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From the Editor: A Lawyer Makes All the Difference

By Stephanie Russell
Spring 2019
Voices

In this issue you’ll find an inspiring story [“A Beacon of Hope for Asylum Seekers”] about clinical associate law professor Uzoamaka Nzelibe, who helps youth seeking asylum build new lives.

As a staff attorney with the Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Children and Family Justice Center at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, Nzelibe ’96 takes on the asylum cases of teens and young adults who’ve fled their homelands because of violence and threats on their lives, often from gangs.

Stephanie Russell, executive editor of Northwestern Magazine.

Stephanie Russell, executive editor of Northwestern Magazine. Illustration by Anje Jager

“These youths cannot afford lawyers and, under our laws, are not entitled to a free lawyer. Yet having a lawyer makes all the difference in court,” says Nzelibe, who represents these young people in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Chicago Immigration Court.

“What I love most about my clients is they’re kids. I can joke around with them. They’re resilient,” Nzelibe says. “I don’t like to make them seem completely like victims because I admire them. I admire the fact that they can make a decision to leave their country, sometimes walk thousands of miles to get here, persevere and still do well.”

An immigrant herself from Nigeria, Nzelibe understands the sense of displacement and loss her clients have experienced.

Nzelibe juggles 15 to 18 cases at a time with the help of Northwestern law students, who investigate and gather the facts to corroborate the clients’ stories. They often must confirm information with clients’ relatives back home and secondary sources, especially regarding the violent situations these youths faced in their country.

As the mother of an adopted Guatemalan teenager who fled kidnapping threats in his home country and who lost his parents to gang violence, I am grateful to Uzoamaka and all the immigration attorneys like her who are fighting for these young asylum seekers. Through their unwavering commitment to and compassion for these young adults, they are saving — and transforming — lives.

“My clients are in search of safety when they come to the United States,” says Nzelibe. “I’ve learned over the years that when children feel safe and supported, they can accomplish many things. My clients have been able to leave behind horrific lives and move forward. Many have graduated from college or learned a trade, and most are now productive, contributing members in their communities.”

Just like my son. After gaining asylum he went to college, earned a degree in business and now works for Nestlé. He’s enrolled his sister at a university in Guatemala, where she lives, and provides for his extended family.

“I wish more people could begin to understand that what makes the United States great are our founding ideals and values and the opportunities these values engender,” Nzelibe said to me after I told her my son’s asylum story. “While it is not a perfect country, the U.S. remains one of the few places where people can start afresh and make better lives for themselves.”

Stephanie Russell
Executive Editor

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