the support to get them to what they need emotionally?”
Oyera knows that perhaps better than anyone.
“It’s a part of life to suffer, but it’s also a part of life to give,” she said. “We need to support one another in times of pain. Every human being counts and matters and contributes to building community and building the development of a space. I was made whole through the strength the center gave me.”