Law Students Win Asylum Case on Behalf of Burmese Applicant
By Alicia Dean Carlson
Born to an ethnic minority family in Burma, Zar Ni Maw endured the assassinations of her parents, years on the run in the Burmese jungle, and life in a refugee camp.
Finally safe in the United States, Zar Ni started her senior year at Oberlin College facing yet another trauma: her application for political asylum had been denied, and removal proceedings had begun. She would have to return to Burma—also known as the Union of Myanmar—and to a government hostile to her ethnic background and her family’s political activity.
A second attempt to win asylum was scheduled for Oct. 4 in Chicago, where Zar Ni would have to make her appeal to Judge Robert Vinikoor.
The first time Zar Ni had applied, she’d been alone. This time, law students Keri Gresk and Lun Kham from the newly created Immigration Law Clinic at the IU School of Law-Indianapolis and supervised by Linda Kelly Hill, the M. Dale Palmer Professor of Law, would represent her.
For Kham, who is also from Burma, the case hit close to home. Kham had enough personal experience with the lack of freedom in Burma to know that Zar Ni could be in real danger. Kham had come to the United States—and Indianapolis—to attend college in 2001 because she’d been denied that opportunity in Burma.
"I know exactly what she is going through, what her family went through with the government,” Kham said. “Our family is Christian, which is a minority ethnic group, and we would be persecuted there. It inspired me to find a new future here."
“But Zar Ni’s situation was worse. She grew up in a refugee camp and her parents were murdered by military government when she was seven or eight,” Kham said. “She is a remarkable woman.”
Preparing a case
All three women were nervous as they prepared for the asylum hearing.
While Zar Ni felt comfortable with Kham, she was reluctant to tell her story to most strangers. Gresk felt sure that Zar Ni’s guarded emotions would hurt her testimony.
“When I first met with Zar Ni, in all honesty, I was nervous about her case,” Gresk said. “Because of everything she had been through, she had an emotional wall up. We had to get her to come across as a believable person, yet there was this cultural barrier. She did not want to seem weak.”
Zar Ni acknowledges that she wasn’t comfortable talking to many people about her life in Burma.
“I did not feel comfortable discussing my case or my information,” Zar Ni said. “Lun is Burmese, so it is free for me to discuss and say openly. For the first day, Keri and I did not discuss straight about my case but spent time just getting to know her. By the end, I felt like they were on my side.”
Eventually, Kham and Gresk were able to help Zar Ni tell her story about being born in the jungle while her family was on the run for their pro-democracy activities, and how, after her parents were murdered, she was sent to a refugee camp. They documented Zar Ni’s own political activism including an interview she gave to Radio Free Asia in which she encouraged other young refugees to study and work for a democratic Burma.
“I am sure that if I do not get asylum and am deported back to Burma, I would be arrested,” Zar Ni said.
Burma in the headlines
Despite their preparation, the odds of being granted asylum were not good. Zar Ni’s request had been denied once. In 2006, 60 percent of all U.S. asylum cases were denied. Judge Vinikoor’s 75 percent denial rate was even higher.
“It was a little terrifying,” Gresk confessed.
Coincidentally, at the time of the October hearing, Burma had been making headlines for weeks, as thousands of Buddhist monks led anti-government protests. The government retaliated by arresting and attacking protesters. Official reports counted 10 deaths in a crackdown on Sept. 27, but foreign diplomatic sources have recorded at least twice as many deaths and many wounded, including some brutal incidents of violence against Buddhist monks and pro-democracy activists.
“Given the current events, our hearing, which had been scheduled for more than a year, was exceptional,” Professor Kelly Hill said. “Still, winning an asylum case is never an easy task.”
But the hearing went smoothly. Zar Ni answered all of Judge Vinikoor’s questions, and he never called the five witnesses that Kham and Gresk had located and prepped to testify.
They won. Zar Ni Maw would be allowed to stay in the United States.
“Ms. Kham and Ms. Gresk did an extraordinary job weaving together and documenting our client’s life story,” Professor Kelly Hill said.
Gresk and Kham agree that the asylum hearing was a great experience for two law students. Both plan to practice law in Indianapolis, and both may incorporate immigration law into their practices.
Zar Ni plans to pursue her undergraduate degree in sociology and hopes to work with the sizable Burmese population in Indiana as a social worker.
“ I feel very safe here,” Zar Ni said. “I am really happy I got asylum. It is my first time to have legal status in any country, ever.”