Azin Ahmadi, the Legal Project’s Equal Justice Works fellow, saw a need and is trying to make a difference
By Rebecca Carballo
Published 4:41 pm EDT, Wednesday, September 25, 2019
Photo: Lori Van Buren, Albany Times Union

Azin Ahmadi, an immigration attorney, is seen in her office at The Legal Project Office on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019 in Albany, N.Y. Ahmadi runs a program that focuses on providing resources to muslim immigrants.
ALBANY — Azin Ahmadi knows all about starting over.

When she was five years old she left her home country, Iran, for Germany and later immigrated to the U.S. where she is now an immigration lawyer who is helpings others to make America their new home.
Her own personal experience has helped her relate to some of the clients she sees today.

“The anxiety I felt when I was five never went away from me,” Ahmadi said. “I know what it’s like to be an immigrant and be seen as an immigrant. You don’t know the customs and the language; it’s a universal experience that we all face.”

While working for the Legal Project, an Albany-based not-for-profit that helps people access protections of the law, she counsels people from all different backgrounds. However, there was one population in particular that she felt faced “gaps in service”: Muslim immigrants coping with domestic violence.
This is why she’s creating a program specifically designed for this demographic, where she will point them toward resources such as social services and shelters and provide direct legal representation. Overall, she said there is a lack of outreach to this population.

“Many people don’t know there is relief out there for them,” Ahmadi said.

For instance, many immigrants might not know they have social services available to them like food stamps and Medicaid, especially in the wake of new public charge laws, Ahmadi said. However, she points out that asylum seekers are exempt from public charge determinations, and she can help her clients figure out what programs they are eligible for.

She’s developed the project as part of Equal Justice Works fellowship, a national program that partners with organizations like the Legal Project across the country. It’s a two year fellowship, but she said she would like to continue the work even after that time is up.

She said like many immigrants, those in the Muslim community can face isolation and language barriers among other obstacles. She hopes her program will help break down some of those barriers.

Ahmadi, who is a native Farsi speaker, can have conversations with clients from Iran or Afghanistan without a translator. Beyond overcoming language barriers, she said her understanding of the culture in general has helped her relate to her clients.

It even brought one of her clients to tears. She said sometimes Muslim culture can be misunderstood and even demonized, and one client took comfort in the fact that wouldn’t happen with Ahmadi.
“She told me: ‘You understand. You won’t attribute my husband’s violence to my religion,'”Ahmadi said of the client.

Programs like Ahmadi’s may be more vital now than ever. In 2017, police officers reported that less people from immigrant communities were reaching out to law enforcement, according to a 2018 report from the American Civil Liberties Union. Sixty nine percent of law enforcement officials said it had become harder to investigate domestic violence cases.

Kiersten Stewart, director of public policy for Futures Without Violence, a national think tank with offices in Washington D.C., said physical violence is only one part of domestic violence.

“It’s about power and control, and physical violence is one tactic,” Stewart said. “There’s a lot of tactics (abusers) use — it can be physical, sexual, financial and emotional.”

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She added that when it comes to immigrant communities, an abuser has more power if they have better language skills, and could use that to undermine their partner.

“Say the police are called and he can speak English, and tell his side of the story, but she can’t,” Stewart said.
Ahmadi said she’s had clients who wanted to leave a marriage, but feared if they did it would compromise their legal status. When someone gets a green card through marriage, for example, they need to file a joint petition with their spouse.

“But then abusers will threaten to not go into interviews,” Ahmadi said.

Generally, joint petitions are a requirement for married couples, but exceptions are made in cases of divorce and abuse. In those situations Ahmadi will help clients file their own petition, but she adds that those who don’t have access to a lawyer or resources may not know that is an option.

Another common tactic to control victims is to threaten to keep them away from their children, Stewart said.

“It’s a very powerful tool they can use,” Stewart said. “When an abuser makes the threat, ‘you’ll never see kids again’ that could be very true if one partner has legal status and the other doesn’t.”

Both Stewart and Ahmadi said immigration status can add a layer of complications for domestic violence survivors. However, Ahmadi stresses there are resources out there.

Stewart said programs like Ahmadi’s can make all the difference for domestic violence survivors.
“Culturally specific programs and services are often really helpful, and so much of getting help is about trust,” Stewart said.