Greetings from Beirut!

Note: This is one of several blogs on my semester long externship. I’m currently doing a Semester in Practice with Conflict Dynamics International, where I’m working on a peacemaking initiative on Syria. Check out my past blogs to get the scoop.

imageOne of the perks of my Semester in Practice program is international travel. To be honest, I just left Beirut and am now writing to you from my hotel room in Paris. So, bonjour! Right now I’m on the tail end of a 10-day trip to Beirut and Paris to meet with members of the Syrian opposition as well as those aligned with the Syrian government. Lebanon’s proximity to Syria means there is a lot of cross-border travel; currently, the UN estimates that there are around 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

In addition to the serious refugee flow, the Syrian war has spilled over into Lebanon in many other ways. In Beirut, for example, there has been a marked increase in insecurity, which has led to less tourist traffic. Perhaps for the best, our meeting schedule was so packed, I hardly left our hotel, except to attend off-site meetings and eat delicious Lebanese food (like my delicious Lebanese breakfast!).

Lebanese breakfastWe’ve heard an array of narratives so far, from activists, members of civil society, businessmen, and former government officials. All agree that the Syrians are tired of fighting and want to seek viable ways to end the war. The challenge is in how to make this operable. It seems that many have a vision of what a post-conflict Syria could look like, but few have a clear idea of how to escape the current stalemate and begin a meaningful dialogue process. This I suppose is on everyone’s mind – Syrians, US/Russian diplomats, UN officials, etc.  – and illustrates just how much work there is to do.

Surprising Skills From Law School

Time for Taxes

Once upon a time, several days before I graduate from college, I learned that I had won two awards from the Smith College Department of English for a poetry manuscript I had written as a part of an independent study project I did with poet Annie Boutelle. Professor Boutelle had encouraged me to apply for these awards, but I assumed I could not win them since I was not an English major. Imagine my surprise when my name was announced – twice – during the awards ceremony! I went over to the awards table at the end to pick up what I assumed would be some kind of plaque, and turned out to be a nice check. Imagine my surprise to learn that Smith has over  a dozen endowed poetry prizes.

At that time in my life, I knew nothing at all about taxes. I put 1/3 of the prize money away, assuming the taxes I would owe on it would be about that amount. (I didn’t even know how to figure out my marginal tax rate – ha.) When tax season came around the next year, I received a W-2 from Smith for hourly wages I had earned as a work-study participant. The prize money was not included on the W-2. I had no understanding that “income” might be reported under any other form – here, a 1099 form. When my mother’s tax accountant (who was helping me fill out my return) asked if Smith had reported the prize money I gleefully said no. I used the amount I’d saved to put down the deposit on an apartment lease in Brooklyn.

Two years later I got a letter from the IRS informing me Smith had reported the prize money and my return from that previous year were therefore incorrect. “You owe us $XXX,” the IRS told me. Oh. Crud. Since that time my tax returns have filled me with anxiety and I’ve paid $200 every year to have my tax returns prepared for me.

This year, though, with a semester of Federal Income Tax I and another 2 months of Taxation of Financial Instruments under my belt, I prepared my tax return myself for the very first time. Although I used TurboTax, which gives you a lot of guidance, I truly understood how to report my income items, look for exemptions/deductions for which I was eligible, and apply for certain tax credits. I never expected that law school would turn around how I think about taxes, but it really has. It felt great to do the return myself, and to feel confident that my return was filled out correctly. This set of skills and knowledge was not one I expected to gain going into law school, but it’s great!

Spring Break and Lists

Last year I spent my spring break in the Dominican Republic with my boyfriend. It was a relaxing, fun, warm five days.

This year, I spent my spring break sitting at my desk. As the new Senior Articles Editor for the BU Law Review, I orchestrated my first article selection process. I also worked on my Law Review note, outlined for classes, and thought about all the other things I wasn’t going to have time to do.

