AMMAN, June 20 — Lawyer Jayne Fleming has just interviewed a pregnant torture survivor from Syria who fled to Jordan, having lost one of her small children in the war that has ravaged her country for more than six years.
The Syrian woman is severely traumatised and has no money to pay rent on the rat-infested house that she shares with her husband and three children in Amman, the Jordanian capital.
“There’s no shortage of cases that are serious,” Fleming, who works for the global law firm Reed Smith, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the windowless, lavender-walled room provided by charity Jesuit Refugee Services that serves as her base in Amman.
She leads the Reed Smith Refugee Protection Project, a mobile legal clinic offering free legal, psychological and social support to some of Jordan’s most vulnerable refugees — mostly from Syria, Iraq and Sudan.
One in 11 people in Jordan is a refugee, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). Some 650,000 are Syrians, by far the largest group of refugees in the country of about 10 million people.
The project’s goal is to resettle clients to third countries where they can start their lives anew, said Fleming, who has been to Jordan 10 times in the past two years.
The team on this trip includes another senior Reed Smith lawyer from the United States, a young Egyptian judge and two Jordanian women who are employed by the project year-round.
“We find our team members from all over the world, and when I see someone who’s good, we grab them,” said Fleming.”
The team’s days are packed as it attends to clients who include victims of torture incapacitated by trauma, children with life-threatening or degenerative illnesses and survivors of rape or other forms of gender violence.
They want to move to countries that can provide support unavailable in Jordan, for example specialist medical care.
Many may not survive or be permanently disabled if they are not resettled, said Fleming.
‘Like winning the lottery’
Their chances of being resettled through UNHCR’s resettlement programme, which relies on nations volunteering to accept a certain number of refugees from the overburdened countries in which they already have asylum, are slim.
“Getting refugee resettlement is like winning the lottery. It just almost never happens,” says Fleming.
Less than 1 per cent of refugees globally are resettled, according to UNHCR. In 2016, the refugee agency referred some 189,000 refugees for resettlement, mostly to the United States.
While the situation in Jordan is better than the global average, with 19,300 refugees leaving through the resettlement programme in 2016, the numbers are still discouraging.
The resettlement screening process is arduous and can take three to four years — by which time many of Fleming’s clients would be beyond help, she said.
To speed up the process, Fleming and her colleagues look for individually tailored legal solutions for each of their clients.
For a medical evacuation case, for example, they will identify a team of experts to testify to the urgency, a hospital willing to provide care, a country willing to host the individual or family, and sponsors willing to support them.
“It becomes an effort of community engagement to support refugees,” says Fleming.
So far, they have succeeded in resettling 19 people from Jordan to Australia, France, Spain, and the United States. Fifty more clients in Jordan are awaiting a solution.
The legal solutions, while faster than UNHCR resettlement, can still take months — or even years.
During this time clients receive non-legal support from the US-based Patricia Fleming Foundation, which Fleming established in her mother’s name. This includes payments for rent, food, and urgent medical needs.
“If we take somebody into the project, we keep them in the project until they are safe, which could mean paying rent and financial assistance for years,” Fleming explains.
And while a deep understanding of international law has been key to the project’s success, it is only half of the work.
With her clients Fleming often seems more like a therapist than a lawyer. She embraces everyone and often holds hands while talking, speaking quietly, with a soft smile on her face.
“I’m not a mental health expert, but I have worked with refugees for 16 years and I have interviewed thousands of them,” said Fleming.
“You can’t dive into (questions like) ‘Do you meet the refugee definition and were you persecuted’ because this could be very harmful.”
Instead Fleming begins by asking people how they are sleeping, eating, and feeling.
“If they tell me they’re only sleeping four hours a night, haven’t eaten for days, and all they think about is what happened to them in Syria, I know it’s time for me to do emotional rescue before we can do the legal work.”
This might mean making sure they are receiving medical care and counselling from a local charity, and have enough money to feed themselves and their families and pay the rent.
Asked where she learned her empathetic skills, Fleming refers to her mother, who grew up in extreme poverty and became a young widow with five children.
“In some sense that taught me how to be a compassionate person,” says Fleming. “I bring a lot of her into my work.”
Impossible to stop
Fleming did not set out to be the kind of lawyer she has become. She studied law at the University of California Berkeley as a single mother with two young children and just wanted a decent job, so she joined Reed Smith after graduation.
Her first free (pro bono) legal advice case was helping a woman from Guatemala who had been abused by the military during the civil war. Soon her case load was half commercial, half pro bono.
By her fifth year, Reed Smith had given Fleming permission to work on human rights and pro bono cases full time.
In 2016, the project expanded to Greece, helping to obtain refugee status for vulnerable people at risk of deportation to Turkey. They have achieved this for 16 people so far.
They are not huge numbers in relation to the millions of refugees in the Middle East, but each represents a life that has probably been saved, said Fleming.
“This is a monumental humanitarian crisis,” said Fleming. “I’ve dedicated my life to this work and it would be impossible for me to stop... just from a personal moral perspective, it will be impossible to stop.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation