Saving Africa’s Most Vulnerable
by Paige Blache
“There was a photo of the hills in Rwanda. They were so green and lush, and the landscape was so breathtaking. At first I didn’t realize what I was looking at, but soon realized that the figures that were strewn across those hills were bodies of human beings.” This photo, showing the juxtaposition between the beautiful and the grisly, captured Renée Wolforth’s attention as a high school senior, just after the Rwandan genocide in 1994. It prompted her interest in Africa where Wolforth wanted to work with the most vulnerable populations. This goal has drawn her to the continent as a Peace Corps volunteer, and later as a legal volunteer and refugee advocate.
As Wolforth developed her educational and professional paths, the tug of Africa was always strong. As an undergraduate at Trinity, she majored in American studies and minored in French, and for anyone who might be wondering about the practicality of studying French in the United States, Wolforth’s unique path offers insight. During her senior year at Trinity, Wolforth began the application process for the Peace Corps, hoping to serve in West Africa, where French is widely spoken. The Peace Corps is not an organization that will accept anyone willing to give his or her time. It is a competitive process that requires qualifications and skills, to which Wolforth can attest, but her French-speaking skills proved to be a perfect match for her desired assignment. She urges any potential Peace Corps volunteer to plan ahead and to apply well in advance of when she or he wants to go. Though Wolforth applied in March, she did not receive her assignment until December.
Wolforth offers other vital pieces of advice for potential applicants. Because Peace Corps needs to match volunteers’ skills with countries in need, applicants will benefit by gaining real, practical experience in their area of interest. Applicants should research the region they are interested in helping and focus their studies toward that area. In addition to language, applicants should educate themselves about other areas of need for developing countries, such as health, education and sciences. Finally, it is important for applicants to be flexible and prepared for uncertainty. Investing the proper research, time and work into preparation for Peace Corps service will put applicants closer to placement where their interests lie, and will be more rewarding in the end.
Wolforth’s Peace Corps service was in the Republic of Mali in West Africa, which she found rewarding and impactful, and played a significant role in shaping her later legal career. She says, “I have been interested in Africa since high school. Because of Peace Corps, I have only become more interested in the continent, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. When I first thought about law school, I thought I wanted to be a litigator. However, I was interested in working with the African population. I knew that litigation would not offer me much exposure to this population and I soon shifted my focus.” Wolforth pursued her law degree at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. During her second and third years in law school, Wolforth took as many international law classes as she could fit into her schedule.
After law school, she found herself drawn to immigration cases because it allowed her to work directly with clients from all over the world. Legal volunteerism took her to a legal immigration clinic through Catholic Charities where she encountered clients from sub-Saharan Africa seeking asylum. Wolforth’s involvement in the asylum process helped to further shape her law career focus which led her to volunteer with the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project (PAIR) on affirmative asylum cases. PAIR, based in Boston, provides pro bono legal asylum services to low-income asylum seekers and immigration detainees.
Wolforth eventually moved back to Washington after law school, but her interest in assisting asylum seekers continued. Her determination to help others led her to do pro bono work with immigrants who had been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that was formed in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. Her work with these asylum cases strengthened her desire to work with the most vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees. Wolforth knew that the most logical step for her was to return to Africa after a 10-year hiatus.
Returning to Africa again meant finding the right fit for her interests and skills. The refugee and asylum crisis in Africa offered many opportunities for involvement. Wolforth found the perfect fit with Asylum Access, a U.S.-based international organization dedicated to making refugee rights a reality in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Asylum Access functions to provide refugees with legal information, advice and representation.
In order to truly appreciate the work done by asylum and refugee advocates, it is important to understand the difference between asylum seekers and refugees. Although they are often used in the same context, the terms are not interchangeable and have very specific legal definitions. The term “refugee” covers people who have fled their country of nationality and sought sanctuary in another country. They have been forced to flee because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution. They are afforded particular rights as a result of their status as a refugee – rights that are not afforded to those merely seeking asylum. “Asylum seekers” are people who have left their countries of nationality and are seeking asylum in another country, but the asylum has not yet been granted. Many asylum seekers are in very desperate circumstances but do not legally qualify as refugees. They are not yet eligible for the relief or protection of those with refugee status. Once they are granted asylum, they are considered refugees. Expert representation becomes a vital part of the lives of these people given the complicated legal mazes they face.
Wolforth works with Asylum Access in Tanzania (AATZ) as a volunteer in a refugee camp. Most of her clients have been granted asylum by the Tanzanian government and therefore have refugee status. The Tanzanian office was launched in 2009 and works closely with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on resettlement registration forms for refugees at a camp in the northwestern part of the country, near the Congolese and Burundian borders. As a result, most of the refugees in the camp are from these countries. The resettlement process provides a protection option for refugees who cannot return to their home country because they risk persecution and who cannot remain in the camp because of legal and physical protection needs.
Wolforth and other AATZ volunteers interview the refugees in the camp to gather facts about the specific problems they faced in the countries they fled as well as any issues they experience in the camp. In preparing the resettlement application, the volunteers support the facts of the refugees’ cases with details of the situations in the refugees’ countries of nationality. For a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, the aim is to show that the refugee’s personal experience (e.g., ethnic persecution) is supported by objective, third-party information (e.g., information from U.S. State Department Country Reports on Congo) on the situation in the refugee’s home country. If a resettlement application is approved by the resettlement country, the refugee will be permanently resettled along with her or his family in that country. The United States currently resettles more than 75 percent of the refugees in the world.
Wolforth wanted to work with the most vulnerable people, and asylum seekers and refugees are among the most vulnerable populations in the world. Returning to Africa after 10 years has been interesting for Wolforth as she is volunteering to help those with desperate needs, but in a totally different capacity than her Peace Corps experience in Mali. That simple photo of Rwanda and her interest in Africa have had a profound effect on shaping her career. She says of her career path, “Though at first I didn’t focus on a career in law based on my experience in Africa, it has turned out that my interest in Africa has really shaped my legal career. I really see my role as an attorney as more of an advocate for those who cannot effectively advocate for themselves.” Africa has provided ample opportunities for such advocacy.
Her work in Tanzania with Asylum Access ends in April 2010, but she plans to return to Africa – hopefully sooner than 10 years from then. Wolforth says of her experience, “Life here in rural Tanzania is always unexpected. I am always learning something new.”
Her Tanzanian journey is detailed in her public blog: www.dc2tz.blogspot.com.