Drake Refugee Clinic helps refugees navigate life in U.S.
This story has been corrected to reflect the accurate name of Des Moines Refugee Support
When the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, many Afghans who either worked for the U.S. or Afghan government fled Afghanistan to take refuge in the U.S. Around 1,000 Afghan nationals resettled in Iowa. These individuals were given two years of temporary parole status that will expire in September of 2023.
According to Suzan Pritchett, director of Drake’s Refugee Clinic, many at the clinic hoped that the Afghan Adjustment Act would successfully pass Congress and provide a roadmap for permanent immigration status for the Afghan population as a whole, but this has not seen much movement on the federal level. This means that each Afghan national’s road to citizenship will have to be figured out on a case-by-case basis, so the Drake Legal Clinic began creating opportunities to help Afghans understand their options for permanent residency in the U.S.
“We are representing Afghans as our clients, helping them through the immigration process, being sort of the liaison between the non-citizens and the government and advocating for our clients to win asylum and get permanent immigration status,” Pritchett said.
Drake partnered with various other organizations, such as the Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice, Lutheran Services of Iowa, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and Catholic Charities to host three informational sessions about the immigration process over the summer of 2022. Eventually, they offered opportunities for clients to meet one-on-one several Saturdays a month, which led to the Drake Refugee Clinic directly representing Afghans seeking to gain permanent citizenship through asylum.
Additionally, Drake’s Refugee Clinic has put together pro se asylum clinics. At these clinics, volunteer attorneys are paired with Afghan asylum seekers and help them fill out the proper documentation.
“We are only able to take on so many clients directly ourselves, so by using attorneys in the community who are interested in this issue and who want to volunteer their time, we’ve been able to provide services to many more Afghans,” Pritchett said. “We’ve been able to double the impact of our work by working closely with community partners and pro bono attorneys throughout Des Moines.”
Drake’s Refugee Clinic works closely with various resettlement agencies and additional contacts in the Afghan community to communicate and advertise the ways in which they are able to help people through the immigration process. Pritchett said they are able to get to know those they help and their families quite well, resulting in many coming back to help as translators.
Shiragha Safi, a student of the John Dee Bright College at Drake, serves as a translator and spreads word of the clinic to the Afghan community. Safi said after taking refuge in the U.S.; many Afghans were calling him for help navigating the system since he could speak English.
Because of this, he started partnering with a local nonprofit organization called Des Moines Refugee Support and the Drake Legal Clinic to get them the assistance they needed. According to Safi, these organizations do a great job in supporting the Afghan community in Des Moines, and they help with anything from daily issues to bigger legal issues.
“Like a family member, they stepped out and said, ‘I’m here for you guys and I will help you.’ They are doing very big things for us,” Safi said. “This is a thing which will stay with us forever because if we are living here until we die, that’s all because of the Drake Legal Clinic. They gave us that opportunity to stay here.”
Safi learned about the Refugee Clinic’s services through a friend. The Clinic offered help understanding and approaching the various paths to citizenship, which Safi said was a huge relief.
“Before, we didn’t have any idea who was going to help us, who would translate for those people and how we would get through this,” Safi said.“Every night before sleeping, every one of us was thinking ‘What will happen and how?’ There were a lot of questions and there was darkness. We couldn’t see anything bright in our future. Drake Legal Clinic led us to the bright future and they helped us to feel at home.”
Safi is also the founder of Afghan Partners in Iowa, an organization that he said is meant to be a gathering point for his community and a way to celebrate their culture. According to Safi, Drake Legal Clinic was a great help in getting this organization off the ground. They gave him guidance on how to start the organization and assistance with the necessary paperwork.
“In future years, many more families are also coming to Iowa, so it will be a very long relationship between us and Drake Legal Clinic because we always need them in the different metros,” Safi said. “Drake Legal Clinic has been involved in our lives more than anyone…Drake Legal Clinic opened the doors to our new life.”
The clinic is currently working on a virtual desk to help more people going through the immigration process. According to Pritchett, the virtual help desk is in the design phase and they are looking at various forms of contact and the best ways people can access the information they need.
“Our hope is to make it as accessible as possible,” Pritchett said. “We’re really relying on members of the community to tell them how people best access information and what would be most helpful to them.”