UC Clermont students, alumni rally for Afghan refugees

Cougars aid Afghans seeking asylum

On a chilly, gray Saturday morning in November, more than a dozen lawyers, paralegals and students quietly gathered in a small computer lab in the University of Cincinnati’s Teachers College. Some were experts in immigration law; others, students and alumni of UC Clermont’s paralegal program. All answered a call for volunteers to assist people they would likely never meet, in need half a world away — and showed up, ready to work. 

For the 20 years the United States fought the Taliban in Afghanistan, thousands of Afghans served as contractors for the U.S., or worked in areas such as women’s rights, education or medicine, served in the Afghan army or worked for the Kabul government. When the U.S. pulled its remaining military presence from the country in August 2021, these individuals — ineligible for special immigrant visas — were left in the lurch.  

“These people meet the standards for asylum in the U.S., but they’re stranded,” said Barbara Rugen, UC Clermont College paralegal student. “What do they do?”

While such opponents of the Taliban are entitled to apply for a one-year humanitarian visa in the U.S., those visa applications must be sent from a U.S. embassy, which doesn’t currently exist in Afghanistan. Many are in safe houses, hiding from the Taliban government. If they can find a way to escape from the country and traverse the mountains with their family into Pakistan or Uzbekistan, they can apply.

“But the process can take months,” said Rugen, during which time asylum seekers are typically without paying jobs and other resources.  

Rugen, who holds a doctorate in literature, retired from a career in market research to join the Peace Corps in 2014. She and her husband served as volunteers in Africa for two years, which “fed my love for working with and helping immigrants,” she said. Once back in the states, “it quickly became clear that the law was the only way to have a significant impact on helping people who deserved to be U.S. citizens and would bring a great deal to our country.”

Soon, Rugen enrolled in the paralegal associate degree program at UC Clermont, supplementing with a few College of Law classes on UC’s Uptown Campus. Combining her new training with her marketing experience, Rugen developed a marketing strategy for Cincinnati’s Immigrant and Refugee Law Center and a how-to manual for pro bono lawyers. Her work connected her with renowned local social worker Natalie Fair-Albright, a longtime champion for the undocumented, who is well-versed in helping immigrants apply for U.S. visas.

We were really working to save lives that day.

Barbara Rugen UC Clermont paralegal alumna

After the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan, visa applications surged, and Albright was deluged; she turned to local immigration attorney Don Sherman for support. Rugen is a volunteer associate for Sherman. Armed with her paralegal training and relationships, Rugen was eager to help.

“I offered to find people who would come in, sit down and get these applications out, all in one day,” Rugen said. “So I turned to Page Beetem.”  

Beetem, associate professor and director of UC Clermont’s paralegal program, helped Rugen connect with program alumni working in local law firms and other members of the legal community. She also invited Rugen to speak to her current paralegal students.  

“I spoke to the class, shared the story and asked who was interested in helping,” Rugen said. “We had a number of students sign up, and every single one of them said they were willing to do anything to help. It was very impressive.”  

Beetem’s daughter Alexa, a student in UC’s Lindner College of Business, volunteered to help coordinate the event. UC Uptown donated space in Teachers College/Dyer Hall, and UCIT and Parking Services each offered assistance to make the work possible.

In the end, 13 lawyers, paralegals and students worked shoulder to shoulder from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., processing 100 applications for humanitarian visas. Attorneys Sherman, Chuck Hollis of Hollis Law Firm and Hannah Harris of Hammond law Group came early and stayed late. UC alums working as paralegals at Hammond grouped together to decipher Afghan applicants’ handwriting.  

“We were really working to save lives that day,” Rugen said. “People donated food. It was exciting; everyone came together and got it done.”  

One of paralegals who attended was Elizabeth Schmitt, who completed UC Clermont’s post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate in 2020. She also tripled majored in international affairs, journalism and French, graduating with her bachelor’s degree from UC’s College of Arts and Sciences in 2019. She is working as an immigration paralegal at Musillo-Ukenholt LLC in Cincinnati and spends her days helping families and individuals, such as nurses, file to live and work in the U.S.

“I love my clients,” Schmitt said. “You’re talking to people in one of the most stressful times in their lives. I love helping them through this process and trying to make it as easy as possible.”

Elizabeth Schmitt and Barbara Rugen stand smiling on UC's campus.

From left, Elizabeth Schmitt and Barbara Rugen. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative + Brand.

Schmitt said she felt well prepared for her job, thanks to the preparation she received at UC Clermont.

“The certificate program teaches you how to be a paralegal — kind of a crash course in the paralegal world,” Schmitt said. “I call it a ‘law-school light’ education; I learned how the legal system works.”

Both Schmitt and the attorney she works for, Maria Schneider, volunteered for the humanitarian visa project when they got the call.

“We each took a family unit — Afghan families can be quite large — and the work went really fast,” Schmitt said. “This is the type of work I do every day. For students, real-world projects like this help them get an idea of what it’s like to be a paralegal, while offering an opportunity for humanitarian work.”

With many more Afghan asylum seekers in the pipeline and the Department of Homeland Security backlogged with applications, Rugen said there is need for more legal assistance.

“It’s not getting better for those waiting; it’s getting worse,” Rugen said. “And this is something we can do to help legitimate applicants who are entitled to apply for visas. I will probably come back to UC Clermont and do this again.”

Beetem said UC Clermont, and the Greater Cincinnati legal community, will be ready.  

“This is why we train paralegal students,” Beetem said. “It’s why we go to law school. All of us in the legal community want to do good. This is one of those areas where we can make a change.”  

Those interested in helping eligible, vetted refugees seeking asylum can contact Natalie Fair-Albright. To help support the rights of local immigrants, contact Sheryl Rajbandari or Paul Breidenbach.

For information about UC Clermont's paralegal programs, visit https://ucclermont.edu/paralegal.

Feature photo at top: From left, Barbara Rugen and Elizabeth Schmitt, UC Clermont paralegal alumni who organized and took part in processing humanitarian visas for Afghan refugees at UC in November. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative + Brand.