When the new Liberal government decided a year ago to throw wide open the doors to 25,000 Syrian refugees and settle them as residents of Canada, many of our country’s lawyers decided they, too, should respond to the call of humanity.
Dozens of refugee and immigration lawyers in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and other cities and towns across Canada have formed their own benevolent legal associations and are working to help the current flood of Syrian refugee families arriving in our country. The refugees need legal help and the lawyers are happy to do it and for free.
Welcome to Canada.
Therefore, I was hardly surprised when a mother who is a Syrian refugee approached me the other day and said, “I didn’t know lawyers work for free in your country.”
I replied: “Unfortunately, they don’t. Why do you ask?”
She said a Canadian lawyer had offered to help her for free with the refugee documents she had to sign.
“Yes, it’s all legal,” I explained.
The lawyers bring in their legal partners, articling students, law students and lawyers from other firms they know. It’s all pro bono.
Some are the best lawyers we have. Law professors bring in law students. When your law prof asks you to help out on a special project, you don’t say no. The lawyers feel they owe it to Syrian refugee families who barely got out of the Middle East with their lives. Some lost part of their families, others struggled several years to stay alive in refugee camps.
There’s nothing delightful about being a refugee.
Refugees need all sorts of things when they get here — housing, schooling, health care, jobs, transportation, social integration, language training. Choosing suitable rental accommodation is not easy when you can’t even read the language on the lease, never mind figuring out the fine print. A lawyer can help a lot. The same goes with finding the right school for the kids or figuring out how to calculate the compound interest on a credit card.
Denise Workun is a partner with Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP in Ottawa. She specializes in human rights and employment law. Back in 2006, she co-ordinated a human rights and judicial law reform project with the Legal Studies Institute of El Salvador. For this sponsorship group, she has put together a team of 62 Canadians, including lawyers, legal experts, doctors, social workers and language teachers. They have brought in two Syrian families and two more extended families are on the way.
Arghavan Gerami is another Ottawa immigration lawyer. She is the founder and managing director of Gerami Law PC, a respected legal firm specializing in helping refugees. Gerami graduated first in her class with a Bachelor of Arts at York University and later received her Juris Doctor and Master of Laws degrees at Osgoode Hall. She was called to the Ontario Bar in 2007. She founded Gerami Law in 2011 and focused her practice on immigration and refugee law, specializing in judicial review cases, stay of removal motions and immigration appeals.
Gerami is on the board of the Refugee Lawyers Association and the Litigation Committee of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. She has taken part in several parliamentary committee presentations on immigration, refugee and citizenship bills.
“We know there are a lot of public groups helping Syrian refugees,” she says proudly. Hers is but one of them. And with the federal government promising to let in more Syrian refugees next year, there will be a need for more willing lawyers and legal experts.
Gerami says helping refugees the way Canadian lawyers are pulling together to form teams to help refugee families is “the most rewarding work a lawyer can do.”
Toronto lawyer Barbara Jackman is one of the best immigration lawyers in the country. Her team of lawyers has spent a lot of time in the past year filling out forms for Syrian refugees.
“We had additional work to do filling out forms for those who didn’t get to come over with relatives,” she says. “Normally, the people are in a queue to get in, and a skilled worker can almost always be landed faster.”
Jackman says citizens, not governments, did “most of the heavy lifting bringing in refugees.”
She hopes things go as well again next year. Another 30,000 are expected.
Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill. His email address is email@example.com.