Conversations with the President Volunteers’ Week Special on CBA Pro Bono Initiatives: Ukraine and Afghanistan
Stephen Rotstein speaks to CBA Pro Bono Initiatives Coordinator Bjorna Shkurti about how CBA Lawyers are helping refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan and about her own remarkable journey from war-torn Albania to the Alberta Bar. Their discussion touches on Immigration law and volunteerism and how lawyers often end up helping simply by lending an ear.
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Announcer: This is Conversations with the President, presented by the Canadian Bar Association.
Interviewer: Hi, I'm Stephen Rotstein, president of the Canadian Bar Association and your host for this special episode of Conversations with the President to mark National Volunteer Week. I'm speaking to you from Toronto homes of many nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinaabe, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and Wendat. I'd ask each of you to consider the treaty lands and territories on which you reside as we acknowledge with respect and gratitude the many First Nations, Inuit and Metis whose footsteps have marked this land for centuries.
The CBA would like to salute volunteers and get to know one of them a little better on today's broadcast. My guest is CBA's pro bono initiative coordinator [Fiorna Skirti? 00:00:52]. The CBA currently has two initiatives to help people fleeing both from Afghanistan and since February of this year, the Ukraine. Fiorna herself immigrated to Canada from Albania and now practices law in Alberta. We'll hear some of her personal stories and find out what the CBA volunteers are doing to help with the refugee crisis around the world. We'll also talk on how this crisis impacts mental health of both those in need and those in a position to help.
So firstly welcome. Nice to talk to you well I guess virtually over this podcast.
Respondent: Thanks. It's so nice to be here.
Interviewer: My first question to you was what the weather was like in Calgary and I'm glad it's warming up in Calgary, but my first substantive question has to do with what kind of specific requests volunteers at the CBA are being confronted with and how are they able to help those individuals who are seeking that help.
Respondent: Sure. And I must start by saying how wonderful the members from the Canada Bar Assignment have been, that have volunteered their time with both the Afghanistan and the Ukraine initiative. What we've done is we've actually created an intake system for individuals who are looking for help to specifically reach out to individual volunteer lawyers who can assist with either questions or can take on cases if they have the capacity. In terms of the requests that we've seeing it's anything from what sort of documents do we need to come over there? Are there any processes that are available to us to come to Canada? Would you be able to assist us and so on.
With regards to Ukraine we've gotten a lot of questions about the Emergency Travel Document that Canada has initiated and those questions range from a simple piece to can you assist us with the entire [thing now? 00:03:00]? So it's a wide range of enquiries that we're getting and as I said, our lawyers have been fantastic in answering the questions but also taking on cases and helping individuals from beginning to end.
Interviewer: So when you say – well obviously when we receive these request, how much time is one of our lawyers, one of the Canadian Bar Association's volunteers, I should say, is spending on each one of these files and how many would we be getting, say, in a given week?
Respondent: Sure. So it really depends on capacity. In any given week there can be anywhere from just a few to tens of enquiries coming in. And again we have to keep in mind that there's both initiatives currently underway. So we have the Afghanistan initiative as well as the Ukraine initiative. So there's volunteer lawyers that are getting enquiries from both. With regards to the capacity of the lawyers or the volunteers, that's really been left in their hands. So if they do have capacity to really assist an individual from beginning to end we strongly encourage that, if not, then just answering the enquiry is usually sufficient as well.
What we've seen, though, is something incredible, even for lawyers that do not have capacity to take on a matter themselves they’ve reached out to their own networks and have figured out ways [unintelligible 00:04:26] these people even if they don't have the capacity to do so themselves.
Interviewer: I've heard anecdotally – I mean hearing from you, now, first hand is just magnifying what I've heard. Just the amount of CBA members who have kind of gone and obviously spending a fair bit of time doing this work.
A couple of practical questions. How are they dealing – and I guess this is a general issue when you're dealing with immigration law – how are they dealing with language issues? How is that addressed?
Respondent: Well with regards to Afghanistan the lawyers who have signed onto the initiative are often able to speak the language themselves. So it's been beautiful to see them communicate directly with individuals reaching out in the language directly.
As far as Ukraine is concerned, we do have a number of volunteer lawyers who can speak both Russian and Ukrainian, but there's other third-party organizations that have actually stepped up and have put forward volunteers that can aid with interpretation. And so interpretation has really not been an issue. It's not been a barrier, and being able to communicate with these people that are reaching out.
