Asylum

 Emily Kvalheim of South Florida Justice for our Neighbors helps abused and neglected children find safety in the United States. 

A couple of months ago, a 12-year-old client and I sat down at the large, wooden desk in the middle of our small office. We were coloring pictures from a Dora the Explorer coloring book. Even as an adult, I find that coloring can relieve stress, and I hoped it would do the same for the young girl who sat next to me.

Emily and one of her youngest clients take a break from Immigration Court to look at the Miami River and skyline.

We began talking about school. She told me about her classes and that she was studying hard to learn English because she wanted to be a doctor one day. We bonded over our love of animals.

She told me about her life in El Salvador. I did my best to let her direct our conversation.

Soon I learned that her grandpa often got drunk and said he wanted to rape her.

Soon I was getting up to grab a box of tissues and a bottle of water as she explained that her uncle groped her cousin in front of other relatives, but nobody did anything.

Soon she told me about the nights when her uncle snuck into her bed and raped her.

She cried as she told me her family didn’t love her and wouldn’t protect her. We were the first to hear about what had happened to her in El Salvador. She couldn’t even tell her family.

About five weeks ago and with the help of a Spanish-speaking “monitor,” I was the Spanish-English interpreter for her three-hour affirmative asylum interview. I was so proud of her for telling her story, even through sobs. It was incredibly brave.

The waiting after the interview is the most difficult for everyone, I think, especially for the family. I get frequent phone calls from asylum applicants, wondering if I’ve heard anything. They are all afraid they will be forced to go back and face their nightmares once again.

The question people ask me most often is whether my job is emotionally draining. The answer is yes, sometimes, obviously.

“I knew immigration law was complicated,” says Emily, shown here in her South Florida JFON office. “I just didn’t realize how much.” 

The answer is also that, while it is hard to hear and interpret and repeat and write down and reread the horrifying acts of violence and persecution that my young clients have faced, it was much worse for them to have to live those real experiences.

I owe it to them to be at least as brave as they have been by fleeing and sharing their stories so they can stay safe.

As I look back on my time as a Global Mission Fellow Missionary serving with South Florida Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON), my heart is full. This experience has been incredibly rewarding, and I will miss my clients greatly as I head to law school in the fall.

Last week I opened up a letter: “Recommended Approval” it said, in bold, at the top.

“She’ll get to be a doctor,” I thought. The sense of relief washed over me when I called the child’s mother. Contingent upon an identity and background check, etc., the United States has decided to protect her from the persecution she faced as a young girl in El Salvador.

I allowed myself a chance to feel the joy of that moment.

Then I was back to work, with 12 more asylum applications to finish before I leave in July.

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* Emily Kvalheim and Caitlin Kastner, both Global Mission Fellows of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries have spent the last two years working for South Florida JFON. They have both been an invaluable asset to that mission, but now their time is at an end.  We wish them all the best in their future endeavors, knowing they will always leave their little piece of the world better than when they found it. Godspeed!

We wrote about Emily and Caitlin when they first started their work for South Florida JFON. Please read it here.