Putting the Public Interest into Practice

Hundreds of Columbia Law School Students Spend Their Summers Working in Public Interest Positions Through Social Justice Initiatives' Guaranteed Summer Funding and Human Rights Internship Programs

New York, August 11, 2014— There are more than one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and Columbia Law School student Bassam M. Khawaja ’15 walked past hundreds of them every morning on the way to his summer internship at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beirut.

The Syrian men, women, and children, who fled to Lebanon from their own war-torn country, line up each day outside the U.N. compound seeking to register as refugees, a status that makes them eligible for U.N. aid.
But Lebanon doesn’t recognize the Syrians as refugees, so, inside the compound, Khawaja worked under the supervision of U.N. attorneys on a pilot project that would improve the process by which the Syrians renew their residency with the Lebanese government. The current system requires Syrians to renew twice a year, leaving their travel documents with Lebanese officials for weeks or even months while awaiting approval. To avoid this process, some Syrians simply forgo renewal and are then vulnerable to abuse and detention. The project Khawaja worked on would reduce the residency registration process to one day and result in a durable ID proving legal status.
“Just walking into the office is a daily reminder that the work we’re doing takes place in the context of a humanitarian crisis and has implications for an enormous number of people,” Khawaja said in an email describing his experience.
Khawaja is one of hundreds of Columbia Law School students who worked in public interest and human rights internships this summer through Social Justice Initiatives (SJI). SJI’s Guaranteed Summer Funding program offers qualified first- and second-year students a stipend to work full-time in judicial clerkships and in unpaid positions for nonprofits, public interest law organizations, government agencies, international criminal courts, and other entities. International human rights work like Khawaja’s is funded through the Law School’s Human Rights Internship Program.
The programs offer students the chance to do hands-on public interest work all around the country and world. Columbia Law School interns worked this summer at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Legal Aid Society, the New York City Department of Homeless Services, and many other agencies. Their work includes battling sexual assault in the military, advocating on behalf of the rights of Muslim women, and helping defend people facing criminal prosecutions in Los Angeles and Georgia.
Like Khawaja, Stephanie T. Amoako ’15, a joint graduate student with the School of International and Public Affairs, spent part of her summer outside the United States. As an intern at The International Legal Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that assists post-conflict and transitional countries in establishing public defender services, she stayed a month in Johannesburg, South Africa helping organize the first International Conference on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems.
“Working on the conference has been a great and formative experience that I will take with me as I pursue a career in rule of law development,” Amoako wrote in a reflection piece. “I am very grateful for my time in South Africa, and I look forward to seeing the impact that the work of the conference will have on the world.”
Other Columbia Law School students worked closer to home. Tanya L. Martinez ’16 interned in the Office of the General Counsel at the New York City Department of Education. The summer law clerk program there is headed up by Columbia Law School alumnus Freddy Taveras ’01, an attorney in the department’s commercial unit.
Martinez grew up in the New York City public school system and was a teacher for six years before she began law school, so the placement was a good fit. One of her projects was to research strategies for improving diversity in New York City schools.
“This is really where I wanted to be this summer and exactly what I wanted to do,” she said.
For all Guaranteed Summer Funding and Human Rights Internship program participants, the internships provide an opportunity to learn about work that can be done outside the private sector. For others, it’s the chance to finally put a lifelong dream into action.
Khawaja grew up in Lebanon and Palestine, witnessing some of the human rights abuses he is now working to eradicate as a law student.
“I came to Columbia Law School with the express purpose of going into the human rights field upon graduation,” he said, adding that a summer internship documenting war crimes in Syria with Human Rights Watch last year “really helped crystalize” that goal. “It was an enormously empowering experience being able to respond to atrocities, to be able to go to work in response.”