Interviewer: I think that's great. I know as it relates to the Ukrainian Russian speaking population in Canada has a fair bit of – you know, I think we're the largest Ukrainian population outside of Russian and the Ukraine. I mean I don't know that they're all immigration lawyers but obviously – obviously there's that capacity. But I guess my question is, it sounds like things can get busy, you know, obviously the war sadly goes on. How are we as far as the amount of volunteers? Do we need more volunteers? Are we meeting the demand as it currently is? What does the situation look like?
Respondent: I mean the answer's always yes. The more the better, right? Having said that, as I said, the lawyers have really reached out to their networks and they've gotten other parties involved as well. So it's been wonderful to see the interest in the general community to help out in any way possible. One thing that we've actually seen is students, law students reach out to us and say, hey, how can we help you? Can we take this off your hands or can we work on a small piece of this? Several organizations – or even cold calls from the public after they've seen what the Canada Bar Association has done, we'll get phone calls and they'll say, can we help with housing? Can we help with donations? How can we help?
So, the short answer is absolutely, the more the better. But it's been an evolving thing and it's been really, really nice to see the ongoing support that people have been giving.
Interviewer: I want to ask – I want to kind of go from the practical to kind of the on-the-ground experience. Obviously war is a particular unique type of drama that has serious long-term mental health consequences for people, but also short-term consequences. I'm just wondering what advice do you have for members, maybe members of the broader Canadian Bar Association community who are not familiar with how these kind – these issues manifest in those seeking to immigrate into Canada, and kind of what resources are available to assist those immigrating to Canada as refugees or just as immigrants to try to address some of these mental health issues?
Respondent: Yes, I do fully recognize that a lot of these individuals that are coming into Canada are going to be facing significant issues. In terms of the advice that I can give to volunteer lawyers, I've found from my own patience as well because I do a lot of refugee work is that oftentimes just talking to them, right? And not even necessarily about legal issues but just having a conversation with them, just listening to them can be hugely helpful.
In addition to that, as I said, we've a number of organizations, specifically Ukraine organizations as well as church groups that have reached out to us that are offering some other services that we as lawyers might not be very well positioned. And so oftentimes we reach out to them to assist us in that regards. Having said that, with regards to Ukraine specifically, it's been a little bit slow in receiving individuals coming from Ukraine, and oftentimes they are going to friends and family members that are here in Canada.
Interviewer: But they're still getting this – I guess they're getting – they may not be getting it from church groups or other groups but they are hopefully getting support to assist them which is obviously exceptionally traumatic experiences.
Respondent: Absolutely. Absolutely. And like I said, that's coming from either friends or family members over here, church groups, and Ukrainian organizations specifically are doing some wonderful things. They've set up special programs. The Canadian government has also announced that they are going to – that they have an initiative where they're going to allocate a certain amount of resources towards the newcomers from Ukraine. And so there's definitely things in the works and systems already in place to assist those that are coming.
Interviewer: So let me flip the question on its head. As an immigration lawyer, or somebody who is doing pro bono work to assist people coming from war-torn areas, how do you deal with your own mental health? It's got to be extremely challenging hearing these stories. And obviously sometimes you can help people, sadly sometimes you have limited abilities to help people clearly in need. How do you deal? I guess specifically how do you deal the caseloads, the case files that you have to deal with? And then to you have any advice in a broader sense for those who are dealing with such issues?
Respondent: Sure. The first thing I have to say is that my colleagues here in the office are just absolutely wonderful. Specifically our immigration department is very, very tight knit and we often discuss very many things together including some of these heavier cases that come our way. And so having that support system here in the office, having that close-knit, tight working environment has been very helpful in that regard.
In addition to that, though, as I've been advised by many mentors, is taking some time to do some things that are unrelated to work. Whether that's spending time with your family, going out for a walk, just doing things outside the office is very important. And so I have three kids, so they keep me quite busy and so I try to dedicate the weekends to doing something outside the work environment to sort of reset and then come back on Monday and continue working.
Interviewer: I was going to say maybe you need a break from the three kids, right?
Respondent: It works both ways, right?
Interviewer: When you go back on Monday, you go back on Monday you feel [unintelligible 00:11:20] all you have to deal with is challenging case files.
Respondent: Oh absolutely, I have my morning coffee on Monday, it's fabulous being here.
