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Joan Kuriansky: Celebrating the Work of Our Volunteers

Joan Kuriansky, The Advocates For Human Rights Volunteer Award Recipient

The work done by The Advocates for Human Rights is fueled by its team of talented volunteers. One of these volunteers is Joan Kuriansky, a Washington D.C.­–based lawyer, with a strong commitment to women’s rights work, domestic violence issues, and human rights advocacy. Kuriansky began volunteering with The Advocates in the late 1990s and, ever since, has been a consistent volunteer. I recently had the chance to speak with Kuriansky about her career, including her work with The Advocates.

Moments into the interview, Kuriansky’s passion for human rights advocacy became evident as she excitedly explained to me about some of her past jobs and projects. “It is a lot of fun for me to do this work. I have been involved, especially with the issue of domestic violence, since 1978,” she told me. Kuriansky was the co-founder of a battered women’s program in DC, My Sister’s Place, she ran a legal center in Philadelphia protecting domestic violence victims, and she worked on the passage of the Violence Against Women Act.

Throughout her time volunteering for The Advocates, Kuriansky has worked on a number of different projects. Her first project was in Ukraine providing advocates with domestic violence training. Kuriansky then conducted an in-depth study in Armenia related to domestic violence issues. The report consisted of interviews with attorneys, prosecutors, advocates, and government officials. “And that was my introduction to the work of The Advocates. Already, I was impressed with the way they structured their training, the relationships they were forming, and the breadth of the work,” Kuriansky told me during our interview. Her report was later used to inform future advocacy work of The Advocates in Armenia.

One of Kuriansky’s favorite parts of volunteering with The Advocates is being a part of their annual United Nations Study-Advocacy trip to Geneva. Since 2016, Kuriansky has been an integral member of The Advocates team of volunteers that lobbies at the United Nations. She has co-facilitated panel discussions, delivered a short presentation to the full body of the Human Rights Commission, sat in on country hearings, and met with special rapporteurs and individual delegates from around the world. Kuriansky credits The Advocates for the impact that she has been able to have in Geneva:

“It was because of the extraordinary preparation of The Advocates’ staff that we, as volunteers, could be useful and, I hope, effective. It would not have been possible for us to have had the impact that we did, if we did not have the very well-developed materials and instructions about how to go forward with meeting with these different delegates.”

She noted that many of the team’s recommendations have been incorporated into official comments to various countries under review and some countries have even directly implemented their recommendations:

“In one instance we saw a country increase its funding for domestic violence programs. We also saw that certain laws were changed in keeping with the recommendations. In another instance, moving from law to administration, we saw where a country reorganized its response to domestic violence and the role that the different members of the legal community would play in that regard.”

Currently, Kuriansky is working with The Advocates on various shadow reports, including one on the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on domestic violence. Kuriansky’s shadow report is particularly focused on the D.C. metropolitan area.

When I asked Kuriansky why she chooses to volunteer to with The Advocates, her answer was simple. She told me that she enjoyed the direct application of the work. She praised The Advocates’ advocacy skills:

“One of the great aspects of The Advocates in my mind, is their ability to present information in a way that is compelling, raises hard issue that could otherwise be responded to very defensively by a country but, because of the methodology and on the ground support, the recommendations that come from The Advocates … are taken very seriously and sometimes you don’t find that is the case if a country believes that the outside groups, which are coming in to “criticize” them, are not very respectful of the people in it.”

Kuriansky is a model volunteer – longstanding, enthusiastic, dedicated, passionate, and knowledgeable – and is a role model for many. Just as Kuriansky credits The Advocates with being effective change makers, The Advocates credit her with helping to actualize that change.

By Jenna Schulman, University of Pennsylvania sophomore and active volunteer for The Advocates For Human Rights.

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.

The Advocates Submits Testimony Supporting COVID-19 Relief for All Minnesotans

The Advocates for Human Rights calls on the State of Minnesota to lead in supporting communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government has provided crucial assistance to some families, but that legislation excludes many members of our communities. For example, the Federal CARES Act restricts stimulus funds from many mixed-status families; unemployment benefits are not available for many self-employed or undocumented workers; and additional federal benefits have gaps, such as students who cannot file for themselves but also may not be counted as dependents by their families. These gaps place individuals in vulnerable positions where they may be forced to remain in abusive or exploitative relationships or employment situations and mean that Minnesotans will become homeless due the pandemic, prolonging its consequences.

