Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Dentons Publishes Global Social Impact Report, Highlights Work with Syrian Refugees

This month, Dentons released its 2015 Global Social Impact Report, an annual collection of the Firm's work in communities around the world. Elliot Portnoy, Dentons’ Global CEO, and Joseph Andrew, the Global Chairman, emphasized the Firm’s commitment to “make positive social impact on the communities in which we live and work.”

The Report highlights the Firm’s expansive CSR and pro bono program, which has donated more than 75,000 hours of pro bono assistance to over 200 global partners in the access to justice, art and culture, community support, social mobility and health sectors. These partners include, among many others, Droits d’Urgence, International Medical Corps, Habitat for Humanity, Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), PILnet: The Global Network for Public Interest Law, Refugees International, the Salvation Army and UNICEF.

For the press release, click here.
To read the report in an interaction PDF format, click here. 

Syrian refugee children at Kawergosk Refugee Camp in Iraq pose with stars painted by Dentons lawyers and staff in New York and children in Riyadh.

I have been very fortunate to be a part of Dentons’ support of Syrian refugees in the Middle East over the past two years. Our partnership with the Norwegian Refugee Council in Jordan and Lebanon has flourished and serves as a prime example as to how private companies can contribute to the alleviation of human suffering by contributing their knowledge and expertise to humanitarian organizations on a pro bono basis. The partnership also serves as a model for future replication by private companies that wish to step up their engagement in humanitarian response.

Below are excerpts from my interview, published in the Global Social Impact Report.

1. How did Dentons get involved in working with the Syrian refugees? How did Dentons’ partnership with NRC come about?

In April of 2014, I travelled to Amman, Jordan to attend a course on international humanitarian law. While in Jordan, I arranged a visit to Za‘tari Refugee Camp, just north of Amman. Having read about this colossal Camp countless times in feature-length newspaper and magazine stories, I decided to see it for myself.

That visit changed my outlook on the Syrian refugee crisis. No longer was the crisis an abstract event only to be heard about over the radio waves. Now, it was real, and I felt compelled to help.

Upon my return to Riyadh, I spoke to regional management and my managing partner, Amgad Husein, about setting up a partnership to provide legal advice to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), one of humanitarian organizations on the ground at Za‘tari Refugee Camp. Dentons’ regional leadership enthusiastically embraced the proposal. In the following months, Dentons offered the NRC advice on Jordanian landlord-tenant regulations, evictions, deportations, birth registration and foreigner registration. The success of this partnership eventually led to its expansion into Lebanon and Iraq.

2. What inspired you to work with Dentons on this issue?

As I visited Za‘tari Refugee Camp and, later, refugee camps throughout Jordan and Lebanon, I discovered an entire generation of Syrian children, deprived of an education and opportunities to thrive in safe, secure environments. I learned of families unable to seek medical treatment or pay deposits that many hospitals require before doctors would even see them. I read of the special vulnerability that women face, of gender violence and the dangerous conditions for giving birth in refugee camps. I spoke with refugees and witnessed firsthand the challenges they face on a daily basis in their struggle to survive. After hearing the same story about shortages of food, medicine and other provisions, the inability to care for the sick, the daunting journey from Syria into surrounding countries, often undertaken by foot, carrying small children and the wounded and injured, I felt a duty to act.

Stories of food shortages and the inability to care for the sick are all too common among Syrian refugees. Here, Umm Haitham struggles to support six children with a monthly allowance of US$67.50 that she receives from UNHCR.

Having learned of other public-private partnerships at Za‘tari Refugee Camp, I looked for ways for Dentons to help. As Dentons is the only international law firm to have a presence in all of the countries where the majority of Syrian refugees reside—Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey—it seemed to be a natural fit to partner with the NRC’s Information, Counseling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) program, which advises Syrian refugees on their rights under the laws of the countries in which they are residing.

Dentons associate John Balouziyeh, right, meets with Kilian Kleinschmit, former UNHCR Za‘tari Camp Manager, colloquially known as the “mayor” of Za‘tari Refugee Camp, to discuss potential partnerships with Dentons.