Interviewer: Yeah, yeah. So I – I'm interested in your history, your experience, as I mentioned earlier in the introduction you came to Canada as a refugee from Albania. Can you give us a sense of kind of how you got to where you are? Because I mean it sounds fascinating to me. Fascinating is probably the wrong word but it's – obviously it's quite the experience from where you started to where you are today.
Respondent: Sure. Sure. So actually our status when we first came was not that of refugee, but we were not very far removed from that. We left Albania in 1998, shortly after the Civil War had started in the country in 1997, and at that time my mom qualified for one of the economic programs in place. She's an oil and gas engineer and so Calgary, Alberta was a natural choice. But she was lucky in the sense that she was able to qualify and come under that pathway. We were fleeing war though, so that's why I say we're not very far removed.
Going to law school and really the reason behind that was seeing the atrocities of 1997 in Albania and the complete failure of the justice system, the complete failure of the country, and the inability of people to seek justice done for all the atrocities that were being committed. And so I think I knew from the moment that I arrived in Canada that this is the path I wanted to follow. That I wanted to help people that were in similar circumstances. Law and society was my undergrad, and then it was law school after that. So it was something that I guess I always knew I wanted to do.
Interviewer: So I'm not going to do the math, by ask you – because you mentioned the year you came to and, how old were you – how – because I'm not going to try to figure out how old you are now, but how old were you when you came to Canada and did you speak any English or is that something that you obviously had to learn when you came here?
Respondent: I was 10, so I guess you are going to do the math now. But I did speak a little bit of English. I was taking English classes when I was over there. Of course I had to be enrolled in ESL once I came for a few months, but I had a basic understanding.
Interviewer: So you knew, as you said, you knew early on that you wanted to be a lawyer, and did you actually – I mean how did you come about to immigration law there?
Respondent: Thad's a funny question. I sort of fell into it. I thought I wanted to do criminal law when I graduated from law school and when I articled. And prior to going to law school I met this wonderful criminal lawyer who's now passed. But I followed him around and I thought it was fascinating what he did. And so I ended up articling at a firm that he had started with two other lawyers thinking that I would do criminal work over there. They also did a lot of immigration, though. About 90 percent of their patience was immigration. And so I sort of fell into immigration at that point. I loved it. I connected with the clients. They had a significant Albanian clientele, which you know, worked out very well. And then I just continued doing immigration after that.
Interviewer: And you focused – and then at some point you said this is my career path, this is my calling within the law?
Respondent: Absolutely. That's exactly how it happened. Once I transitioned – so after I articled I had my children, one after the other, and I practiced on my own for a little bit so that I could look after them during that time, but when – after I had my third one my then-mentor [unintelligible 00:15:15] who was practicing at [Kiernan? 00:15:17] Partners, asked me to come and join the team here. And it was the best decision that I've made. Like I said, the work environment and the colleagues here are absolutely fabulous. And I don't see myself anywhere else.
Interviewer: So I have a question on immigration law. So we talked earlier about some of the challenges, the mental health challenges dealing with obviously individuals coming from situations such as refugee situations or just war-torn countries in the first place. What's the most rewarding part of being a – I'll flip it around. What's the most rewarding part of being an immigration lawyer? And you know, if there's advice to young lawyers who are considering a path in immigration law, what advice would you give them?
Respondent: The happy clients. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a client's face when they receive a positive discussion. And like I said, I work a lot with refugee clients. And so when they have that positive refugee decision the emotion is just – it's overwhelming. So seeing that, seeing how grateful they are, how happy they are when that decision comes in – I can't compare it to anything else. So that is a huge motivator.
Interviewer: And how about for young lawyers, would you recommend a career in immigration law?
Respondent: Absolute? I think it's an area that is I would say a little bit undiscovered. And there's definitely – when you're in law school there's definitely some pressure to head in a certain direction. Like I said, I did not really know that immigration law was a significant area of practice when I was in law school and I had no intention of practicing in this area. But I think it's very rewarding, it's challenging, but you're dealing with clients every day, and if that's the sort of work that gets you excited then absolutely immigration law is where to find that.
