State of confusion | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

State of confusion

The Halifax Refugee Clinic was a busy office that went to great lengths to help people seeking shelter in Nova Scotia, in the process earning clinic founder Lee Cohen humanitarian accolades. Then Cohen suddenly changed things.

Mohammed El-Hassan
photos Scott Munn

Read a first-hand description of the Beddawi Refugee Camp in Tripoli, and you'll understand why Mohammed El-Hassan wanted to stay in Halifax.

Take this one, written by Tina Wolfe on the website, describing the scene in June:

The camp is mayhem: a mire of wires and hanging cables, dusty roads, narrow alleys, disheveled buildings, children loitering in the streets and truckloads of vehicles marked with different relief agency stickers. Barefooted pedestrians scurry up and down the main road, carrying bags or haggling over food and aid boxes, prized possessions these days.

Beddawi is one of 12 UN-recognized Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Earlier this year, fighting in a neighbouring camp displaced some 32,000 desperate Palestinians, with many taking shelter in Beddawi—the camp's population doubled in a manner of days. Resources were stretched to the breaking point. On September 10, describing the situation as a "crisis," the UN Relief and Works Agency made an emergency appeal for the area.

There was a moment, sometime in early 2006, when El-Hassan seemed destined to call this desperate place home. It could easily have happened, and he knows it.

"Were it not for the clinic," says El-Hassan, dressed in jeans and a gleaming white collared shirt, "I probably, honestly, right now, would be in Lebanon."

"The clinic" is the Halifax Refugee Clinic—a non-profit association that provides no-cost legal, social and settlement services for people claiming refugee status in Nova Scotia. Thanks in part to their work, El-Hassan is not living Lebanon; he's living in Clayton Park.

El-Hassan's backstory is relatively straightforward—at least, by refugee standards. He describes himself as a stateless Palestinian (he was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, but not as a Saudi citizen). After graduating from high school, El-Hassan applied for and received travel documents from the Lebanese government, the birthplace of his parents. He left Saudi Arabia to try and get into an American university.

It didn't work out in the States, but El-Hassan was accepted at Saint Mary's. In March of 1999, El-Hassan arrived in Canada on a student visa. He took classes to improve his English. He spent a summer living in the Loyola residence building on SMU campus. He found an apartment. In January of 2000, he started school in Halifax. He settled; focused; studied. And in the spring of 2004, he received his Bachelor's degree in marketing.

"And that," breathes El-Hassan, "is when reality set in."

El-Hassan's student visa was set to expire unless he could find a job within a few months of graduation. He couldn't. Consequently, he faced the prospect of losing his visa and being deported to Lebanon—sent to join his parents and relatives living in Beddawi. That option was, for El-Hassan, "not an option."

"There is no future there for me," he says flatly. "At the time, I'm thinking, "God knows what exactly the situation is over there.' But for a Palestinian to get a decent job is basically impossible."

Desperate, El-Hassan eventually did the only thing he could think of to stay in Canada: he applied to become a refugee. It was a long shot. But, in El-Hassan's judgment, utterly worthwhile.

A typical refugee claim happens something like this: the refugee applicant visits a Citizenship and Immigration Canada office and expresses a desire to make a claim, hoping to achieve official refugee status. An officer then makes an assessment of the person's case, and decides whether or not it is eligible for a hearing in front of the Immigration and Refugee Board. If the case is deemed eligible, the applicant may appear in front of the board to plead their case and the board issues a decision.

El-Hassan went to the CIC on Brunswick Street roughly three years ago. After he'd been granted a board hearing he contacted the Halifax Refugee Clinic and first sat down with the clinic's settlement co-ordinator Lauren Dale in late 2005. The clinic helped him prepare for his hearing, working on paperwork and shaping his case.

"They welcomed me with open arms," he recalls. "And I learned, throughout the process, they wanted to do everything to help secure my status."

Although the board ultimately turned down his initial refugee application, the clinic still managed to come to his rescue.

"After the refugee application was rejected, I was in a shock," El-Hassan says. "I didn't know what to do. I thought it was the end of the line."

And it would have been...except...

"These people at the clinic, they told me I could apply for something else: a Humanitarian Rights application. They told me that's the next step for me. I would have had no idea," he says. "The fact that I had completed a degree, that I was in a long-term relationship—these things mattered for this application. It was good for my situation. It asked the right questions."

It was full-time legal council Lori Hill who help guide El-Hassan through the second application process.

"I don't have the words for it," he says, speaking of the service he received from the clinic. "They helped me so much, these three women." In addition to Dale and Hill, El-

Hassan also credits clinic co-ordinator Eva Osorio for helping navigate the legal procedure.

