To understand why Becca Heller is so passionate about her job, you have only to read the story of Janis Shinwari.
Shinwari spent seven years as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, singlehandedly saving the lives of several Americans in battle. And yet when he and his family needed to be saved from retaliation by the Taliban, he was abandoned by America. It took a dangerously long time and the relentless efforts of many people, including Becca Heller’s team at the International Refugee Assistance Project, to finally bring the Shinwaris to safety in the United States.
As Becca will tell you, there are thousands of cases like Shinwari’s--gripping stories of Iraqis and Afghans who risked their lives for the U.S., only to have their chance at an American visa endlessly delayed or denied.
Since 2008, Becca has been trying to change that through Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), which she founded along with four of her classmates at Yale Law School. IRAP is the first organization to provide comprehensive legal representation to refugees seeking resettlement.
Over the past six years, IRAP has helped more than 2-thousand refugees from seven Middle Eastern and North African countries find safe, new lives in the West. "I see human migration and displacement as the major humanitarian issue of this generation," says Becca. “I think about this every single day."
IRAP taps into the talent and social conscience of America’s best and brightest. Law students and experienced attorneys form legal teams that tackle urgent refugee resettlement cases on a completely pro bono basis.
“In the asylum context,” says Becca, “the General Accounting Office has found that having a lawyer makes you 400% more likely to be given refugee status.”
Becca acknowledges that the United States has to screen visa applicants rigorously to ensure they pose no threat to this country. But, she says, the process needs to be transparent and accountable — and it needs to work quickly because it is often a matter of life or death.
IRAP started with five Yale Law students and now works with 1,000 law students from 25 law school chapters...and attorneys from more than 50 major law firms and corporations. And there is plenty of work to keep them busy. While Janis Shinwari’s story ended happily,
IRAP estimates that 69-thousand refugees just like the Shinwaris are still waiting for America to pay it forward.