3. What specific projects/support does Dentons provide to the NRC in connection with the Syrian refugees?

Dentons offers the NRC advice on a pro bono basis on international and local laws that govern refugee rights in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. To date, we have advised on the laws governing housing, land, property ownership, nationality, statelessless, human rights, refugee rights, deportation and resettlement of Syrian refugees. Dentons continues to geographically expand its partnership with the NRC in the region.

Beneficiaries of Dentons’ legal support include Hassan, a Syrian refugee who lost three fingers in bomb shrapnel. He is one of thousands of children who have been crippled or mutilated in the Syrian Civil War.

Su‘ād, a Syrian widow with two sons, is in need of a cardiac catheterization that will cost about LBP 4 million (US$2,667).

4. What challenges has Dentons/NRC faced in providing the support the refugees need?

It can sometimes be difficult to obtain information in some of the jurisdictions in which we are operating. For example, we recently inquired at the embassy of a Middle Eastern jurisdiction of that jurisdiction’s requirements and procedures for registering foreigners, including refugees. After an initial meeting, we were first required to submit a written inquiry; then a translation of the inquiry into Arabic; subsequently, we were required to meet with a senior official at the Consulate and, finally, submit the inquiry through formal diplomatic channels. As can be imagined, navigating through wearisome bureaucratic procedures can be time-consuming and, in some instances, discouraging.

Another issue is the lack of publicly-available laws. While many commercial legal compilation services, such as LexisNexis, exist in the Middle East, these services generally focus on business laws rather than codes governing deportations and similar administrative issues that we must tackle in serving the NRC.

5. Does Dentons work with NRC on any other projects?

Our current focus is on providing the NRC with pro bono legal advice, but we are expanding this scope of work. We are currently facilitating high level meetings between the NRC and one of Qatar’s most prominent foundations through the contact of a firm client. We are further exploring potential avenues to fundraise for the NRC in a way that complies with NGO-related legislation in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Finally, we are considering the possibility of sending volunteers to work with children in refugee camps.

6. How can volunteers contribute and what kind of work is needed?

There is a tremendous need for lawyers experienced in the laws of the countries that have accepted the largest intake of Syrian refugees—Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq—to assist humanitarian organizations in navigating these laws. Moreover, scores of NGOs in the United States and beyond are in need of legal assistance, whether it is in the form of preparing an IRS application for tax-exempt status or offering pro bono legal assistance to Syrian asylum seekers. Lawyers can get in touch with organizations such as the International Rescue Committee and submit their names to pro bono legal service lists.

Beyond this, there are countless other opportunities for just about anyone to contribute time, skills and expertise. In my visits to Syrian refugee camps, I found time and again a need for volunteers in the medical field and in education, with the greatest demand being for doctors (general and emergency medicine practitioners) and teachers.

7. How can professionals with full-time jobs help out? 

Professionals with full-time jobs may not be able to give the two to four months of service that some humanitarian organizations require of potential volunteers. However, some associations will take on volunteers for as little as one to two weeks. Relief & Reconciliation for Syria AISBL, for example, accepts international volunteers to assist in organizing and implementing educational and recreational activities for children and adolescents of Syrian refugee and Lebanese host communities. Volunteers may commit to teach workshops of one to two weeks or may commit to longer volunteerships of up to one academic year.

One can also be creative in approaching volunteering. A professional with two weeks of vacation to spare can get in touch with one of the NGOs working with Syrian refugee children such as Save the Children or the Norwegian Refugee Council and ask how to organize a workshop teaching children sports, arts, theatre, music or languages.

Volunteer teachers are in great demand as hundreds of thousands of children living in informal tented settlements have been left outside of the formal schooling systems of their host communities. 

Volunteers can organize sport competitions and summer camps that in the aggregate will help restore normalcy to the lives of refugee children. Such events help build trust and foster relationships in safe and secure environments where children impacted by war can learn and thrive.

For the busy professional who cannot afford a week or two to volunteer, there is always the possibility of donating to NGOs that are assisting Syrian refugees or fundraising on their behalf. They can also write to their elected leaders to advocate for expanded refugee resettlement programs or increased life-saving assistance and refugee aid packages. 

In all of these ways, the Syrian refugee crisis gives humanity a chance to act. We can restore human dignity to the victims of the conflict, seeking justice for the needy, defending orphans, pleading for widows, visiting the distressed and giving children hope and a future.

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