As a leader working to reduce violence against women and human trafficking, The Advocates knows all too well the multiplier effects economic vulnerabilities have on our communities. Minnesota can only thrive if we are all thriving. COVID-19 is a public health emergency that does not discriminate. Therefore, our emergency funding and legislation must not discriminate either.

HF 4611 and its companion would ensure Minnesotans work together to get through this crisis together. We call on our leaders in the Minnesota legislature to pass the following bills and continue to guarantee that we remain the North Star that promotes community.

The Advocates for Human Rights supports HF 4611 and SF 4540. The communities with whom we work, specifically asylum seekers, victims of human trafficking, and unaccompanied youth, are particularly vulnerable during these uncertain times. Yet, many of them are not yet eligible to receive federal benefits because their applications are slowly processing within a non-functional immigration system. While the law allows asylum seekers to obtain a social security number and employment card after their application for asylum has been pending for 180 days, that system is delayed in issuing employment cards. In addition, people with valid asylum claims were facing waits of many months to many years before an asylum interview—and more than two years for a decision on their asylum case. Trafficking victims are entitled under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to federal benefits during the investigation and processing of their case; however, the current administration has tightened the circumstances in which one may access those benefits—leaving bona fide trafficking victims without work authorization for at least 18 months while they await adjudication of their T visa application. As a result of these obstacles, many of the most vulnerable in our society lack access to public benefits and are ineligible for relief under the CARES act due to their uncertain immigration status—despite having bona fide claims for eventual protections should the immigration system timely and fairly process their applications.

Leaving these individuals out of access to basic needs does not mean that they leave our community. Instead, it means that they may turn to unsafe relationships to survive. They may be forced to undertake unsafe work or go to work even when sick. Others who may have had viable means of support through businesses or home ownership may default if excluded from stopgap measures during this time. And, without sufficient support, many will get sick—thereby negating our laudable efforts toward flattening the curve and reducing the burden on our healthcare resources.

The United States has recognized the human right to health, the right to seek asylum, the rights of trafficking victims to obtain protection and justice, and the rights of workers to basic human rights. Minnesota has been a leader in deepening these protections and providing meaningful access to all its community members. These bills represent a crucial step toward giving these principals effect during one of the most challenging times facing our community.

Written Statement for the Record of The Advocates for Human Rights
Minnesota Legislature, House Ways and Means Committee
May 14, 2020 Hearing on HF 4611 (SF 4540) 

Updates – Supporting Victim/Survivors of Domestic Violence during the COVID-19 Pandemic

What’s New? The following article provides updates to our previous blog published March 26, 2020.

On April 30, 2020, Governor Walz issued Executive Order 20-48, which extended the Stay Home Order until May 18. The order is intended to continue to slow the spread of the virus, while allowing some people to return to work. In particular, this order allows retail businesses and non-critical businesses to resume operations with curbside pick-up.

In response to the Governor’s order, The Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea issued another order that extends the limited physical access to courthouses until May 18. Parties are encouraged to use virtual technology, when possible, to conduct hearings and all jury trials are suspended until at least June 1, 2020.

How does the new order affect victim/survivors of domestic violence?

Like previous orders, Minnesotans can leave their homes if they are unsafe, call 911 and/or seek and obtain emergency services. Victim/survivors can also file for a Harassment Restraining Order (HRO) or an Order for Protection (OFP). Judges will issue emergency orders if an imminent risk of physical harm exists.  A hearing may be scheduled if the judge determines that the emergency order creates a public or personal safety concern that must be addressed.

Domestic violence shelters remain open, and domestic violence advocates remain “critical sector workers,” under the Governor’s order. Shelter availability may be more limited due to more social-distancing within shelters. Call 1.866.223.1111 to find a shelter and services in your area.

How do I know if my hearing will be conducted remotely?

If you are a party to a case, the Court will contact you about the scheduling and manner of the hearing. You should contact either district court administration of the assigned judicial officer if you have received information yet.

Hennepin County District Court at (612) 348-6000 Ramsey County District Court at (651) 266-8266 Washington County District Court at (651) 430-6263 Stearns County District Court at (320) 656-3620

If you can wait up to 3 business days for a response, you may send an email. My hearing will be conducted remotely. How should I prepare?

