2015 Founders Fellowship

The 2015 recipient was Heba Dafashy, a law student at George Washington University School of Law. 

Personal Essay: My Work at Tahirih Justice Center

Imagine feeling like your whole world has been turned upside down, you have no security anymore, the people you trusted have betrayed you, and you are now threatened because of your status as a woman. When there seems to be nowhere to turn to for help, the Tahirih Justice Center exists to offer a glimpse of hope to a woman in such a situation.

This summer, I had the opportunity to work with an organization that has a strong mission to advocate and protect immigrant women and girls fleeing gender based violence. Tahirih Justice Center transforms women’s lives by providing direct legal services, social services, and policy advocacy. Through the WBA Foundation Founders Fellowship Award, I was privileged to get a glimpse of how this exceptional organization is impacting women and girls through my position as their immigration and family law intern.

The Tahirih Justice Center is named after a woman named Tahirih who was a prominent figure in Middle East history and inspired other women to reject their oppressed status. In fact, her last words before she was executed for her beliefs were, ““You can kill me as soon as you like, but you will never stop the emancipation of women.” That same passion to empower women is embodied in each Tahirih attorney and is evident through conversations with clients, fierce advocacy efforts, pleadings, and even through simple smiles of encouragement. What makes the Tahirih Justice Center so special is that each staff member is motivated by the same convictions as the historic 19th century Tahirih. It is through the staff, the clients, and the work that I learned what it means to truly empower a woman.

The work that I did ranged from immigration pleadings to family law litigation and to issues that intersected both fields. Through my work with clients, I learned how to empower women without creating dependence or stealing her autonomy to make her own decisions, which can be a hard balance to find. For example, I worked closely with a trafficking survivor to help obtain her green card status. When I first met this woman, I had an almost motherly instinct to try to do everything I could to help make her life easier- even if it didn’t have to do with the legal issue of her green card. If she had trouble picking up her prescription due to a health insurance issue, my desire was to go with her to the pharmacy and work out a solution. Or if she had a problem with her landlord, my instinct was to speak to the landlord myself on her behalf. I learned that these desires, although coming from a good place, might actually rob my client of her independence, countering everything I knew about empowering women. Instead, I learned to give my client the tools and resources she needed to take care of all of these things. By the end of the summer, I witnessed my client grow into a more independent woman as she managed to navigate issues that at first seemed so overwhelming to her. I was proud of the way my client learned to become her own advocate in a sense. That is true empowerment.

This summer, I also helped work on a litigious divorce case for a survivor of domestic violence. The family law attorney and I spent countless hours on this case. The motivation that fueled our time investment into the case was the idea that we would help this woman restart her life and be freed from the chains of her abusive husband that had enslaved her joy and passion.

However, one day, our client called and said she wanted to go back to her husband. She did not want to go through with the divorce anymore.

Instantly, our hearts shattered.

My mind ran wild with questions like, “How can you go back to him? Why would you do that? Don’t you remember what he did!?” Despite every urge that the family law attorney had to ask such questions or find a way to prevent our client from going back to her abuser, the attorney just had to accept the news and reinforced to the client that she was here for her if she ever needed anything. To allow a woman to make her own choices, despite how wise you think they may be, is true empowerment. Through this experience, I learned that the client knows what is best for her situation and as an attorney (or future attorney) we must respect her decision.

Despite difficult moments like that, I also witnessed such uplifting experiences of women whose lives have been transformed and impacted by the work of the Tahirih Justice Center. I worked with a woman who sought asylum in the United States after fleeing female genital mutilation from her home country. Once she arrived in the United States, she met a stranger who led her to believe that they would protect her and help her seek asylum. Instead, this seemingly benevolent stranger ended up selling her in a trafficking ring. I worked with the client to apply for a Refugee Travel Document. When I first read her story, I wasn’t exactly sure how this client would be after all she had gone through. I was preparing myself for what I thought would be a very emotional meeting. To my surprise, it was impactful in another way. When I saw my client enter the Tahirih doors she had the biggest, brightest smile on her face. She was shining. She brought the office a beautiful cake as a symbol of her appreciation to the Tahirih Justice Center for all that they have done for her. She kept telling me that every time she used to come to Tahirih she would be crying and so stressed, but sometimes the staff at Tahirih would give her a piece of chocolate cake and that would make her feel so much better. She wanted to return the favor. This client was so happy to be back in the office and told me that Tahirih literally changed her life from a dark situation to one full of hope and opportunities. To have witnessed and worked for an organization that is changing so many women's lives made this summer one of the most fulfilling experiences in my professional career.

I am grateful for the WBA Foundation Founders Fellowship award for giving me the opportunity to learn these meaningful lessons, work with such amazing mentor attorneys, and meet inspiring clients. I will take these lessons with me into my legal career as I continue my work advocating for vulnerable populations.  


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