Seeking Safety for Young Refugees


Seeking Safety for Young Refugees


Seeking Safety for Young Refugees, by Lori Serratelli (Published in the Dauphin County Bar Association December Newsletter)

In January of 2014, a staff attorney with HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Services) contacted me.  HIAS is a non-profit which began assisting the influx of Eastern European Jews fleeing persecution in the late 1800’s.  Over the years, HIAS expanded to assist a myriad of refugees from many different countries.

Gang violence and terrorism is a fact of daily life in many Central American countries.  The refugee crisis there and in Europe is a humanitarian crisis.  When I heard Sarah’s (not her real name) story of how young teenage girl she escaped Guatemala and crossed the border in hopes of joining an elder sibling who had been living in Harrisburg for many years, I could not say no.  HIAS was assisting Sarah with obtaining Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status but she now needed a family lawyer to help her adult sister obtain custody of Sarah.

With the help of a volunteer translator  (in this case, a colleague, Shamaine Daniels, Esquire who is bilingual and an immigration attorney in Harrisburg) I met with Sarah and was able to decipher the atrocious conditions in which she was living, including fear of sexual assault and gang violence.  A gang had killed Sarah’s father.  Her mother had no permanent housing and could not provide her daughter with a safe home.

Through the power of the internet, I was able to send Sarah’s mother a petition, translated into Spanish, along with a consent to allow the adult sister to obtain primary physical and sole legal custody of her minor sibling.  It took some time to accomplish all this and eventually the Petition was filed and the Custody Order was signed.  I was also able to obtain a waiver of the mandatory Seminar in custody matters since there is currently no Spanish version of the seminar offered.

Over the last twelve months, I handled two other cases with similar, heart-breaking fact patterns.  While the work is difficult due to language barriers, and communicating with and serving parents in South America,  I have been able to find translators who will volunteer their services to help me communicate with my client and to translate all the documents in the case.   I have been able to resolve all three cases without hearings since the parents back home in South America were willing to consent to save their children from the continued danger of their birth homes.

HIAS has also done everything possible to assist me. HIAS won SIJ refugee status for the first two cases I handled, and the third case involving a young teenage boy is now pending.   It has been so rewarding to see siblings reunited into a safe community where they are working hard to integrate in school and to learn a new language.

A few months ago, I reached out to Sandy Ballard and to the Family Law section of DCBA to ask my colleagues to consider helping with these cases as they arise.  I am glad to help navigate any volunteer attorney through the process.