Throughout February, Spring Break was a mystical time-when-everything-would-get-done. Didn’t have time to do my taxes? I’d do it over spring break. Needed to get organized for the Health Law Association board transition? I’d take care of it over spring break. Write some posts for the BU Blog? Spring break. Organize my closet? Spring break.

The short version is that none of these things got done. I got through the extremely time-consuming Law Review work and managed to do a little bit of outlining.

And now that the cure-all Spring Break is over, the law school world is spinning faster than ever as we careen towards final exams.

So I come to the point of this post, which is the incredible power of the list. As I’ve taken on different roles and responsibilities throughout 2L year, adding different spheres of duties on top of classes and an externship, I’ve come to depend even more on my organizational skills. Whether it’s a list of people to email, a list of errands to run on the way home from my externship, or a list of the reading I need to do, the list is crucial.

While managing the article selection process over spring break, I learned that it’s really not productive to think about all the other things I need to do when trying to complete the task at hand. Nor is it productive to switch from task to task as I think of other things I need to do. The list allows me to just jot down a thought and stay focused on the task I’m doing, instead of flitting from thing to thing as I think of it.

When overwhelmed with a list a mile long, it’s simply a waste of time to think about the list. Maintain sanity by just doing one thing at a time, and eventually everything will  be crossed off.

 

Public Interesting

This month has been a bit of a rushed stress-fest, so in lieu of a story about law prom (which you should definitely go to, by the way!), I thought I’d offer an excerpt of an essay I recently wrote to explain my interest in public interest and pro bono work. Writing it reminded me why I’m at BU. Here you go:

As a first-year law student, I jumped into public interest work as quickly as possible. As a representative for the Law Students for Reproductive Justice, I helped organize educational events for fellow future lawyers. My most exciting work with the organization, however, is an ongoing research project. We are talking to lawyers and other advocates to gather comprehensive information on prisoners’ parental rights for the Prison Birth Project, a reproductive and criminal justice organization that recognizes the issues faced by the 85 percent of incarcerated women who also mothers. The end product, most likely an easy-to-understand set of flash cards, will be distributed to female prisoners in Massachusetts, up to 7 percent of whom are incarcerated while pregnant. Over the summer, I plan to attend the national LSRJ conference, and next year, I will serve the BU chapter as vice president.

Last semester, I volunteered to research Swedish asylum practices with a focus on the ongoing issues faced by Syrian refugees. My research assisted the Human Rights Law Society’s refugee rights project, in conjunction with the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, which focuses on international human rights law from a Palestinian perspective. It was such a privilege to be a small part of a public interest project with the potential to reach millions of desperate refugees worldwide, easing their transition to new, safe homelands.

This semester, thanks to the BU Pro Bono Program, I was selected to attend the Spring Break Service Trip to Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Portland, Maine. More than anything else in the past year, this solidified my commitment to public service and family law. Our research over one short week has amazing implications for the resolution of everyday legal challenges faced by people in Maine and nationwide. The work was invigorating, but the people of Pine Tree were an even bigger inspiration. Everyone I met cared deeply about their work, their clients, and their colleagues. Each was eager to impart as much advice and encouragement as possible. I also took the time to meet one-on-one with the family law attorneys, recent graduates whose passion for their work and wisdom beyond their years were infectious.

Law Prom (masquerade theme) counts as professional networking, right?

Law Prom (masquerade theme) counts as professional networking, right?

To bolster my future career, I have joined the ABA, Boston Bar Association (free to all BU Law students!), and National Lawyers Guild. Activities with these organizations have included workshops at the BBA, where I got a primer on the fundamentals of domestic violence law, and the NLG, where I learned how to teach communities about “street law.” What a great start to my law career, thanks in large part to the opportunities provided by BU Law and the great city of Boston!

