While studying at Yale Law School seven years ago, Rebecca Heller traveled to Israel on a fellowship, and made a side trip to Jordan, where she met with Iraqi refugees. Moved by their plight and the need for legal aid, she founded the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which recruited lawyers and law students to offer assistance on a pro bono basis.
The organization, now named the International Refugee Assistance Project, has assisted the resettlement of more than 3,000 people from more than a dozen countries, including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Sudan and Syria. For her work, Heller, a visiting clinical lecturer at her alma mater, was recently named the 2015 recipient of The Charles Bronfman Prize, which is awarded annually to someone under the age of 50 “whose work is informed by Jewish values and has global impact that changes lives and inspires future generations.” At 33, she was the prize’s youngest recipient.
The Jewish Week interviewed Heller by email; this is an edited transcript.
Q: Few American Jews go to Jordan nowadays, and fewer are inspired to devote themselves to the plight of the refugees there. What made you care so much?
A: On a trip to Jordan to meet Iraqi refugees in August of 2008 I saw how much people were suffering and realized that the only long-term solution available to them was safe resettlement to a third country. Yet the process involved in navigating resettlement was incredibly bureaucratic, complex and legalistic. IRAP was able to get some of these procedures changed for U.S. affiliated Iraqis and Afghans, and we have found that in the small number of cases where displaced people have been permitted to have legal counsel, the presence of a lawyer has made an enormous difference, both to the emotional well-being and dignity of the client, and to outcome of the process.
The refugees you are aiding are largely Muslims and Christians. Do the Jews you meet here support your work, or criticize you for reaching out to non-Jews who often are hostile to Israel or Jewish interests?
Religion has not played a very big role in the programming side of our work. Peace in the Middle East is something everybody wants. I have been very heartened by the degree to which people are willing to look past the politics of history or ethnicity.
Is the danger to the refugees mounting with the ascendancy of ISIS?
Absolutely. The Islamic State is one of the single biggest threats to refugees in the Middle East today. One of the most terrifying aspects of persecution by the Islamic State are the viciousness with which they go after people — there are literally thousands of women in rape camps, and ISIS is constantly coming up with newer, sicker, more creative ways to publicly kill people. The other terrifying aspect is the ethnic cleansing — the IS mission is not about persecuting enemies of a state who pose a threat to an IS regime, it is about systematically taking out entire peoples (such as religious minorities) who IS believes to be “unclean.” Since Mosul [in northern Iraq] first fell to IS just over one year ago, the requests for help that IRAP has received have risen to over 100 per week, all from people who believe they are in immediate, life-threatening danger.
What danger have you faced during your IRAP travels in the Middle East? Threats? Close calls?
Close calls have been numerous and it is probably imprudent to recount them in the public record. The only personalized threat I have ever received was actually in the U.S. — it was an envelope sent domestically that had multi-colored writing all over it with a lot of anti-immigrant sentiments. I actually saved it, because I thought that if someone was upset enough to send me that letter, it must mean I was having some kind of impact.