I can’t tell you a lot about what I did this summer.
The attorney-client privilege keeps me from telling you about the unbelievable clients I had. Let me instead explain, in more general terms, what I learned from my internship with the immigration office of a refugee resettlement agency.
The human capacity for patience. At the office, we would sometimes whine to each other about that lady who keeps calling over and over again to see if there is any change in her case. But honestly, the lady has probably been waiting for fourteen months for immigration to approve the petition she put in for her children. (Wouldn’t you be a little antsy?) But you know what’s incredible? For every antsy mom there were ten who waited patiently for weeks, months, years for their petitions to be approved and never complained or cried. I can learn something from these families.
The dual nature of people’s lives and personalities. I don’t want to be gullible or jaded. It’s difficult not to be one or the other in this kind of work. People lie. But people also have a deep capacity to change and adapt. For every client I immediately loved that later shocked me by revealing arrest or imprisonment for a pretty terrible crime there was another client I viewed with suspicion who melted my heart with his desire to do good and be better.
That a lot can be explained by cultural differences. At first, I was put-off by some clients’ endless take, take, take. They turned their noses up at making any kind of payment, no matter how much I explained that an “actual” attorney would charge them much, much more. And they were constantly asking about free stuff: food, clothes, or help getting a job. Then someone explained to me that, where they come from, the government is expected to provide all of these things. But the government there is “bad,” so it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. These arrivals have heard that the U.S. government is “good,” so they expect that it will provide for their every need. It’s difficult to undo that kind of perception, and it explains a lot about what can be construed as deep-seated personal greed.
The presence of a deep sadness that you would never know. (Or that you do.) One of my co-workers was particularly good at breaking bad news. This always impressed me. One day when she was letting someone down gently, the person said in halting English, “When you are telling me this, my heart has a crack in it.” I thought about that person for weeks afterward, and my co-worker said so did she. This client walked in with an air of heaviness that made me think long and hard about the extremely personal nature of the problems that walked through our door.