Emily Derstine, Plains
Upon arriving in Washington, D.C. to begin a year of Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS), I had little idea what to expect. Sure, I had been to D.C. in the past for school field trips, church day trips, service opportunities, and had even spent a semester in D.C. with EMU’s Washington Community Scholars’ Center program during college. I knew a bit about the city. But my anticipation of living and working in D.C. for a year would be a whole new experience—especially delving into work at an immigration organization, dealing solely with detained immigrants and entering into the legal sphere.
I had to question myself in the weeks leading up to the move. I knew nothing about the law or the organization with which I would work, much less Spanish than I was comfortable with, and little about the people with whom I would live for an entire year. Why did I think this would be a good idea? Amid my uncertainty and doubt, my mind pulled out a poignant idea that I heard quoted this past summer: “The more certain you are, the less likely it’s God working.” So I figured God must be working overdrive in this endeavor.
And I certainly found that to be true. My experience in D.C. has proven to be more than I could have ever hoped for or imagined. This year is bringing great meaning to my life, and excitement for the future. The opportunities I have working as a Legal Assistant at the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition are invaluable. Through conducting intakes with immigration detainees in the detention facilities, evaluating cases with our legal team during intake review in the office conference room, following-up with the immigrants’ family members and friends, attending immigration court, and relating in both English and Spanish, I am learning the complexities of immigration law and the plight of so many people worldwide.
The work is stimulating and challenging, exciting and intimidating, disheartening and energizing. Despite the frustrations of a harsh, flawed system, I see hope amidst the heavy stories and unfortunate circumstances. From the people with whom I work, I have learned about the preciousness and beauty of freedom. In speaking with a recently-released detainee—a thrilling reality that we witness too-infrequently—I realize that many of us fail to see the joys of certain every-day aspects of life: feeling the warmth of the sun, breathing fresh air, hugging a friend, working and living where we choose. Although countless individuals experience captivity in one form or another, taking freedom for granted is highly common.
In addition to my job, I am learning the joys of city living, using public transportation as a main means of getting around and living on a small volunteer stipend. Networking and connection-building common to the urban environment is a welcomed opportunity as well. Through my experiences, work and daily life, I am increasingly finding both that injustice enrages me and singing refreshes me and revives my spirit.
Despite my initial apprehension, my Spanish skills are improving, I am slowly learning the legal jargon, am becoming relatively proficient in what forms of relief from deportation exist for detained immigrants and am benefitting from delving into the intricacies of immigration law. The clients with whom we work are diverse and each has had different life experiences. I especially appreciate hearing their unique stories, and am intrigued by their varied histories. Often, I find myself wanting to help these immigrants more than I am able to in this context, and become fascinated by researching country conditions and case law. Desiring justice, I am particularly drawn to asylum-seekers, women and those who have undergone persecution and discrimination in the past or have a possibility of experiencing harm in the future.
Through this work, I am increasingly passionate about human rights and empowering people. I am thoroughly enjoying my work and experiences in the liveliness and excitement of D.C. and the CAIR Coalition. Learning quite a great deal in the process—about the city, my work and myself—I feel both blessed and grateful to have this opportunity.