Law in Contemporary Society


The first night I slept in Istanbul I woke up at 4:30AM to the call to prayer. For the last ten months I woke up to the electronic melody of my cell phone alarm clock, my pulse quickening in anticipation of what the day would bring and everything I didn’t want (but forced myself) to do. I would immediately get out of bed and start moving to forestall any doubts of why.

(Something Split: I won the birth lottery. If my unhappiness is a product of leisure and choice, then I have a limited right to complain. Over the past ten months I kept reminding myself that if I was not in law school, I would want to be. Dissociation is necessary to function in a world where we cannot control everything. Perhaps greater awareness of the splits- the dissociative shifts from one frame to another- is useful to better understand myself. But a single unified personality? Impossible: human kind /Cannot bear very much reality. Time past and time future/ What might have been and what has been/ Point to one end, which is always present)

This morning I lay in bed, listening to words I couldn’t understand. There was nowhere else in the world I would rather be, nothing else I would rather be doing. I was in a new city, with a challenging job, and time to travel, walk, read, and think. I was physically disorientated, but for the first time in months, mentally oriented.


My mother’s father was eleven when his family, along with hundreds of thousands of other Greek and Turkish families, became part of a forced population exchange that forged the modern boundaries of Greece and Turkey. My grandfather’s family had lived for centuries farming the land outside of Istanbul. They were Greeks, and Orthodox Christian to be sure, but they spoke Turkish and knew no other home. Those living around Istanbul were not subject to forced resettlement, but state protection for the Greeks remaining in Turkey was limited. Yet Greece wouldn’t recognize them as Greeks; they granted my grandfather’s family laissez-passer as stateless people so they could travel to the US as refugees. My grandfather would not be able to return to Greece for decades and never to the place of his birth and childhood.

(Something Split: I won the birth lottery, the arbitrary blood line that I benefit from. My grandfather’s story is what I tell myself to remember, to keep myself working. To help a child that could be him, to repay what I received for free by chance. I won the birth lottery partly on the back of an eleven year old boy who spoke no English, had no legal status, and never had a childhood. In my beginning is my end/ In order to arrive at what you do not know/ You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance… In order to arrive at what you are not/ You must go through the way in which you are not./ And what you do not know is the only thing you know/ And what you own is what you do not own/ And where you are is where you are not.)


I started work at the Refugee Advocacy and Support Program; assisting in providing legal aid to asylum seekers in Turkey. I was given files to read and a few articles on how the UNHCR and the Turkish Ministry of the Interior determine refugee status. The files had been rejected and were being appealed. Each rejection was based on the UNHCR’s credibility determination of the applicant and required research to validate the applicants’ claims. A Sudanese bus driver claimed that he did not work in the winter because the route he drove between Kutum and El Fasher was washed out by the rain. An Iranian man claimed that his political party’s identity card was black and white. A single Ethiopian woman claimed her family would kill her for not marrying the spouse they had selected. The UN rejected each claim on credibility grounds: the road is passable in the rainy season, the identity card is yellow, and a single woman in Ethiopia has sufficient NGO/state protection against her family. No grounds for refugee status. The direction of a life hinges on a fact—unverifiable, constructed, and translated through perception, language, and memory.

(Something split: how do I reckon work ethic with failure? What if I cannot find this fact in any NGO report, State Department profile, previous case, or academic paper? How long can I search for the color of a piece of paper? For whom am I advocating?

-The client: but the client could be lying. The client could have valid reasons for lying. The client could have made an inevitable mistake of memory. Memory is mistakes, collected and split. The Sudanese man has thick sinewy scars that look like shredded tissue paper across his neck. I can have no questions for him about why he stopped driving his route.

-The UNHCR: the process has value in and of itself. Even if is not the ideal process, it is the channel that exists and undermining it with false claims erodes the claims of other people in need of refugee protection.

Dissociation is necessary because it is impossible to consciously carry the weight of these details that will unjustly determine lives. Dissociation is necessary to keep at bay what would otherwise overwhelm; impede the ability to keep working. And right action is freedom/ From past and future also. For most of us, this is the aim/ Never here to be realized;/ Who are only undefeated/ Because we have gone on trying.)

I asked to be assigned to the unaccompanied minors’ cases; for the obvious reason of looking for my grandfather’s ghost in this generation’s set of stateless teenage boys. We visited the youth center where unaccompanied minors are held while their status is determined. If they are granted refugee status, they stay at the center until they turn 18 and they can be resettled. (No country currently accepts unaccompanied minors without resident family.) If they are not granted refugee status, and their appeal fails, they are deported. The center has no classes, structure, or translators; the boys sit around all day.

I interviewed two Somali brothers who thought they were in jail. They had escaped to Izmir where they intended to take a boat to Greece. The police picked them up and returned them at the port. No one explained the legal process, where they were, or that the institution they were being held in was not a jail although I would be hard pressed to honestly differentiate between the two.

I interviewed a Nigerian teenager whose father was killed by the police and whose mother disappeared. I asked him how he came to be in Turkey and what has happened since he arrived. His speech began to break, his eyes welled. I felt young and incompetent to provide any type of aid: legal, emotional, human, to a child who has suffered more than any person should. I told him I thought he was brave and that he was safe here and we would work hard to resolve his legal status.


I came to law school so I could help the people that did not win the birth lottery. I struggled the past year. I will struggle in the future to reconcile what I hope to do against the limits of my own capabilities, and determining where to put my energy into a fight and where to split my passion from my peace.

  • I think this is a lovely, near perfect essay. There's not a little that could be said about the psychology of it; the costs of dissociation are more profound than the respect paid to its enablement of continued functioning would suggest. Which means that how the future works remains to be discovered. But you've made a brave and truthful start.


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r4 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:46:27 - IanSullivan
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