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WVU Law team helps Afghans resettle

WVVU Law students Tori Bruno, Aliah Hasan, Lauren Knowlden, Matt Regan and Natalia Watkins
Law students Tori Bruno, Aliah Hasan, Lauren Knowlden, Matt Regan and Natalia Watkins

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Several West Virginia University College of Law students recently spent a week in Wisconsin helping Afghans resettle in the United States.

Third-year students Tori Bruno, Aliah Hasan, Lauren Knowlden, Matt Regan and Natalia Watkins are members of the WVU Immigration Law Clinic. They worked at a U.S. government facility in January, assisting hundreds of Afghans who had fled their country following the fall of Kabul last year.

WVU Law Professor Alison Peck

Immigration Law Clinic co-directors Professor  Alison Peck and Robert Whitehill, a Pittsburgh-based immigration attorney, accompanied the students on the trip.

“The students got to work one-on-one with arriving Afghans with respect to their immigration options,” Peck said. “This gave them substantive experience counseling people on asylum, Special Immigrant Visas, and other pathways, as well as developing lawyering skills like client communication and cultural competency.”

The Afghans were allowed emergency entry into the U.S. for humanitarian reasons or because of their service during the 20-year Afghanistan War. Many were highly educated and had served the U.S. government either as an interpreter, soldier or intelligence officer, while others were merchants and students. 

The legal assistance provided by the WVU Law team was focused on helping the Afghans eventually obtain permanent residency in the U.S. They met with individuals and families, reviewed documents, analyzed cases and drafted residency applications.

“Our goal was to give accurate and thorough information about the U.S. legal system and assist people who had already received an orientation in assessing their eligibility and beginning their applications,” Peck said. “We also helped them sign up with organizations that will work to pair them with an attorney who will represent them after resettlement.”

WVU Law - student members of the team that helped Afghans old a legal advice sign

Helping the Afghans was a bittersweet experience for Bruno.

“It felt great to get to help so many people who would otherwise have no one, but it was very humbling to learn of their traumatic experiences and realize how much some people had left behind,” she said. “We came together as people through a shared grievance, and each wanted to help however we could.”

Overall, the trip was enriching and educational, according to Knowlden.

“The complexity of immigration issues we dealt with on a daily basis was astounding,” she said. “I got to understand the change I could effect with just a little bit of the legal guidance I could offer.”

Immigration attorney Robert Whitehill

Whitehill found the work intense. 

“Each person had his or her own story, and each had strong reason to be fearful of persecution or death if forced to return to Afghanistan,” he said.


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