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Asylum Access Fellowship

Selby Abraham ’13
2013–2014

Why did you apply for the Asylum Access/USF fellowship?

As a law student at USF, I found myself increasingly interested in refugee rights and international law. When it came time to apply for jobs during my 3L year, I sought opportunities with organizations committed to the rights of underserved immigrant communities both in the United States and abroad. I found the Asylum Access Fellowship to be a perfect fit. Having had previous experiences working and living abroad in Latin America, I sought a position with the Ecuador office because of my familiarity with the region. I applied to the Fellowship to learn more about the legal application for refugee rights in a different part of the world, to work with clients from culturally diverse backgrounds, and to improve my Spanish. In the end, as I learned more about the organization through the application process, I saw the Fellowship as an ideal opportunity to continue my legal training and advocacy for immigrant clients. 

What kind of work are you doing for Asylum Access?

I live and work in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, a coastal city located two hours from the Colombian border. At Asylum Access in Esmeraldas, our typical client is a Colombian refugee fleeing persecution from violence generally associated with guerilla groups and drug cartels. My work includes accompanying clients to the Ecuadorian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to initiate the visa process, writing appeals on behalf of clients citing constitutional protections and international treaty obligations, and leading “know your rights” trainings to newly arrived refugees. The work is challenging but rewarding. Under Ecuadorian law, individuals applying for asylum receive the constitutional rights to work, education, and other public services. Unfortunately, in practice, these rights are not always guaranteed and asylum applicants frequently experience discrimination as a consequence. In one of my first weeks on the job, I accompanied a refugee client to a notary who previously refused to work with the client for lack of a passport. I argued with the notary (a developing skill for me in Spanish) to explain the client’s rights as an asylum applicant in Ecuador and leveraged a complaint with the city public defender. The notary relented at my insistence and worked with the client. A small win in the bigger scheme of refugee rights, but this advocacy eventually allowed for the client to seek legal custody of her Colombian son.

This is but one example of many small victories in this line of work. The greater goal is to ensure that as many refugees as possible get a fair chance to have their case heard and have their rights recognized while seeking asylum in Ecuador. As a legal fellow, I appreciate the opportunity to strive for this goal while advocating for clients on the front lines. 

How does this position fit into your career goals?

Working with Colombian clients seeking asylum in Ecuador has increased my interest in international development and refugee rights. At the same time, I remain committed to the rights of immigrants seeking asylum and other visa opportunities in the U.S. In terms of my career at the conclusion of this fellowship, one major goal is to continue to work with displaced groups of people seeking rights in their new countries. Whether that includes policy work or legal services remains to be seen. Through Asylum Access, I have experienced a steep learning curve for a wide variety of professional legal skills, including advocacy for clients, enhancing my legal writing using international law, and improving my Spanish. I feel very fortunate to be in this unique position to work and learn abroad while launching my legal career.