Immigrants' Rights Clinic Wins Asylum for Somali Man Tortured by Al-Shabaab

Clinic Students Catherine Kim '15 and Tiantian (Amy) Zhu '15 Worked on the Case with Professor Elora Mukherjee

New York, April 16, 2015—Ahmed*, a Somali man who faced persecution by the terrorist group Al-Shabaab, won asylum and was released from a federal immigration detention center on April 7, the Columbia Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic announced today.

Nearly a decade ago, Al-Shabaab accused Ahmed’s cousin of spying for foreign governments, and murdered him. The group then falsely accused Ahmed of working in league with his cousin, kidnapped him, interrogated him for information he didn’t have, and brutally tortured him for more than a week before leaving him to die. Miraculously, Ahmed recovered from his life-threatening wounds and fled Somalia.
Upon arrival at the California-Mexico border on October 15, Ahmed presented himself to immigration officials and requested asylum. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detained him at the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey while he pursued his case. Columbia Law School Immigrants’ Rights Clinic students Catherine Kim ’15 and Tiantian (Amy) Zhu ’15 represented Ahmed under the supervision of clinic director and Columbia Law School Associate Clinical Professor of Law Elora Mukherjee.
Tiantian (Amy) Zhu ’15, left, and Catherine Kim ’15, students in the Immigrants' Rights Clinic, won asylum for a Somali man who faced persecution by the terrorist group Al-Shabaab.
In her April 7 opinion, immigration judge Mirlande Tadal found that Ahmed had suffered past persecution on the basis of imputed political belief, in that Al-Shabaab falsely believed that he was a spy and tortured him for that reason. This past persecution created a presumption that Ahmed had a well-founded fear of future persecution in Somalia. The instability of the Somali government, and its inability to control Al-Shabaab, meant that internal relocation in Somalia was not a possibility for Ahmed; if he were deported to Somalia, no matter where he was, he would be in danger.
“The stakes were especially high, because if Ahmed were deported to Somalia after spending time in Kenya, South Africa, and the United States, Al-Shabaab would view his return as proof that he was spying on them for foreign governments, and behead him,” Kim said.
Ahmed’s case highlights the danger that Al-Shabaab poses to Somalis. The United States designated Al-Shabaab as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2008, and since that time, the group has committed numerous attacks on civilians, political figures, foreigners, journalists, and humanitarian workers in Somalia and neighboring countries. Earlier this month, Al-Shabaab killed nearly 150 students when it attacked Garissa University College in Garissa, Kenya. In March, it committed a suicide bombing at a Mogadishu hotel and detonated a car bomb at a government building in Baidoa, Somalia.
Ahmed first sought refuge in Kenya before moving to South Africa where he unsuccessfully applied for asylum. While his asylum appeal was pending, Ahmed began building a new life in Soweto, a Johannesburg township.
His life in Soweto was marked by violent xenophobia—not unusual in a country where Somalis are subject to extortion, deportation, and assaults. A South African gang robbed Ahmed at gunpoint in an anti-Somali hate crime, and when he cooperated with the police in identifying one of the robbers, the robber’s family threatened to kill him. Terrified for his life, Ahmed left Soweto. After receiving news from Somalia that Al-Shabaab was still searching for him, Ahmed began making plans to escape to the United States.
“I wanted to come here because I thought that in the United States, I could be safe,” Ahmed said.
Zhu said working on Ahmed’s case was “an amazing experience.”
“His story was so moving, and he is so resilient,” she said. “He's incredibly happy and excited to have been granted asylum and to start a new life in this country.”
Zhu and Kim gathered evidence from three countries in support of Ahmed’s case, collected country conditions and expert opinions, and drafted an extensive brief based on the applicable law. They prepared Ahmed for his hearing at the Immigration Court and conducted questioning at the hearing. The clinic also secured pro bono medical and mental health evaluations, which were made possible due to generous partnerships with Physicians for Human Rights and Columbia University Medical Center’s Human Rights Institute.
In addition to representing individuals, the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School collaborates with local and national immigrants’ rights organizations on regulatory and legislative reforms, impact litigation, grassroots advocacy, and strategic planning. Students in this semester’s clinic are also representing asylum seekers detained at the new Dilley, Texas family detention center run by Immigration Customs and Enforcement.
* Name has been changed to protect the privacy and safety of the client.