Interviewer: I think that's good advice. I agree with you. One of the things I've talked about a fair bit, as somebody who works – now I work for a government agency but I've spent a fair bit of time working for non-profits, you know, there's certain career paths people usually gravitate to in the practice of law, which are all obviously excellent career paths, but there's lots of other areas of practice whether it be such as immigration law or working in other type of government or non-governmental agencies. So you know, it's always good to make sure that people understand with a law degree there's a lot of great [runways? 00:17:44] to practice law.
Respondent: There is, there is. And like I said, you're very, very connected to the clients, right? So it's an area of law where you can really see the end result. And you can take a file from beginning to end and you see the resolution of that file and it's very satisfying. It's not just a little piece of a file that you're working on. You're working on the entire thing.
Interviewer: I always joke, because people know law as they watch TV, and like a beginning of an end of an episode it's a case. And it's like no, court cases go on for five years, people don't really – the average immigration law – like from a – from [unintelligible 00:18:19] from a client coming to see you to getting a resolution, I mean obviously there's appeals and other things which maybe are not unusual but the average case from the beginning to a resolution, is there such a thing as an average?
Respondent: It really, really depends on the type of file that you're dealing with. At Kiernan and Partners we handle a lot of complex files. A lot of clients that come to us will have either lost something or they've got an issue that it's not straightforward. So there's files that can be resolved in less than a year. There's other files that will go back – back and forth, back and forth until they're finally resolved, maybe five, six years later. So it really depends.
Interviewer: Have you had any files that you're still working on that you started your practice with? I know you shouldn't joke about it but is – have there been cases that have gone on for that long of a period of time.
Respondent: You know what? That's a great question actually. The answer's no, thankfully, but when I first started at Kiernan and Partners there was a file that I had when I was practicing on my own that finally just got resolved when I first started here. So that was – that went back to federal court – it was s refugee file that went back to the federal court three times before it was finally resolved.
Interviewer: And with the government's commitment to not just refugees but obviously to increase the number of immigrants coming into Canada over the next couple of years, what's your view on how the system's going to be able to deal with that? That’s a lot of new case files for Immigration Canada to deal with. Do you think this is going to be something that's going to be able to happen or is it going to be with some hiccups?
Respondent: I'm certainly hopeful that they're going to be able to carry out what it is that they've undertaken. Having said that, there are a lot of backlogs in the system. We're seeing a lot of backlogs all across immigration files, which is concerning. Particularly ones involving family reunification, sponsorship application for spouses, things where individuals have been separated for a long time and are waiting to be reunited. Of course the pandemic did not help the situation. You know, things shut down for a little while there. So I am hopeful but I am wary of how this is going to play out.
Interviewer: I have just one or two more questions for you. This is obviously the focus of this podcast is on volunteerism, when we talked about obviously the volunteerism that's being done currently by members of the immigration law section to assist individuals seeking to come in from Afghanistan and the Ukraine. But I want to ask you about other volunteerism. Do you have time for anything else that's not volunteering pro bono and your kids or are you involved in any other community service? And if so, do you sleep?
Respondent: Well, yes, there is very little sleep, but that's OK. It's going to get better. No, I do take on some pro bono files as well through Calgary Legal Guidance. I like to take on a few files that I think are meritorious in addition to the initiative. Of course when we started the Afghanistan intake form and the Afghanistan program Ukraine had not yet happened. So once Ukraine happened things got a lot busier. I think it's important though. I think it keeps you grounded. And I think we're very, very fortunate to be where we are, to have what we have. And we have to give it back.
When we first immigrated to Canada we were very, very fortunate to be welcomed by many people that helped us who we would not be here today if it wasn’t for them. So I think it's important to do that for others. And even though it is time-consuming, it inspires you, with actual work too, right? It inspires you to move forward, it inspires you to just continue.
Interviewer: Well I couldn't have said it better myself to conclude this podcast. I wanted to think you very much for the work that you're doing to assist those who need, obviously, need your assistance. I want to thank the general membership of the immigration law section and others who are volunteering their time to assist in this important work. So it's been a pleasure meeting you virtually today and continue in all your good efforts.
Respondent: Thank you Stephen, and thank you for heading the organization. It's wonderful to be a part of it.
Announcer: This is Conversations with the President. Presented by the Canadian Bar Association.
Yves: Hi, I'm Yves Faguy of CBA National Magazine. Be sure to check out the latest Modern Law podcast where speak with Lex Gill about technology and human rights. [French]. Be sure to subscribe to the Modern Law podcast where we discuss the law's ability to keep pace with change.
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