The Strange Things I Miss About Home

There are many things I miss doing since I moved to Boston. Meeting my best friends for drinks, driving, and warmer weather as of March 1, but you start to realize interesting things you miss. For instance, based on my Google search, there are 0 Krispy Kreme Doughnut locations and I miss seeing the neon “HOT” sign indicating glorious, melt-in-your-mouth, hot, gooey glazed doughnuts for an incredibly reasonable price.

A few weeks ago, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts offered a free glaze doughnut and I scoured the Internet for the closest location to my home in Medford. Alas, it was not meant to be. The closest one is 2 hours away in Connecticut. You may now cue wailing and bemoaning of my trivial problem.

Yes, there are doughnuts in Boston. Dunkin’ Donuts has the word “donuts” in its name, but you are wrong. I’m sorry, you just are. I invite a riveted debate over this, but nothing compares to a beautiful doughnut coming right out of the fryer, glaze oozing over it, and melting in your mouth. Dunks does not offer such a phenomenon, or at least, based on my experiences with their doughnuts, it is absolutely not the same.

Last night, a newfound friend, who lives in Connecticut and drove to Boston for a visit, went out of his way to buy us these glorious doughnuts. The squeals of excitement and glee from the three of us were all the words we could muster for our gratitude. I concede the doughnuts were no longer hot, but I am now ingesting fond memories of homeDSC01316 DSC01317.

If you read this and simply cannot understand my excitement, I challenge you to find a Krispy Kreme, ensure the hot sign is on, and you eat one of those glazed doughnuts.

Take a Break

Spring break has come and gone. For some it is a week of rest and relaxation. For others it is a week of free time to catch up on studying and completing assignments. Some people travel and some people choose to stay in Boston. No matter what someone chooses to do over the week, I have found that simply having the break is important.

Law school can be stressful. As law students we may sometimes feel overwhelmed by the amount of work that we have to do. On top of that, things happen in our lives that we can’t control. It can feel like there is simply not enough time in the day to manage it all. That is why taking breaks can help us so much.

Breaks give us time to deal with things that we don’t normally have the time to address. Even within a single day, we may choose to take a break to get some sleep or to run an errand. A free day can give us the time needed to recharge. A free week can allow us to travel home and enjoy time with our family. Regardless of how we decide to spend our time, these kinds of breaks help us to break up the work so that it doesn’t feel constant and keeps us from burning out too quickly.

So the next time you’re feeling stressed, take a break. You have more time than you realize. It’s up to you to decide how to spend it.

Your ‘junk’ debt is my pro bono dream

When is the last time you saw a credit card company write a letter like this?

Dear Valued Customer,
How are you? We heard that you’re going through a tough time at work, and your kid needed emergency surgery last month. We understand that the price of food and gas has gone up, and it’s pretty impossible to live without that stuff, right? If you can swing it, you do owe us some money. Honestly, couple thousand dollars is basically a drop in the bucket to us, so if you can’t pay us back this year, we’ll just call it off and let you go on living your life. If you need any advice about living on a tight budget without going into debt, just call us, and we’ll see what we can do about getting you a solid financial education and a living-wage job. Keep in touch!
Best wishes,
Your Credit Card Company

 

Nope. Not happening in this lifetime. A letter like this might be tough for you to ignore, but many real-world debt collection notices go straight in the trash, and phone calls go ignored. Once the debt has changed hands to a debt collector like Midland Funding or Portfolio Recovery, you’re probably even more confused. And a notice from the sheriff that you’re expected in court for a debt you’ve been unable to pay all along is tough to open, much less answer. So you ignore that, too.

The BU Law pro bono spring break team at Pine Tree Legal Assistance.

The BU Law pro bono spring break team at Pine Tree Legal Assistance (minus 2).

That’s where my pro bono spring break work at Pine Tree Legal Assistance came in. We investigated why people don’t show up to small claims court to face the debt collection agencies that have been hounding them for months or years. While the answer seems pretty obvious (fear, confusion, dread), it’s part of a larger, tougher issue. It involves complex transactions with millions of dollars in “junk debt” bought by a few large companies, which then pursue these lawsuits nationwide. Then, they win. Almost all the time — and in large part, it’s because people who owe money just don’t show up.

