Hassan Abdi Soyan and his three children were homeless for four months after a fire in their home. Soyan is one of 118 clients to receive services over the past eight months from Legal Aid Staff Attorney Greger Calhan at Isuroon, a nonprofit that focuses on the public health needs of East African women and families. Generously funded by the Pat and Tom Grossman Family Fund of the Minnesota Community Foundation, Legal Aid’s clinic at Isuroon delivers legal help and advice through an embedded community services model.
The housing manager blamed Soyan for the fire – although no one was home when it happened, and the police found no evidence of negligence. Soyan, who is widowed and has been in the United States for only three years, had to split up the family. He and his children stayed with relatives and relied on the Red Cross for clothing and basic supplies. When Soyan refused to sign a document taking responsibility for the fire, a friend suggested Isuroon’s legal clinic.
“The goal of the Isuroon partnership is not only to provide concrete services to individuals who need them, but to show Muslim immigrants that they are welcome here,” says Calhan. “We want to help the community navigate the complexities they encounter, and understand the rights afforded to them.
“The need for legal services has become a way of life these days,” says Isuroon founder and Executive Director Fartun Weli. “The clinic is part of our holistic approach, delivering culturally appropriate comprehensive social services at a one-stop shop.”
The legal clinic has seen a sharp uptick in traffic as the proposed travel ban has stoked fear and uncertainty in the immigrant community. Fears of being separated indefinitely from family members who are trapped in impoverished refugee camps overseas, along with a widespread sense of rising discrimination, have resulted in a flood of new clients.
“Much of the anxiety is justified,” says Calhan. “But some is based on misunderstanding about the law and what actions the government can actually take.”
In addition to a diverse immigration docket, Calhan sees cases involving housing and tenant rights, tax, consumer and family law, and other legal concerns. He relies on close collaboration with Isuroon staff and volunteers.
“People suffer when they feel like nothing more than a number,” says Weli. “Anxiety is a serious impediment to public health – how can you function with cortisol pumping through your veins 24 hours a day? We’re thinking about justice, sure, but even more we’re looking at how access to justice impacts people’s lives. Our work is relational, not transactional. When clients come here, they have a cup of tea, they work with people they trust, and they feel respected.”
Soyan received a call from Greger a week after they met, with good news. The housing manager agreed to give him temporary housing, and to let him move back into his home when the repairs were complete.
“In my entire life, I’ll never forget how this guy helped me,” says Soyan. “Every time I saw my children they’d ask, ‘My father, when can we be together again?’ We’re together now, and next month we’ll move home.”
“The legal clinic means anxiety reduction, sharing of information and transfer of knowledge,” says Weli. “Real empowerment happens not with money, but with individual attention and respect.” Leykn Schmatz