Posted by: Castan Centre | February 22, 2017

“You picked an interesting time to visit the United States!”

By Gemma Hallett

That remark has become the hallmark of my time here in New York, as a Castan Centre intern at Human Rights First. It’s certainly been an interesting, challenging time to be here – I arrived about four weeks after the election, and six weeks before the inauguration. The resulting atmosphere in New York has been one of nervousness and disquiet, hanging in the air like storm clouds in a city descending into a winter both literal and uncomfortably symbolic. I quickly realised that time itself was redefined on November 8, and our world is now split into eras Before Donald and After Donald.

As a first-time visitor to the United States, it’s been a steep learning curve navigating a culture that is vastly more complex and different to mine than I ever expected. A perfect introduction to this was my first day at Human Rights First. My induction started off by watching a video summing up the American values and ideals upon which Human Rights First bases its advocacy. “Freedom is American,” the video declared in its first screen. Then, Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice proclaimed his “desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world”. The video concludes on a note intended to feel optimistic and aspirational: “The world needs American leadership.” Now, in the post-election era – After Donald – these sentiments made me feel sick. The irony of working in a human rights organisation in the U.S. at a time like this started to sink in, and still hits me every day when I sit down at my desk and review our daily press briefing, which increasingly profiles a country rocketing backwards at a vertiginous pace.

Against this increasingly dark political backdrop, it’s felt like even more of an honour to become part of the Refugee Representation team at Human Rights First. I come to work every day surrounded by driven, multilingual and over-worked young lawyers – mostly women, as is the norm in many social justice organisations – who work on behalf of refugee and asylum seeker clients to assist them in navigating the complex U.S. immigration system and obtaining legal representation. As well as client casework, Human Rights First also engages in fearless political advocacy, lobbying the government to improve its immigration policy and stop detaining asylum seeker families.

Since the new administration took power just three weeks ago, the feeling in the office has sometimes been devastating – urgent emails pouring in from John F. Kennedy Airport, reporting detention and deportation as the travel ban kicked in. It’s been disorienting, hearing yet another colleague object to the latest report of Trump’s executive orders – “isn’t that illegal?” – and being met with a mournful, unprecedented silence. But most importantly, this office has also been a steadfast bastion of hope and resistance every single day. All of my colleagues are now working overtime, not only as immigration lawyers, but also as shoulders for clients to cry on; as makeshift taxi services when detained refugees are released without warning into the cold New Jersey streets after sixteen months imprisoned; as impromptu interpreters of Arabic-speaking clients making emergency phone calls to us from airports in the seven banned countries.

Every day, I’m being reminded that human rights law is not a career for the faint-hearted, or the easily discouraged. But I’m also learning that it’s a space in which you can act as a dream-bearer, a crisis manager, a social worker and a life planner for those in dire need of someone to trust. And I’m also learning to appreciate the silver linings, as rare as they are, and even rarer as they will continue to be. For example, the day after New York lit up with protests against the Muslim travel ban, I was dreading going to work and discussing the tragic fallout for thousands of families worldwide. What I wasn’t expecting was to arrive to several emails of thanks from former and current HRF clients. They’d written to us to thank us for protesting, and to say how much it meant to see streets full of supporters who welcome refugees and immigrants with open arms. Although legal casework is often frustrating in that you can only help so many people at a time, it’s moments like this that remind us that our work is more important and far-reaching than we often think.

As we head deeper into the After Donald era, I’m clinging to moments like these. I’m also trying to spend my time as an intern learning as much as I can about the world we live in, to equip myself to become a better part of the resistance that’s already unfolding. I’m looking forward to bringing these lessons back home in time for the end of my studies and the start of my career – and hoping we never face as grave a threat to human rights in Australia as the United States is facing now.


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