Students Working in Immigration and Human Rights Clinic Help Guinean Woman Win Asylum
Client faced persecution because of her religious beliefs, women’s rights advocacy work, and status as a public health worker
The Law School’s Immigration and Human Rights Clinic recently helped a Guinean woman who faced persecution in her native country because of her religious beliefs, women’s rights advocacy, and public health work win asylum in the United States.
The woman, a devout Christian, traveled to various regions within the Muslim-majority nation evangelizing. She was often targeted by government, religious, and community leaders for her openly practicing her religion. Working for a number of years as a public health worker, educator, and advocate for the United Nations, she had also been targeted for her work to address the Ebola crisis during its outbreak. (Many in the country at that time feared health workers were spreading the disease in their efforts to contain it, and there were reported cases of violence against them.) Additionally, she was persecuted for advocating for women’s rights and against female genital mutilation (FGM). She herself was forced to undergo FGM at the age of 39.
After fleeing Guinea in 2019, she had a difficult time in the United States, pushed from household to household and exploited for free labor. At one point, she was held captive and sexually abused over a six-week period by a man who had promised to help her.
Eventually the woman contacted the Advocates for Human Rights, which referred the case to the Law School’s Immigration and Human Rights Clinic.
U.S. law requires that asylum-seekers apply for asylum within one year of arriving in the United States. However, there is an exception to this rule for “extraordinary circumstances” that delayed the timeliness of the application. The clinic argued that its client was entitled to asylum because of the persecution that she had experienced in Guinea and because the abuse she suffered once inside the United State met the standard for extraordinary circumstances.
The case moved remarkably fast, and the clinic team had limited time to prepare. Within 30 days, they were able to draft and submit a 500-page filing supporting her application. The application was ultimately successful, and their client was granted asylum just eight months after it was filed.
Today, the woman is a caseworker with the International Institute of Minnesota. She is helping Afghani refugees resettle in the U.S. and is eager to use her experiences as an asylum seeker to assist migrants. She is also studying both English and Spanish.
The Student Lawyers
Yemaya Hanna, 3L, was the first person the client spoke to in the clinic when she sought its services in 2021. A year later, she was part of the team that helped her win asylum.
“The most meaningful aspect of this experience was the relationship that the client and I built over the course of representation,” says Hanna. “She is one of the strongest, most resilient people I have ever met, and she truly lights up every room she enters. I am humbled that she trusted our team to help her in the beginning of her journey in the United States. I am forever grateful that she has been a part of my law school education and I will always remember her as my first client.”
Hanna Stenersen, 2L, says what really set this experience apart from other law school classes for her was learning interpersonal conduct as an attorney. “I highly recommend that every law student participate in a clinic before they graduate,” continues Stenersen, who would like to one day practice family law. “Developing a client-attorney relationship, navigating team dynamics, and finding your place within the hierarchy are skills that can’t be found in a textbook.”
Jennifer Melton, 2L, who plans to go into immigration law, says that “learning how to elicit sensitive information that is re-traumatizing to your client is a difficult skill. I am grateful for the level of relationship I developed with this client who provided me real-time feedback.” Melton adds that she’ll “never forget the physical difference in our client’s demeanor after she was granted asylum. The joy, relief, and hope that the asylum grant provided her was tangible.”
Professor Steve Meili, who closely collaborated with the students on the case, had high praise for their teamwork, work ethic, and legal footwork.
"Hanna, Jennifer, and Yemaya worked together wonderfully in preparing for our client's asylum interview,” Meili says. “Because we received only a few weeks' notice before that interview, they had to work under significant time constraints in submitting materials in support of our client's application and otherwise preparing for that interview. Their selfless teamwork—and that of the students who on this case last year- exemplifies the collaboration that is one of the hallmarks of the clinics at the University of Minnesota. The result in this case speaks for itself."