If you’re a person with a credit card debt of less than $6,000 in Maine, you’re usually sued in small claims court. The rules there are much more lax than in other courts; the company demanding money from you doesn’t even have to produce witnesses or evidence that they own your debt. Generally, the only substance to their claim is an “affidavit” signed by someone you, as a debtor, have never met; they might have a summary of your debt that looks something like a credit card statement. This works for them because it’s so hard for the average pro se defendant (person representing herself) to counter even this limited evidence. But Pine Tree has a volunteer attorney with a solid approach, who’s willing to help. When he stood up on a defendant’s side, I witnessed the lawyer for the debt buyer backing down immediately to “dismiss with prejudice, your honor.”

It’s almost that simple: Don’t show, and you owe everything; show up and get help from PTLA, and your case gets dismissed.

Of course, these things change; companies that can afford to buy debts by the millions will adapt, just as they have in the foreclosure market. (This is most certainly not legal advice, readers!) But it is inspiring work, and it is filling what seems to me to be a desperate need among hundreds of indebted Mainers. Our weeklong project was one piece of a long-term, comprehensive solution to an issue that affects millions of Americans, most of whom cannot find another way out of their debt challenges.

Portland is seriously fun and pretty, too. And it's only 110 miles from BU, so it's an easy weekend trip.

Portland, Maine, is seriously fun and pretty, too. And it’s only 110 miles from BU, so it’s an easy weekend trip.

The best part is that this is just one of the dozens of projects that the amazing PTLA staff and volunteer attorneys are devoted to working on every day. I have an impulse toward public service, but up to now I have not had a chance to spend time in an environment full of like-minded, practicing attorneys. Even though consumer debt is not my primary area of interest, they were great about making a complex problem approachable, answering questions, and providing resources that made our project possible in just a few days. And on a personal level, they were terrific about introducing me to family law attorneys, who gave me an optimistic yet realistic understanding of the type of work I hope to be doing full-time soon.

I would count myself lucky to be able to work at an agency like Pine Tree, for spring break, a fellowship, or a career.

A Quick Update on Egypt

My first post for BU’s student blog dealt with the International Human Right’s Clinic’s Egypt trip to research the Syrian refugee crisis.  Now that the end of our project is approaching, I wanted to share some exciting news and more information that we are still incorporating into our report’s final draft.

A month after we returned from Egypt, the government released 171 Syrian refugees from detention centers in Egyptian police stations.  Unfortunately, by this time, around 1,200 other detained Syrians and Palestinians, who had been given the option of expedited removal or indefinite detention, had already left the country.  The release of these 171 detainees represents an important step for Egypt toward a more humane refugee policy.   However, according to Amnesty International, 18 Syrians remain in detention without any legal justification.

These recently released detainees were part of a group of around 1,500 who the Egyptian authorities arrested as they were beginning the perilous journey to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean.  Some of these boats sank claiming lives, separating families, and leaving many refugees in extremely desperate circumstances.  In one instance, Egyptian naval forces opened fire on a boat packed with refugees heading to Europe.  The attack resulted in the deaths of two refugees, a Palestinian woman and a Syrian man.

Many of our interview questions for the Egyptian government and UNHCR focused on the deplorable detention conditions in Egypt’s police stations.  During this time, there was no indication that Egypt planned to release any of the detained refugees.  Certain NGOs and volunteer attorneys had challenged the detentions in Egyptian court, and many won release orders for their clients.  The Ministry of the Interior, however, refused to comply with those orders.  By the time of our trip, Egyptian authorities had released only a few refugees sporadically making it impossible to discern a clear policy.

