Building on Human Rights Law and compassion for the resettlement of destitute and vulnerable refugees, including families and children, seeking asylum and restored lives.

Deirdre Giblin is an Asylum Attorney at Community Legal Services and Counseling Center in Cambridge. She lives in Winchester with her husband and their three daughters.

Interview with Deirdre Giblin

What led you to choose to be an asylum attorney?

From a young age I learned about the wider world from my parents, and was good at standing up and speaking my mind. When I was nine, I responded to a teacher’s suggestion that I would be a good reporter by saying, “I think I want to be a lawyer.” My parents emigrated from Ireland and had siblings around the world serving as missionaries in Africa, South America and Asia. Their letters arrived with foreign stamps and news of places in the world where children were not as advantaged as most kids in the United States. When I was in high school in the 80s, popular music bands like U2 promoted Amnesty International. In history class we discussed the anniversary of a milestone document – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) first adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948. The Universal Declaration marked the first time countries agreed on a comprehensive statement of inalienable human rights. Then, in 1986, writer and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, was awarded the Noble Peace Prize for his message about survival, peace, atonement and human dignity. Human rights were in the foreground and I was inspired entering college by the idea that one day I could practice law in the area of human rights. While studying pre-law at Boston University, I attended an Amnesty International event on campus, and hearing Kerry Kennedy identify as a human rights lawyer convinced me that that was the job for me. As I entered law school, our government opened the first Asylum Office defining asylum as separate from immigration enforcement. For the first time, a specific core of officers was trained to interview refugees seeking asylum. Though human rights law programs were few and far between when I applied to law school, this was a burgeoning area of the law that I was excited to pursue. I attended Penn Law and a highlight my third year was being a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University where I studied with Louis Henkin, ‘the grandfather of human rights law.’ Henkin was nationally known for seeing the linkage between the US Constitution and international conventions. This linkage between our laws and how they comply with international treaties is pivotal in how one practices human rights law in the US.

In 1998 I was practicing asylum law full time at a refugee resettlement agency. That year, the US ratified the International Convention Against Torture incorporating it into our domestic law. Subsequently, the United Nations provided a fund to support programs helping survivors of torture. I helped establish a Torture Survivors Center providing legal and mental health services in Boston. For the past 20 years this work has been funded by a grant from the UN as well as funding from several foundations: the Mass Bar, the Boston Bar, the Cambridge Foundation, and many generous individual donors.

How do you see your calling and your response to it enriching our common life? How about future dreams?

The foundation underlying everything is humanity. How we treat fellow human beings is important and there are standards that most people agree on. When those standards are breached, two things need to happen: 1) If someone needs to flee their country and get safety in the US, my work provides that; and on a grander scale, 2) this work continues to uphold and enforce human rights that protect our humanity.

Regarding ‘future dreams’, what I am doing now is exactly what I want to do.

When you started working as an asylum attorney what were some of the biggest challenges you faced? Are the challenges different today?

I started at a refugee agency and the biggest challenge was that the caseload was overwhelmingly large. It was a challenge to responsibly manage hundreds of cases. Now, under this new administration, the challenge is that the law and policy have gotten so unkind – it’s changing every day and it’s harsh! The new policies are game changers for refugee families – imagine if I am sitting with a family who would normally go to an interview to seek asylum or process their green card but now they are fearful that they could be arrested at the interview by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Now I have to say, there is a risk. There is a freezing effect on people trying to legalize their status, even though international law protects them. The current initiative of ending immigration status for “dreamers” in addition to refugees is destabilizing. It is sowing distrust in an entire generation!

Where do you see success as a result of your work?

It is not cliché for me to say that success is every time a person’s case is granted and they are granted asylum. That’s what keeps me going. Working in legal services, I serve the destitute. My cases are those of recently arrived refugees, who are mostly homeless and highly vulnerable people, families and children. The relief of being told by our government that they can live safely in America is life changing.

What motivates you to be so willing and open in sharing your experience and understanding of the refugee crisis with the Winchester community?

I’m privileged to be able to share what I do with people who care about this issue. Obviously, more recently there’s a larger awareness of the disenfranchised in our community – those who are in the vulnerable condition that refugees and immigrants are in today. It’s really wonderful that people are interested and want to learn more, and I’m happy to participate in those kinds of discussions.

How has being a woman impacted your work?

As court litigation tends to have more men in the field, I am often in the minority when I’m in the courtroom, but that is changing. I think especially my female clients appreciate having me as their lawyer because they have to talk intimately about things that happened to them that rise to the level of persecution. A lot of those details are really difficult and I try to provide a safe space for them to tell their story. In that sense, being female with my female clients is certainly a plus. There have been times when I have had male clients that I have asked my colleague, a male attorney, to do the interview for the affidavit. Nevertheless, sometimes those male clients would rather tell me because it is less humiliating than telling a man. So there’s no knowing which way that might go – when gender is going to matter. It’s interesting. Some of the harms that happen to people are so intimate and so humiliating that it goes past gender. They know they need to tell somebody in order to get safety and they will tell you no matter what your gender is.

Since this month is the month we are honoring women, who is one woman who has inspired you?

In the 80s when there was great focus on human rights, it was also the time that Mother Teresa became well known and I admired her work. Her selfless service to the least among us was very inspirational to me. In college I studied abroad at Oxford. During my travel in Europe, I volunteered at one of Mother Teresa’s orphanages in Italy. Those memories are vague all these years later, which highlights for me that pivotal issue that I work with daily, which is how memory works over time, and especially for persons who must recall traumatic events. My clients must testify to their stories, and it is amazing to see what memories are blocked, and what details can be recalled vividly. Currently, there are so many discoveries in neuroscience about cognition and memory. A new study is coming out soon about the dramatic impact of the long, brutal Syrian war on the children whose childhoods have been entirely about displacement and trauma. People are re-traumatized in the difficult act of re-telling what happened to them. That’s why it’s important, as someone works through their trauma, to have the support of psychological assistance. Witnessing the fear that refugees experience in going to court is the least favorite part of my job. The vulnerability is palpable. I am with them in their most fearful moments.

Any advice to share?

Asylum arose after WW II and the holocaust and we learned so many lessons from that. The most important of which is to never turn away from people fleeing for their lives and the lives of their children. Asylum started pre-cold war so most “defections” were from Communist countries like Russia or Cuba, and predominantly men. Women fleeing persecution that were gender-specific like rape, were not considered as qualifying for asylum. After WW II during the Nuremburg and Tokyo War Crimes trials, rape was not designated a war crime. It was not until the tribunals in Yugoslavia that rape was finally recognized as a war crime. So asylum for women has come a long way. Gender-based harm like rape, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, honor killings, and domestic violence are now specifically included as grounds for asylum. My specialty area in recent years has been presenting these types of claims, and it’s a great honor to highlight significant strides in women’s rights during Women’s History Month! In any field, I think it’s important to view circumstances through a lens that brings gender and women’s rights into focus.