After spending 16 years of her life in conditions that amounted to forced labor, Gete [not her real name] found doors opening to a new future on July 23. That’s when the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service approved her application for a T visa and sent her an employment authorization card. For at least the next four years, Gete, a native of Ethiopia, is free to live and work in this country, with all the protections and opportunities that brings.
The news was exciting for DWT associate Kaye Fleming, who worked on the application with Gete. “It was an amazing experience to help better someone’s life,” she says.
Gete first left her home country at the age of 18, after a friend recommended she take a position providing live-in domestic help to a family in Lebanon. She arrived in Beirut unable to speak Arabic, and with no agreement on wages, hours, or any other condition of her employment. She was ultimately working at least 16 hours a day, seven days a week, with only short breaks to eat and use the bathroom. Her employer kept possession of her passport and generally paid her just once a year. The funds, which amounted to $100-$200 a month, were sent directly to Gete’s mother back home.
During her time working for the family, Gete was never permitted to leave the house on her own, visit friends, go on a date, or attend her own church. Over time, her duties were increased to include providing round-the-clock care for an elderly member of the family, looking after multiple grandchildren, and cleaning various relatives’ homes—all with no additional pay.
After several years, the family began making extended visits to Seattle, where they owned a home. It was on one of these visits, two years ago, that Gete found the courage to try to escape her situation. While on a visit to Costco, she approached a woman who appeared to be Ethiopian and asked for help. Later, she escaped from the house while everyone else was away, and was taken in by family of the woman she had met.
From there, Gete was connected with a host of service providers in the Seattle area, including the Refugee Women’s Alliance, the Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network, and Volunteer Advocates for Immigrant Justice.
It was through the latter organization that the case came to the attention of Fleming, a fifth-year associate who agreed to work pro bono on Gete’s application for a T visa. She was supervised by partner Chris Helm.
T visas were created by the U.S. 12 years ago to aid victims of human trafficking. The work started with multiple interviews with Gete to capture the details of her story, so that the best case could be made to USCIS.
“Building a relationship where the client got to know and trust me was very rewarding,” says Fleming. “I’m a patent attorney. Most of my clients are much more open and ready to talk to me. This required some more sensitivity.”
Through it all, the details of Gete’s story remained consistent. “I thought she was extremely believable,” says Fleming.
There was a possibility that Gete would be called for an interview by USCIS as well. But the application was sufficiently convincing that the visa and work permit were granted without an interview.
Gete is now living in a confidential location and studying to become an at-home nurse. “She did not intend to come to the US,” says Fleming. “But now that she’s here, the experience and training she’s getting is nothing like she’d have at home. Her horizons are much broader now.”