"God bless them," he gushes. "And I cannot imagine what they did with other people they were helping. It's just..." He searches for the right word. El-Hassan's English is very good—but not perfect. When he speaks, there are occasional pauses, hesitations.

"It's overwhelming, the work that they do."

By most accounts, El-Hassan's glowing assessment is an accurate picture of the work that goes on inside the Halifax Refugee Clinic—he represents one satisfied client of many.

Need proof? Look no further than the clinic's founder and director, Lee Cohen. Primarily on the clinic's merits, Cohen has won the Nova Scotia Human Rights Award, the Queen's Jubilee Medal and the Weldon Award from the Dalhousie Law School Alumni Association for unselfish public service.

So, yes, El-Hassan's statements are accurate. Except for one thing.

Lori Hill and Lauren Dale—two out of the three full-time clinic employees, and the two who had the biggest impact on El-Hassan's case—no longer provide assistance to people like Mohammed El-Hassan.

On August 21, they were both fired by Cohen and the clinic's Board of Directors—no warning, no explanation. Quite suddenly, the clinic's full-time staff was pared from three down to one.

For Dale and Hill, helping refugees is no longer the work that they do.

It's the work that they used to do.

And they don't fully understand why.

"I think he enjoyed firing us...I really do."

When Lauren Dale talks about the circumstances that led up to her termination—"Lee made it very clear, we were terminated. Not, "No longer employed.' Terminated"—the anger in her voice boils. Most of her vitriol is aimed squarely at Cohen.

"At first, I was hitting myself over the head, saying, "How many things have I done wrong? How could I have prevented this?'" she says. "But I've come to realize, I could have never shown up. I could have shown up speaking Sanskrit. It was really immaterial."

Dale began working at the clinic as a volunteer—one of many volunteers at the time—but she quickly devoted herself almost completely to her work. As Cohen himself admits, "We basically had to give her a job. She was there five days a week." She became a full-time paid employee in 2001.

Dale's job wasn't directly concerned with the legal procedure—she was hired as a settlement coordinator, not a lawyer like her colleague Lori Hill. In addition to helping prepare application forms and prepping clients for their hearings, her job could include things from securing child tax credits to setting up eye appointments to ensuring the client has stable housing.

In the beginning, the full-time arrangement worked well.

"There was never any issue with the work," says Cohen. "These were good people. I don't know how they would respond now to the comment I'm about to make but...I liked them. And I like them. And there's no issue with competence.

"Lori was good; she was a young lawyer, only out for three years, but she was very good. And as I said in the letter of reference I wrote for her, she could function in any job she wanted to do, legal or otherwise. And I believe that. She's smart and competent." Hill was contacted for this story, but citing concern about Halifax's relatively small legal community, she declined to comment.

"And Lauren," adds Cohen, "is very smart and competent as well."

Now, sitting in her living room just weeks after being fired, Dale has a difficult time discussing the clinic without being overwhelmed by her own frustration.

Long-time clinic volunteer Joanne McRae agrees with Dale's bleak account of how she and Hill were dismissed: "As Lee and the other Board members were firing , the locks were being changed on the door. I mean, what exactly did they think the were going to do?"

Given the nature of the work, Dale says the job inevitably leads to a somewhat personal relationship between the client and the employee—especially when dealing with settlement issues. To abruptly sever that kind of relationship, she says, is excruciating for both sides.

"All the people who come to the clinic are obviously dealing with stressful events or with trauma in their lives, or they wouldn't have come to us," she says. "It's difficult for us as employees, but imagine if you're describing how you were raped or tortured, or how you saw your parent murdered. That's hard enough to say to a stranger. You have to build trust, establish rapport with people...

"And then suddenly, that person is gone. And the client would be expected to tell some total stranger, all over again, "OK, how were you raped?' It's just obscene."

According to Dale, Cohen didn't seem concerned about severing that relationship. She sees this as an example of the vast disconnect between, on one hand, the staff who were doing the day-to-day work at the Refugee Clinic—herself, Hill and Osario—and on the other hand, the five-member Board of Directors, a board that "didn't really have a clue what was going on in that office."

That includes, she says, Lee Cohen.

"He really wasn't close to the work at all, not lately," she says. "In the early days, he used to drop round. For the last couple of years, I guess Eva would exchange emails with him to keep him somewhat informed. But I hadn't actually seen him in our office for a year or so."

Neither had Mohammed El-Hassan, who spent large parts of the past year working on his own applications in the Refugee Clinic offices on Argyle Street.

"Lee Cohen? I do not know this man. Not even what he looks like."

