"I had recently moved back to Wisconsin when I learned of the evacuation of Afghanistan in July 2021, and that thousands of evacuees would temporarily reside at Fort McCoy. I realized that, most importantly, they would need legal help." Sahar Taman talks about her experience with Fort McCoy legal clinic which provided services to the Afghan immigrants.
March 2, 2022 – Over the past five-and-a-half months, more than 130 lawyers and law students from across the U.S. volunteered to provide legal services to Afghan immigrants in Wisconsin.
The clinic was led by Illinois lawyer Sahar Taman, who grew up in Wisconsin. Taman talks about her experience with Fort McCoy Operation Allies Welcome – U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Legal Clinic, which provided 10,092 legal services to 12,800 Afghan immigrants at Fort McCoy between Sept. 1, 2021, and Feb. 11, 2022.
What brought you to immigration law and to lead this clinic?
I am an immigrant myself. I came as a child with my family from Egypt in the early 1970s to Chippewa Falls. My father was among the first psychiatrists in the area.
Jeff Brown, Harvard 1989, is manager of the
State Bar Pro Bono Program, liaison to the Legal Assistance Committee, and staff for the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission. He can be reached by
email or by phone at (608) 250-6177.
My parents wanted to be sure that the Muslim community was an integral part of the Chippewa Valley. One of things they did was to co-create the mosque in Altoona, the
Islamic Society of Northern Wisconsin, now celebrating its 31st anniversary. My family worked to make sure our mosque was engaged in the community, and I believe that our Muslim community is an integral part of the Chippewa Valley.
My immigrant experience helped me relate to the Afghan guests. It felt like they were extended family.
I went to law school at age 56, and it was a great experience. I only regret not becoming a lawyer much earlier in my career. I graduated from the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia, in 2020, and am licensed in Illinois.
I had recently moved back to Wisconsin when I learned of the evacuation of Afghanistan in July 2021, and that thousands of evacuees would temporarily reside at Fort McCoy.
I realized that, most importantly, they would need legal help. U.S. immigration laws are more complicated than in the past when other groups of refugees arrived. I wanted to be a part of the clinic, and reached out to USCCB, which was responsible for legal clinics on eight military bases. I started out as a volunteer and was lucky to become the legal lead at Fort McCoy.
What legal assistance did you provide at Fort McCoy?
We assisted thousands of Afghan guests, and many were assisted more than once.
We provided a combination of services related to the guests’ immigration and other related issues. The topics were asylum, Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), humanitarian parole, and legal rights and responsibilities. The assistance involved a combination of:
Because we also had about 90 Afghan volunteers, we provided more than 1,600 translations of Afghan civil documents, such as marriage certificates.
"It was an amazing and unique experience to learn from the many volunteer attorneys and other legal professionals," says Sahar Taman of her experience with Fort McCoy legal clinic.
How many legal volunteers helped out?
We had 70 volunteer attorneys and paralegals from around the U.S. We had a group of Wisconsin attorneys who were regular volunteers. Many volunteers did not have prior immigration experience, but were willing to learn and to conduct presentations. Some felt more comfortable over time and started doing individual consultations.
In addition, four law schools sent more than 60 students to help, including those from Marquette and U.W. law schools. We also had five from the University of West Virginia College of Law’s immigration clinic, and four from the University of Minnesota Law School.
In total, the legal clinic supported 3,093 volunteer attorney hours, equating to 210 volunteer attorney days.
Of the 90 Afghan guests who volunteered, most were professionals in Afghanistan. Some were lawyers themselves and some were students. They immersed themselves in the work, learning quickly, and readily took on tasks, assisted with interpretation and translation, and started the immigration forms. They even created their own
YouTube channel to educate the greater Afghan community on the humanitarian parole process and asylum. Altogether, they put in about 4,400 volunteer hours, equating to 550 volunteer days.
We had five paid staff members, including two attorneys and two law school graduates providing assistance, and a clinic coordinator.
I could not wish for a better team. We had the skills to deal with the challenges of the refugees’ complex needs and unfamiliarity with the immigration requirements for the Afghan guests. Sometimes there were one hundred or more people at a time in the legal clinic. We were committed and passionate.
I am in private practice, and will continue to serve this Afghan community. The need is enormous. In addition, I am doing pro bono work.
My hometown is Chippewa Falls, just north of Eau Claire. A coalition of individuals and local organizations in the region formed Welcoming New Neighbors, which is sponsoring 10 Afghan neighbors who just resettled there. I am organizing a team of pro bono attorneys to provide for their legal needs.
Asylum is a complex area, as the SIV program was never implemented in the U.S. – it was all completed abroad. Those in the legal community in Wisconsin know there are not enough immigration services, clinics, and attorneys, to address the need. Therefore, we must rely on help from attorneys unfamiliar with immigration law.
There are several efforts underway to provide education about asylum. I am sure Wisconsin attorneys will join this effort. I want to be a part of initiatives from the state and from other organizations such as the State Bar of Wisconsin to make that happen.
What will you remember most about the Afghans and the volunteers you worked with?
It was an amazing and unique experience to learn from the many volunteer attorneys and other legal professionals. It was an overflow of knowledge and experience for me and the rest of the legal clinic staff. Beyond their skills and expertise, the volunteers brought such passion and commitment to the cause. It was so gratifying to hear some of them say that it is the highlight of their career.
As for the Afghan guests, I am so touched for their graciousness, gratitude, and patience. They are an extraordinary community. They realized that they needed to be involved to assist each other. So from the beginning, they volunteered. There were barracks and block leaders who served as liaisons with Operation Allies Welcome. There were those who created pop-up schools for both children and adults.
I feel so indebted to the guest volunteers and the volunteer attorneys. It is a fact that the legal clinic could not have served the Fort McCoy community without them.
More about Sahar Taman
Prior to law school, Sahar Taman had two careers. Almost 30 years ago, she earned a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago, and went to work in Washington D.C. She worked in budget formulation and policy at the Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget.
Her second career was in international youth development and in international exchange, empowering youth to lead their communities in almost 47 countries. She also created an exchange program with seven Arab countries on the subject of religion and society.