Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic Wins Asylum Case for Elderly Couple

An elderly couple, who suffered attacks and repeated threats at the hands of radical Muslims, escaped to the United States and sought asylum. With the help of students Ryan Kurtz, J.D. ’14, Christopher Liedl, J.D. ’14, Joelle Milov, J.D. ’12, Lisa Sullivan, J.D. ’13, and the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic arguing their case before the USCIS Asylum Office, the couple was granted asylum in April 2014.

The couple and their children are devout Christians. In their home country, they are well known for their faith and lifetime activism in the church. Striving to help others, the mother went to school for social work and spent her career helping those in need—at risk youths, the elderly, people with disabilities, widows and orphans. Together with her husband, also a devout Christian, they raised their children in the same faith. As a result, the family came under repeated attacks. They were spat at and called “infidels” for wearing the cross; the mother suffered an acid attack, and she and her husband were targeted, beaten, and forced at knifepoint to convert to Islam. In one instance, the couple’s son was kidnapped by radical Muslims, beaten, and left to die in the desert. Fearing for their lives the elderly couple fled to the United States.

Lisa Sullivan, J.D. ’13

Former clinic student and current law clerk in the Southern District of New York, Lisa Sullivan, spent almost the entirety of her time at the clinic working on the case. “Every time we met we would learn more about our clients’ experience growing up and raising their family,” she said. “Because many of the experiences had been traumatic, it was difficult for them to speak openly. But, over time — as we talked about happy aspects of their lives as well as sad ones — they grew to trust us and speak more openly about the terrible events that had driven them from their home,” she said.

The case was argued on the grounds of the couple’s religion and their strong belief in human rights and equal treatment of all people, as well as the authorities’ failure to protect them from harm. Kristen Stilt, who was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, and will be joining the faculty in the fall, served as a country condition expert in the case. The grant of asylum means the couple will be able to apply for their green cards and eventually for citizenship in the United States.