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2012 Perry Watkins Fellow to assist LGBT Iraqi Refugees

By John Masson

Some might be upset to hear their boss suggesting that they ought to go work in Iraq for a few months.

Not Betsy Fisher. The Michigan Law 1L from Toledo, who spent last summer working with Iraqi refugees in Jordan, was excited when her boss from the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) suggested she return to the Middle East this summer. The idea was to help displaced Iraqis—with a special emphasis on LGBT Iraqis, who are at much higher risk of persecution—find permanent homes free from danger.

Recently, the opportunity got even better, as the Law School awarded Fisher its 2012 Perry Watkins Fellowship. The fellowship—named after a Vietnam-era draftee who successfully challenged the Army's policy of excluding gay service members—provides its recipients $4,000 in funding support.

"We need to figure out what the solution is for gay Iraqis," said Fisher, who described her upcoming visit to Kurdistan as a fact-finding and relationship-building mission for IRAP, which was cofounded by Becca Heller, a professor at Yale Law School. "International NGOs have already documented extensive human rights abuses of gay men. I mean, things like gay marriage are important, but people in other countries are being killed as a direct result of their orientation."

The U.S. State Department saw fit to condemn those acts of violence, but Fisher hopes to accomplish more than that when she arrives in Kurdistan this summer. Specifically, she'll meet with clients to help produce their intake claims, do legal research supporting IRAP's litigation and advocacy efforts, and build coalitions with other organizations on the ground in Iraq in order to encourage those groups to refer clients in need of legal services to IRAP.

One other key goal: determining whether there are evacuation routes for LGBT Iraqis through Kurdistan and out to Turkey.

Fisher, who graduated from Denison University with a degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies, knows that resettling displaced Iraqis will continue to be a difficult task. In Jordan last year, she worked with some of an estimated 750,000 Iraqis who had taken shelter there.

The challenge becomes even greater when the United States sets, as it did in 2007, a target of resettling only 7,000 Iraqi refugees. Even that modest target wasn't met: In the end, the United States accepted only 1,608. This, out of a refugee total of about 4 million.

"You have to have some pretty horrendous experiences to qualify," Fisher said. You also have to pass three rounds of interviews by the departments of State and Homeland Security, along with a security investigation.

Worse, as many as 1.5 million displaced Iraqis fled to Syria, which is now in the throes of a civil war and sectarian violence of its own.

"One thing you don't want to be in Syria is a dissident. Another thing that you don't want to be is a refugee," Fisher said. "No one really knows what the effect of Syria's conflict is on the refugees there, but we know it's not good."

The stark reality for displaced Iraqis helped mobilize students at 20 other American law schools—and at the University of Jordan—to create IRAP chapters of their own. Fisher helped establish Michigan's chapter.

Michigan Law's public interest director, Alyson Robbins, said Fisher's work—and the fellowship she earned as a result of it—say some interesting things about the Law School.

"One, it says our students come here having done amazing work, and have amazing backgrounds that their classmates get to benefit from," Robbins said. "Two, it says we're invested in helping students who have clearly defined public interest goals reach those goals, no matter what they might be."

But there's a more central reason Fisher has adopted the cause:

"I think the United States, in particular, has a moral obligation to help these people."


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