As a part of our Lawyer Do-Gooder special issue, we sat down with Catherine E. van Kampen with Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann. Catherine currently serves on the boards of two international NGOs that serve refugees and displaced persons in the Middle East and Africa and rescue exploited and trafficked women. She is also very active in bar associations.
AALM: Tell us about your pro bono work with refugees.
CK: In law school, I was a legal intern at Seton Hall’s Center for Social Justice Immigration Law Clinic, where I worked with asylum seekers. Since then, I have been deeply committed to advocating for the legal rights of refugees and have tried to champion social change and justice on their behalf.
As a member of the New York City Bar Association’s United Nations Committee and African Affairs Committee, I spearhead their International Law Conference on the Status of Women, Pro Bono Engagement Fair, EPIQ Women Awards and Huntington Her Hero Awards. This conference is now in its fourth year. At this event, we try to address issues related to gender-based discrimination, violence and other critical systematic issues related to institutional bias. We feature guests who are experts on refugee issues and the current challenges refugees are facing.
AALM: Tell us about your work with the United Nations Foundation USA.
CK: In 2021, I was named a Global Goals Ambassador for Clean Water and Sanitation by the United Nations Foundation USA, and organization that supports the legacy work of Eleanor Roosevelt. In this role, I promoted the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, especially with respect to the need for universal access to clean water and education regarding proper hygiene. I had previously worked with Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of Jacques Cousteau and founder of the Ocean Futures Society, on children’s ocean educational programs. So, in some ways this continued my advocacy for clean water.
AALM: Tell us about the NGOs you work with. Of the work they’re doing, what are you most proud of?
CK: I currently serve as a legal advisor to the Bring Hope Humanitarian Foundation USA, which delivers aid to refugees; Free A Girl USA, which rescues women and children from sexual exploitation; Netherlands Helps Yezidis, which supports the Yezidi community in the Netherlands and Iraq; Yezidi Legal Network, which supports the legal needs of the Yezidi community; and the Female Advocacy Foundation International, which supports women and girls causes. I am inspired by seeing humanitarian workers coming together for the greater good of humanity. We need more people to join us in these efforts!
The project I am most proud of is the Yezidi Genocide Justice Project (yezidigenocidejusticecampaign.org), through which an international team of lawyers and human rights activists are supporting terrorism victims and fighting for their legal rights. This project deals directly with the online cyber exploitation and human trafficking of religious and ethnic minorities by terrorist groups, which use human trafficking as a means of community intimidation and as a major source of revenue. Often times, persons who are being human trafficked are sold more than once.
AALM: Tell us more about SHESOURCE and your legal expert role.
CK: SHESOURCE is an online database established by the Women’s Media Center to connect female experts with journalists. The Women’s Media Center was founded by Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Robin Morgan. In 2020, I became a SHESOURCE legal expert advocating for the needs of immigrant and refugee women, especially with respect to the dangers of sexual violence they face. In the past year, I have also co-authored two in-depth legal articles on human trafficking of refugee women and children for an international journal.
AALM: Tell us about a specific person whose life was positively impacted by your work and why they stand out in your mind.
CK: For more than a decade, I assisted women who were in desperate situations due to their undocumented immigration status to get them legal help and improve their lives. Those were rewarding pro bono cases mainly referred to me by friends or other lawyers. This work included mail-away brides brought to the USA and then abandoned, torture victims, wives abused and abandoned by their husbands, imprisoned immigrants and other very desperate cases.
AALM: How has your humanitarian work impacted your life?
CK: My humanitarian work has profoundly changed my understanding of what human beings can and should do for one another. I’m certain I’ll continue with it for the rest of my life.
AALM: How have you come to be involved in your projects? Are you looking to work on new projects?
CK: Since I’ve been involved with immigrant and refugee women’s issues for over 25 years, I’ve met many people running global NGOs. I’m sometimes asked to volunteer and sometimes seek out service positions. I am pretty booked for the next two years. So I’m not currently seeking additional work.
AALM: Of the many honors you’ve received for your humanitarian work, which are you most proud to have received and why?
CK: I was incredibly honored to receive the New Jersey State Governor’s Jefferson Award for Public Service – Ambassador’s Medal in 2018 for my international humanitarian and pro bono work with refugees. This award is issued by the Jefferson Awards Foundation, which was founded by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and is considered America’s highest honor for public service bestowed by the United States Senate. As a New Jersey native and resident, it was a tremendous honor to be recognized by the New Jersey Governor for my work with Iraqi and Syrian refugees.
AALM: Are there any humanitarians you look up to and aspire to emulate in your good works?
CK: I admire to Nadia Murad, a Yezidi woman who was stolen from her family and held as a prisoner of war by ISIS. Nadia, the author of The Last Girl, was tortured along with thousands of other Yezidis in Iraq and Syria. She escaped from ISIS and has spent the last eight years fighting for the rights of Yezidis and other minorities who are targeted for their religion. Nadia was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2018. I met her last year. She inspires me every day to help others in need.
I also admire Consolee Nishimwe, who at age 14 survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi. She suffered physical and emotional torture during her three months in hiding. Today, Consolee is a committed speaker on the Rwandan genocide, a defender of women’s rights and an advocate for other genocide survivors. I highly recommend her memoir, Tested to the Limit: A Genocide Survivor’s Story of Pain, Resilience and Hope. She is a now a dear friend as we have worked on projects together.
My New York City Bar Association colleague, Jacqueline Murekatete, is an internationally recognized genocide survivor and human rights activist. Born in Rwanda, Jacqueline was nine years old when she lost her parents, all six siblings and most of her extended family to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Jacqueline founded the Genocide Survivors Foundation (GSF) as vehicle to continue her genocide prevention efforts and raise support for fellow genocide survivors.
AALM: How do you balance your legal practice and home life along with your humanitarian work?
CK: I commit to doing at least one hour of service every day, which can be pro bono work, bar association work or supporting service work at my law firm. Having a daily practice of service allows me to achieve a great deal each year. My family knows this work is important to me, and I sometimes bring them along to events so they can see the good I’m doing.
AALM: Is there anything you would like to add?
CK: I encourage all lawyers to commit to pro bono work aligned with their values. Pro bono is a gift to yourself as much as a gift of service to others. It will enrich your legal practice, expand your skill set, broaden your professional network and deepen your appreciation of the impact that you can make on your community.
My message to my fellow attorneys is to use your precious time and your unique talents to go out and do a world of good – The world needs all of us to do more good!