Walking through his living room on a Sunday afternoon, Lee Cohen looks, primarily, busy.

His couch, chair, ottoman and even floor are covered in books, papers, files—"the anatomy of an immigration case," he says, gesturing towards the mess.

"Lately, things have been crazy."

Cohen was the subject of a CBC Life and Times documentary in January 2004, another honour recognizing his devotion to refugee and immigration cases. In addition to his work at the clinic, Cohen also has a private practice that deals primarily with immigration and human rights cases.

Cohen's profile on the show described him as "fiercely outspoken and provocative," but in person, Cohen is calm, and speaks softly. He lives and works primarily on the second floor of his modest west end Halifax home. His hair, which is receeding, is gathered into a ponytail.

He expresses regret over what happened with Dale and Hill. But, he says, it had to happen.

"I've never terminated an employment before, and let me tell you, it's gut wrenching," he says. "What I learned is, there's no such thing as less painful. There's no such thing as terminating an employment and feeling good about it, or even OK about it. It was horrible. It was just horrible. Of the five worst days of my life, this was probably number three."

However, according to Cohen, it couldn't be avoided. There was—and is—a major gap between clinic staff and the Board of Directors regarding the number of active cases the clinic is supposedly handing. Essentially, the full-time staff and the Board of Directors disagree about the volume of work being done at the clinic.

According to numbers provided by Eva Osorio, the one remaining full-time clinic employee, the number of clients has been steadily increasing—61 claimants in 2003. The next year, 133. Then, 165. Those numbers have dropped off slightly in the past two years, but Osorio still says that as of September, 2007, the clinic was actively working on cases for 104 clients. Osorio declined to comment for this article except to say "these figures are absolutely accurate."

Cohen, however, says the numbers—even though they've been provided by the active clinic co-ordinator—are misleading.

"This is the problem. Those are simply too high," he says.

"I heard a number the other day, that we have 150 files in the clinic." Cohen slows his speech over those last three words. "I would say, at the moment, we have 13 refugee files and 44 immigration files. That's it."

Cohen says that the clinic's annual reports, which were prepared by Osorio, took to reporting the number of individuals rather than the number of files. If, for example, a family of four made a refugee claim, they were counted as four files. Cohen says such a case should be counted as one.

Osorio, however, sticks by her numbers. Each individual that passes through the clinic does come with their own additional amount of work. If someone comes to the clinic with three children, for example, each child must be set up with doctor's appointments, or day care or school registration.

In any case, the grand total of active files at the Halifax Refugee Clinic, according to Cohen, is 57. And ideally, in Cohen's mind, it should be much less. Cohen says he personally conducted an audit in July and August, examining every active case in the Clinic, file by file. He came to some "difficult conclusions."

According to Cohen, the clinic's job should usually be complete after a refugee application is either approved or rejected by the Refugee and Immigration Board. Most negative decisions are not appealed (El-Hassan's case, for example, didn't go to appeal). And a successful client typically ceases to formally exist as a refugee: These have turned from refugee cases into immigration cases.

"Here's my view," says Cohen. He takes a long pause. While speaking and gathering his thoughts, Cohen doesn't tend to make eye contact. Instead, he stares off at a point in the next room. "We're not mandated to help people get permanent resident status. We're here to help refugees. That's our mandate, and the issues that arise when we stray from that mandate are very practical.

"First, that requires a big infrastructure. There are a small number of refugees in the community. There are a huge number of immigrants. Would our funders continue to fund us? Who knows. Second, are we insured for that? If we screw up in an immigration case, with limited expertise and no training, are we insured? I don't know. The answer could be no, or maybe. But nobody is saying "yes.'"

And although the Halifax Refugee Clinic is unique in its mandate to deal with refugee cases, there is a community of private practice lawyers working in Halifax who specialize in immigration law.

"If people think there's a need for an immigration clinic, do it. Create it," says Cohen. "There's nothing holding people from doing what I did, and I would not be opposed.

"But that's not the Halifax Refugee Clinic."

Another problem: Cohen also says he wasn't convinced that Lauren Dale and Lori Hill were as busy as they claimed to be—even with the extra immigration cases on their plate.

"Eva would tell me from our periodic meetings together that there were times when it was difficult to keep people who were in the office busy—paid people in the office busy, forget about volunteers," he says. "The handwriting has been on the wall now for the better part of a year. This had to change."

One person who definitely is busy these days is Eva Osorio.

As the last remaining full-time staff member, Osorio is now handling the bulk of the active files at the clinic—an overwhelming amount of work. And it's those remaining clients—the ones whose cases are already underway—who may end up suffering the most from the recent turmoil.