By releasing these 171 detainees, Egypt moves closer to compliance with its international legal obligations against arbitrary detention and forced return of refugees to their country of origin.  The fact that there has been a mass release may also suggest that the political situation in Cairo has stabilized to a certain extent.

Human Rights Watch reported that the release was the result of intense lobbying by the United Nations, Egyptian and International NGOs, and other foreign governments.  Though Syrians and many other Middle Eastern and African refugees in Egypt face substantial obstacles in housing, employment, education, and health care, the release of these 171 Syrians is amazing news.

More information on our report to come soon!  Have a great rest of your spring break!

 

Spring Break Pro Bono Trip in Portland, Maine

Maine Photo

 

I’m spending my spring break this year volunteering at Pine Tree Legal Services in Portland, Maine. I was hoping to look for summer housing, learn about the legal needs and concerns of the community I’ll be entering as I spend next summer here, and working towards fulfilling my pro bono hours pledge. My hopes have been fulfilled – I’ve been able to look at some apartments in the evening and get a much better feel of Portland.

I have really enjoyed working on real (e.g. not hypothetical) problems as a change of pace. We’ve been researching real estate records, taxation of real estate professionals, and financing conditions in Lewiston, Maine, where affordable housing in high demand, but many affordable apartments are in poor condition. Working on real project – with all its messiness – and turning research into memos and databases that might actually be used someday is a welcome reminder that all this work in law school is helping me gain skills that I can actually use.

I’ve also had the opportunity to meet some BUSL students from the 1L and 3L classes that I had never met before. We’ve been enjoying Portland’s famous ‘foodie’ culture with lobster, specialty pizzas and sandwiches, New York Times endorsed Mexican food and more. I’ve especially enjoyed the city’s incredible array of gluten free options – I’ve eaten pizza, sandwiches, muffins, cupcakes, and soup this week, in addition to always-gluten free delicious foods like lobster and tacos. Despite the wet weather this week, I’m really looking forward to coming back this summer.

Although I’m not getting a bit of my own work done (erg), I think the pro bono spring break service trip was a good decision!

The More You Know…

I spent my junior year of college in India through a program run by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The majority of the credits the students in this program receive are from a large research project of each student’s own design, which culminates in a (very long) research paper. My own paper was 92 pages long, including a glossary of Sanskrit and Hindi terms, and several appendices. I approached this paper very strategically – I planned out my own paper deadlines and designed a strict research methodology for my paper, which I essentially followed to a T for the whole year. I still have the official, signed copy on my bookshelf in my room in its original baby blue binding from the local Indian printing company. I felt very clever for having written this great, long piece of scholarly work.

When I look over my thesis and other papers I wrote in college, I realize not only how far I have come in life and in school, but how very, very far I have to go. This year in law school I am working on my “note” for the International Law Journal, which will count as my upper class writing certification. It is a struggle – it is really challenging to write a good and worthwhile scholarly legal paper. I have a good topic, and I have done much research. The more I learn about international trade, human rights, and politics in the context of Bangladesh’s occupational safety and health issues, the less qualified I feel to voice some opinion about the whole matter, and the more I care.

I really want to do my topic justice and write a note I would be proud to publish if I were to have the chance. Everything that is on my plate in law school is competing for my time and brain power – classes, homework, exam preparation, pro bono work, student organization involvement… I find myself avoiding working on my paper because I want so badly for it to turn out perfect, and I don’t feel up to the task. The hours I should spend combing through trade treaties, bilateral investment agreements, and law review articles! The perfect articulations I ought to be able to voice after four years of college education and nearly two more years of law school!

My note adviser, Professor Caruso, assures me that this struggle – to find sources, to read them, to analyze them, and to articulate thoughts about them – is itself the value of working on an academic note for certification. She is, of course, right in a large way. However frustrated I find it, though, I am for once really invested in going beyond expressing a thought because it is required. Now I want to express this thought because I think it is important, eve if it is enragingly complex.