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Khomusi and the Human Rights of Storytelling

in Campus Journal by

After a two minute walk from SEPTA’s Jefferson station, Murtaza Khomusi ’17 enters the Philadelphia-housed NGO on Arch Street for the second time this week. Here, he elevates theory into practice, and transcending his identity from student to advocate. For the next few hours, Khomusi will once again be a part of a critical process that often goes unseen: helping refugees and low income immigrants navigate the complexities of American society.

“I do a lot of paperwork,” Khomusi laughed — his humble attempt to downplay the significance of the work he’s involved in. Starting his internship at the Nationalities Service Center earlier this school year, Khomusi is not your average paralegal. An Honors major in Islamic studies who’s contemplating medical school, law has not always been in the plan for Khomusi. However, he did not hesitate to apply to NSC.

“I’m really indebted to past Swatties for introducing me to this opportunity, especially Muriel,” referencing Muriel Carpenter ’16, “she’s a legend. I had always heard about the work she would do and I was really impressed, so I asked for guidance on applying to the internship. She was really kind and took my resume and forwarded it to her boss right away.”

For the past 95 years, NSC has operated as a non-profit resource that serves over 5,000 people in Philadelphia each year. Their extensive services aim to restore dignity and human rights to immigrants and refugees through legal protection, accessibility to health and wellness services, and community integration. Serving such a large population originating from all corners of the world, lawyers at the firm rarely have the time or language abilities to meet with all potential clients.

“I speak English, a couple dialects of Arabic, Urdu, Gujarati, and some very basic French.” Khomusi explained. “What I do is sit with new consultations and write down their whole stories, which then gets forwarded to an attorney. I essentially take some affidavits and narratives to be used in court of law.” This year Khomusi is writing his senior thesis on literature;further evidence of his passion for storytelling.

Khomusi also finds a personal connection with the clients he meets, which have thus far included families from Indonesia, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, and throughout Latin America.

“My own family background — well, I was born into an immigrant family that wasn’t initially very well off financially,” he began “I always felt that I didn’t really fit into school … and I’ve always enjoyed talking to people who also felt like they didn’t fit in.”

For many families, the complex story of belonging is all too familiar. “What’s been really interesting is learning that a lot of people have been living in the U.S. for a long time. After 10 to 15 years, they’ll seek citizenship. Sometimes, it might be because their employer let them go because they learned they had no documentation … they learned that they have a chronic illness and won’t get access to medical care, they got in a relationship, their partner abused them. Now they are alone and have no benefits. Sometimes, there will be a whole family there just trying to petition for another family member. It really varies.” The uniqueness and diversity of each case and narrative cannot be stressed enough.

Khomusi joins the staff each week to sit together and look at all of the new consultations, to decide which cases they are able to take on. “The trouble always is trying to see whether they have a valid case — not according to our or their standards — but according to the laws in place. For instance, the UN definition for asylum seekers means you have to have a ‘credible threat.’” NCS’s process for reviewing which cases to take on is by no means an easy task, and Khomusi gets to experience the reality of this firsthand.

The organization’s success with clients is due in part to the fact their charges are substantially lower than is expected, which is a result of a decision to charge in accordance with what individual clients can pay — never turning someone away for financial reasons. “Essentially we analyze a family’s income and let them know what they qualify for, and if we can’t help them, then we give them references to other organization that work in similar capacities. We run on donations and get a certain amount of government funding for pro bono work, so in that sense, we have a limited capacity.” Despite this reasoning, Khomusi is extremely satisfied with how much NSC actually does.  

“The people I work with are so incredibly impressive. They have amazing resumes, attended highly elite institutions … and the amount of time and work they put into this [organization] is absolutely inspiring. It’s one of those jobs where people are motivated by something else besides financial means … I don’t want to define the work for someone else, but these attorneys will have files all over their offices, take on much more work than ‘billable work hours.’” Khomusi said. “It’s really inspiring when people have the qualifications to enter occupations that they know will give them a great amount of mobility, but this is what they’re passionate about and ultimately pursued.”

Jonah Eaton ’02 is one such co-worker. He is a Swarthmore alum who specializes in asylum and victims of torture at NSC. “Our legal department provides a wide array of legal services for people unable to afford private counsel at a highly reduced rate or free, depending on funding constraints. These services range from family petitions, green cards, and citizenship, to asylum and complex appeals,” Eaton explained. When asked about how others can get involved, Eaton noted, “We can always use bright, motivated, and multilingual students … we have a history working with Swatties going back several years now.” Eaton added, “There’s no coincidence our legal director and two staff attorneys, including myself, are alums.”

Khomusi stressed the importance of acknowledging the reality of our complex immigration system. “I’m not going to victimize everyone who comes to us because some people come into this country who had beautifully comfortable lives before in their respective countries, and they’re able to live comfortable lives here.” These cases are atypical. “All too common,” Khomusi explained,  “people come to us who are fleeing some kind of domestic abuse or persecution, whether that be concerning religion, sexual orientation, you name it.” NSC additionally notes taking on cases of human trafficking and unaccompanied children, and their website list countless first-hand stories from the survivors they aided (nscphila.org).
Whether or not law school is in his near future, Khomusi notes that this experience has been invaluable in shaping his understanding of how the world works. He expressed gratitude, especially to Associate Professor of Political Science Ben Berger and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility for providing him with free transportation to and from his internship. NSC has also been generous in allowing Khomusi to learn the industry, sending him to a continuing legal education conference earlier this year. “I learned about the history of asylum seekers and people trying to seek naturalization and medical resources and availabilities for them.”  

“It’s really refreshing coming into this work from Swarthmore … the paperwork requires a different part of my brain, and I can be a good robot after some amount of time,” he joked. “Just talking to people who live — not even ‘normal’ lives but just lives different from mine — is really, really nice.”

Khomusi’s joy comes from “being able to do something for others that they are not able to do for themselves. That’s where the paperwork is really put into perspective.”

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