"Yes, its an assault on Eva, what's happening at the moment," admits Cohen. "I think her head is reeling. Eva and I had a huge long discussion on Thursday evening; she was telling me about, "This has to be done, that has to be done.' I said, "Tell me what it is you think you need in the interim, and we'll handle it.'"

It is, Cohen asserts, a manageable situation.

"I was clear with her and I want to be clear with you: I think it will be an eight-week transition. What do we need now is to get through the next eight weeks."

Lauren Dale doesn't have faith that Cohen will be of much assistance to Osorio. She says, especially in recent years, he's hardly been responsible for any hands-on work at the clinic, despite taking a share of the credit.

A 2005 press release from Dalhousie University, to announce that Cohen had won the 2005 Weldon Award, states that "Lee spends about 40 percent of his time on clinic matters," with the rest of his time devoted to his private practice.

Dale scoffs at those numbers.

"Forty percent? Not even close," she says. "He's not the one preparing applications for clients, certainly not while I was there. He wasn't presenting cases to the board."

If the clinic is indeed now in over its head—

too much work, and not enough staff to do it properly—the effect on the active clients is potentially devastating.

"Yes. I'm personally upset," says Dale. "But, they're messing around with people's lives; not just our lives, but our client's lives. These are people with serious problems. And they felt free to just mess about like this?

"Eva can't handle that many files on her own. It absolutely enrages me."

Cohen says he is indeed picking up the slack—"I need 57 new files like I need a heart attack. But I'm now overseeing all of those files"—but there is a question of whether all of this chaos was necessary.

The clinic receives primary funding from the Law Foundation of Nova Scotia—in 2006-2007, it was granted $127,218. This year's funding is already secure until March 31, 2008, as is the funding from the clinic's secondary funding source, the United Way.

So, if the money was in place, and the cases had piled up, why fire Hill and Dale in August if they could have been phased out and let go in the spring?

"Well, we didn't want to have a big secret for four or five months, and know that they're going to be gone," says Cohen. "The alternative was to provide notice, and...nobody was sure what the quality of work would be, no one was sure what the relationship with the client was going to be like, no one was sure if there would be interference with the new plan that was going to be put in place....

"We wanted to get on with changing the clinic right now. No one wanted to hang around and wait for a really unpleasant day to occur down the road."

Cohen envisions a new format for the Refugee Clinic, one that is rededicated to what he calls the "original mandate," one that builds relationships between refugees and volunteer lawyers, who could continue their relationship beyond refugee work, should they choose to do so. That, he says, should be the mechanism to protect refugees who slip through the cracks.

"I think there's been a tension in the clinic about this for years with the staff wanting to expand, and it's been happening incrementally. And I've probably not being aggressive enough in saying, "No we're not doing it.'"

Had Mohammed El-Hassan stopped receiving guidance from the clinic once his initial refugee application was denied, he probably wouldn't be here.

"The situation is worse after the refuge application is rejected," he says, exasperated. "Worse. Absolutely. That's when you truly need the most help."

Eventually, El-Hassan's prospects to stay in Canada did improve. He met a Canadian woman from the Annapolis Valley and, on September 8, he married her.

He's now eligible for a sponsored application—a much more reliable way to stay in Canada.

In a manner of weeks, El-Hassan's formal relationship with the Halifax Refugee Clinic will be over. Now, it looks like his story will have a happy ending. But he worries not everyone who passes through the clinic will be so lucky.

"This is a non-stop process. Even though my refugee claim was rejected, my life was still on the line." El-Hassan flattens his hands and presses his palms together in front of his chest, fingers pointed up. His eyes open wide.

"And these people—these three wonderful people at the clinic—they know everything about my case. They know how to advise me.

"So, when an application is denied—regardless whether they are officially a refugee or not a refugee—where is someone supposed to go? I mean, what is the purpose of the Refugee Clinic? Is it not to help people? To the end? Until they are secure?"

And, as someone with perspective from both before and after Hill and Dale were fired, he says the situation at the clinic right now is bad.

Osorio, he says, isn't always able to answer her phone. She's stressed. She's not as happy—"You can just tell," says El-Hassan. "You can get a vibe."

Since he began working on his new sponsorship application, he's been coming into the clinic office to fill in his own application forms—something he's only able to do because of his relative command of the English language.

He worries that other immigrants and refugees simply don't have that same option, and their cases will suffer as a result.

"Basically, from what I have seen, it was a disaster that Lori and Lauren left the office, for many, many clients," he says. "A lot of people are suffering because of what has happened with them.

"To me, that's really the conclusion."

Mike Fleury is the news editor with The Coast. His ancestors immigrated to Canada from Scotland and France.

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