The MN Judicial Branch advises all participants to follow these best practices for remote hearings that are held both with audio and video or else audio (telephone) only:

  • Find a quiet, well-lit place for clear and distraction-free audio and video. Turn off TVs, radios, and phone notifications. If there are others around you, try moving to a room with a door you can close.
  • If joining by video, find your device’s video camera and make sure it is uncovered. Position the camera at eye level so others can see you clearly.
  • If possible, make sure your device is plugged into a power source and not running only off battery power.
  • Dress in solid colors, and be mindful of what is behind you.
  • Use headphones, if possible, for the best sound quality and the fewest background noises.
  • Mute yourself when not speaking.
  • Identify yourself each time you speak.  The court reporter may not be able to identify individual speakers without identification.
  • Speak one at a time and pause before speaking in case there is audio or video lag.  Do not interrupt.  The court reporter can only take down one voice at a time.
  • Enter your first and last name when you join. If you are an attorney, identify which party you represent. For example, Joan Lawyer, Attorney for the Petitioner.

For more information, visit the MN Judicial Branch’s webpage on remote hearings.

Featured

This is No Ordinary Mother’s Day

Sarah Brenes with her mother, a nurse, on “Take Your Daughter to Work Day”

This is my first Mother’s Day without my mama. I am reminded of her every day, as I follow the news about healthcare professionals on the frontline of caring for the sick and neighbors making masks. My mom was a nurse and knew how to sew—both skills have proven essential during this current pandemic. I went into law, not healthcare, and can barely sew a button. Like many working mothers, I try to have patience with myself during these unusual times, as it feels as if the Coronavirus took the seesaw that is work/life balance and threw it up into a windstorm. I keep reminding myself that so long as we are safe and healthy at home, I just need to hold on tight and ride out the storm. For many of the mothers we serve as part of our work at The Advocates for Human Rights serving asylum seekers, the storm of upheaval is much greater before things return to normal. This Mother’s Day, I pause to acknowledge the extraordinary resilience that many of our clients are required to demonstrate in order to return to, or perhaps begin, the ordinary task of motherhood.

I recall my first asylum interview with a client when I returned to work after giving birth to my daughter, Cecilia.

Sarah’s daughter, Cecilia, dancing in a dress sewn by her mother and grandmother

The client was a prominent journalist in her home country. She had an accomplished career covering all topics, including politics. Her work covering corrupt practices heading up to the country’s presidential elections eventually resulted in her being targeted and raped by government officials for reporting on its corrupt acts. She learned she was pregnant after arriving in the U.S. — her son just a few months older than my daughter.  

I was raised in a white middle-class family in the 1980’s. My mom was a daughter of the 50’s. As a high schooler, the only extracurricular my mom could participate in was cheerleading. Less than 10% of women had college degrees by the time she started nursing school. I was raised with new doors opened under Title IX and my mom was committed to enrolling me in every sport, musical activity and academic extracurricular that she could. I went on to graduate college and earn my law degree, when women were approaching 50% of law graduates (there is still a long way to go on equality in the profession, but that is for another blog). I managed to start a family while in law school and was in step with many of my peers, nimbly managing work and home life. My life experience could not be more different from my client’s, yet we were connected by our womanhood, our motherhood and our desire to pursue a meaningful career.

I remember preparing the client for her interview.  Having the privilege of not knowing what it was like to be violated by government officials, I did not know how she managed to carry the weight of that horror alongside her unborn child, or welcome this new innocent life into the world, having come from one of the darkest places of humanity.

In unlawyer-like fashion, I broke down during my closing statement. The pain and suffering this client endured for her allegedly political acts as a journalist were undeniable. It was a slam dunk, as far as the legal case was concerned. Yet I could not hold back tears as I pleaded that the officer grant her case swiftly, “so that she can know that she is safe here and can just focus on being a mom.”

In 2019, we saw an unprecedented number of pregnant women come to The Advocates for help. Some fled in order to protect their unborn daughters from female genital mutilation (FGM). Others were pregnant from rape, by a partner, a government official or a gang member who ordered her to visit him for conjugal visits. Other mothers fled alone, leaving children behind, to be reared by family or friends, or whom they would struggle to remain connected with, mothering from afar.  

