Answering the Clarion Call for Refugees in Crisis
Born in Beijing, Wendy Fu (NY/Lit/’09) knows firsthand the sacrifices and struggles of immigrants starting a new life, and she has a passion for social justice. Those are two reasons why she is working for the International Refugee Assistance Project to help refugees facing life-or-death situations reach safety by finding pro bono lawyers to navigate a complex legal system on their behalf.
Wendy Fu is the Pro Bono Manager at IRAP, the International Refugee Assistance Project (formerly the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project), an organization whose mission is to provide comprehensive legal representation to individual refugees seeking resettlement. IRAP has trained more than 4,400 lawyers and successfully resettled more than 3,800 refugees facing life-or-death situations. They include Iraqis and Afghans who are at risk because of their work as interpreters with the U.S. military, as well as children with medical emergencies, women who are survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and survivors of torture.
IRAP created Wendy’s role after the January 2017 Executive Order that banned travelers from a number of Muslim-majority countries. She is in charge of pro bono work and relationships, helping the legal staff place cases more effectively and efficiently. She also develops innovative projects that help clients using pro bono assistance, including supporting IRAP’s litigation department to work with pro bono attorneys to challenge both the travel and refugee bans.
For Wendy, this job fulfills her goal since law school of working for social justice, by assisting vulnerable people who need help navigating the legal system. But it does more than that – aiding immigrants and refugees resonates with her so strongly because she and her family are immigrants themselves. She was born in Beijing and her family moved to Texas on her father’s student visa when she was about 7 years old, later relocating to San Diego during her high school years.
She went to Berkeley for undergrad and then to Cornell for law school. “I was the first lawyer of my family, of my friends, of my entire community, so it was definitely uncharted territory for me but seemed like a good way to impact the world -- through law and through policies.”
She knows the struggles and sacrifices her own family went through to come here. That personal immigrant experience gives her great empathy for IRAP’s clients, whose “incredible stories” inspire her. Many of those clients are in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, where they are vulnerable and face danger, and are in the midst of a long, arduous process of applying for resettlement. That requires winning at multiple stages of adjudication and, if the individual is coming to the United States, passing the background checks of about nine different U.S. security agencies – all before being allowed to step foot on U.S. soil.
Wendy has great respect for the resourcefulness and resilience of IRAP clients who “apart from the persecution and violence they already face back home, are stuck in limbo for a very long time.” In fact, she says, “what I – along with everyone at IRAP – like to keep in mind is that you are not helping a victim. You are helping somebody who is a survivor and who has gone through things that I don’t know if I could make it through.” When they do make it through and get to start their life in Omaha or Houston or Dallas, “it’s not that they couldn’t survive. It’s that they had to navigate an incredibly complex legal system and just needed some help. The help of a really good lawyer who could advocate on their behalf to get them to safety.”
Weil and IRAP: A special relationship
At Weil, Wendy says, she learned to be not just a good lawyer but also a good team player and professional. She worked on internal investigations into possible antitrust claims and found it fascinating. But the matter that really stood out for her was the asylum case of a young man from Guatemala who had escaped gang violence, had made it to the United States and was living in New York. The case lasted seven years, cycling through many Weil associates, but Wendy was the one who got to see it to its successful completion. “It was just incredibly satisfying because he was an amazing young man who had overcome so much in his life and it was a huge relief for him to finally receive some certainty on his immigration status.”
Weil has many teams of attorneys working with students from various law schools to assist IRAP, and Wendy helps manage those teams. She understands “the immense amount of resources and dedication that a firm like Weil has for the public good.” As she thought about transitioning out of Weil, she focused on doing something that would allow her to leverage corporate and law firm resources for a social justice mission. Pro bono fit perfectly with that.”
Since 2011, Weil has been one of IRAP’s principal pro bono partners, with upwards of 50 cases, the most of any law firm. And thanks to Miriam Buhl, Weil’s Pro Bono Counsel and a major figure in the pro bono world, the connection is very strong and personal: “I work with Weil all the time. I talk to Miriam all the time. She is a professional mentor, a board member and a pro bono partner. We are always placing projects, and I always bounce ideas off of her and then get to interact with the associates and partners who take our cases.”
Weil attorneys who have worked on IRAP matters include partners Rich Rothman, Jackie Cohen, Annemargaret Connolly, Corey Chivers and John Neuwirth, and associates Charles Driscoll and Niral Shah.
How can associates make time for pro bono? That issue is always in her mind: “I remember what is was like to be an associate at Weil. I remember feeling like I did not have time for pro bono or even sometimes for seeing friends. So I very much understand why an associate at any level would hesitate to take on any voluntary work.” One solution is “to create pro bono projects that are bite-size or flexible in terms of commitment.” If an associate can only do a clinic or a five-hour research project, that is “tremendously useful to our organization and our clients.” The satisfaction, she says, makes it all worthwhile in the end.
For the immigrants, moving to America is itself a big adjustment – as it was for Wendy in the early ’90s when there were few Asian-Americans in Dallas. “I remember having a conversation with my mother about how everything was so different, wondering why the trees looked so different from the ones back home and thinking that the square pizza from elementary school lunch was really weird.”
Now she gets to aid others making that journey. As she says, “I have always been passionate about helping others to realize the American dream.”