Legal Aid Helps Refugees On Path to Citizenship
Legal Aid helps refugees on path to citizenship
July, 2011 – Immigrant clients have always been an important part of The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland’s history and legacy – many of Legal Aid’s first clients in 1905 were recent immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Poland. More than one hundred years later, Legal Aid serves many refugee clients immigrating to the United States from countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. They come to the United States because of a well-founded fear of persecution in their home country. In addition to helping with an immigration case, Legal Aid helps immigrants with a variety of other civil matters, ensuring safety, shelter and access to the justice system.
Louise Mugongo, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a former Legal Aid client. DR Congo, which has seen decades of violent conflict between various factions, has been called the center of “Africa’s world war.” The fighting caused Ms. Mugongo and her husband Pfukama Sebazungu to flee to the refugee camps of Zambia. Ms. Mugongo worked as a nurse in the camp’s HIV clinic. Mr. Sebazungu tried to find work as an aviation engineer, but faced continual harassment from employers and colleagues because of his Congolese background. The couple’s best option for a stable life was to emigrate to the United States as refugees.
Meanwhile, Tom Mrosko, Director of Cleveland’s Catholic Charities Office of Migration and Refugee Services, had traveled to Zambia to conduct research. Catholic Charities partners frequently with Legal Aid to provide access to justice for immigrants – especially refugees. By chance, he was working in the same room of the same clinic where Ms. Mugongo screened patients for HIV. After a few days working side-by-side, Mr. Mrosko learned Ms. Mugongo’s story. He told her he was unable to get her to the United States, but if she ever immigrated, she was welcome to settle in Cleveland.
In 2006, Ms. Mugongo and Mr. Sebazungu were finally granted refugee status by the U.S. government. They were offered a choice between Las Vegas and Cleveland. The couple didn’t know anyone in Las Vegas. They knew Mr. Mrosko in Cleveland. Working under the auspices of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities annually helps 300 refugees find housing, clothing, furniture and employment. Mr. Mrosko says, “They are forced from their homes, they are resettled, and that’s where the U.S. steps in. This is the last step on their journey.” Catholic Charities also helped the couple connect with Legal Aid, for help with adjustment-of-status. Legal Aid’s Volunteer Lawyers Program hosted a clinic at which Ms. Mugongo and Mr. Sebazungu received help from the C. Lyonel Jones Pro Bono Immigration Committee.
Now the couple has a two-year old daughter, Jane, and recently naturalized to become full-fledged U.S. Citizens. In 2010, Ms. Mugongo graduated cum laude with a nursing degree from Cleveland State University. Ms. Mugongo reflects on the past several years and says simply, “This has been a big blessing.”