International Human Rights Law as it relates to refugees is premised on the simple goal of protecting families and individuals who face life-threatening harm to the point it is no longer safe to remain in their home country. Over the years, the U.S. has complicated the rules to limit those protections and access to the process to seek it.

We have jailed mothers with their children, separated moms from their babies, added to the checklist of en route requirements before seeking protection in the United States and most recently moved and then closed the door where mothers can ask lady liberty for protection for themselves and their families. We have turned on mother’s who are beaten and limited the definition of “family” in pursuit of limiting who can find safety in the U.S. when there was none at home.

All of this has made extraordinary the work of ordinary attorneys who volunteer with us to help the over 600 asylum seekers we provide free legal services to each year.  

Things are not quite normal for anyone these days, but this Mother’s Day I am safe at home…with my family. For most clients, this most simple wish is what they hope to come true when they come in to seek our help. To be safe; to have a place to call home; to be with your family–these most basic human rights are what drive us to keep coming to work, even if we have to stay home.   

Masks sewn by Sarah’s neighbors, made from Sarah’s mom’s quilt fabrics

If you are an ordinary attorney who wants to do extraordinary work, join our volunteer team.  If you speak another language, join our volunteer interpreter network.  If you want to help us make mother’s day an ordinary celebration for our clients, donate to support our work.

By Sarah Brenes, Director of the Refugee & Immigration Program at The Advocates For Human Rights

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals. 

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Remaining the North Star During A Pandemic

The Advocates calls on the State of Minnesota to lead in supporting communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The Federal Government has provided crucial assistance to some families, but that legislation excludes many members of our communities.  For example, the Federal CARES Act restricts stimulus funds from many mixed-status families; unemployment benefits are not available for many self-employed or undocumented workers; and additional federal benefits have gaps, such as students who cannot file for themselves but also may not be counted as dependents by their families.  These gaps place individuals in vulnerable positions where they may be forced to remain in abusive or exploitative relationships or employment situations and mean that Minnesotans will become homeless due the pandemic, prolonging its consequences.  As a leader working to reduce violence against women and human trafficking, The Advocates knows all too well the multiplier effects economic vulnerabilities have on our communities.  Minnesota can only thrive if we are all thriving.  COVID-19 is a public health emergency that does not discriminate.  Therefore, our emergency funding and legislation must not discriminate either.   

Luckily, several important bills have been introduced that would ensure Minnesotans work together to get through this crisis together.  We call on our leaders in the Minnesota legislature to pass the following bills and continue to guarantee that we remain the North Star that promotes community.   

Please call or write your legislators and encourage them to support SF 4540/HF 4611 on Emergency Community Relief Grants and SF 4495/HF 4541 on Protection from Eviction and Foreclosure

SF 4540 and HF 4611, which would provide $50 million for emergency community relief grants that would allow eligible nonprofit organizations to make grants to individuals experiencing financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.  Individuals would be eligible for up to $1,500 if they are not eligible to receive other state or federal emergency relief.  These bills will support those who cannot receive unemployment benefits such as self-employed or non-citizen individuals; those who would not receive unemployment benefits at a rate that is commensurate with their earnings, such as tipped employees whose earnings do not accurately reflect income; and individuals such as adult dependents, minor or college-aged dependents, or others who were not required to file taxes for the past two years, and adults who are elderly or disabled but are not receiving Social Security benefits.  The grants would be specifically targeted to pay for food, emergency household items, rent support, utility bills, and other similar expenses

SF 4495 and HF 4541, which provide protection from eviction or foreclosure during a public health emergency, and which provide funding to help cover housing expenses due to COVID-19.  These bills not only protect homeowners or renters without status and mixed-status households, but also reduce risk of trafficking and other harms that might occur should someone be forced to either remain in dangerous situations/relationships to meet rent/mortgage payments or face homelessness where they are more likely to become victims of crimes. The bill also ensures security in the housing market by reducing foreclosures and maintaining homeownership by Minnesotans.  To be eligible for funding, applicants must: (1) have a public-health-related emergency; (2) have a specific housing-related payment due March 1, 2020, or later, that is past due; (3) be unable to pay the money owed because of the public health emergency; and (4) be a household, with a current gross income under 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines at the time of application or as averaged over the previous 12 months, whichever is lower. 

By Lindsey Greising, Staff Attorney for The Advocates for Human Rights

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.