Student Legal Services supports one student's long journey toward asylum

Note: For purposes of the student’s privacy, his name has been changed for this story. The student has shared this information with Penn State for publication.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Ilias Ghandour, a 2017 graduate of Penn State Law, left his home and family in Iraq to continue his education by earning a law degree in 2012, he had every intention of returning to Iraq and seeking employment in the legal field there. 

Ghandour came to Penn State with a desire to improve his knowledge and skills in the legal field. He had already earned a bachelor’s degree and maintained several years of experience working as a lawyer in Iraq but needed to continue his education in order to obtain a higher level legal position there. He and his wife moved to State College on an educational visa, and Ghandour enrolled in Penn State Law that fall.

Two years later, and approximately halfway through his law program, Ghandour realized his dream of returning home to live and work would not be immediately possible. The political and social situations in Iraq had taken serious turns for the worse. ISIS had invaded nearly one-third of the country, and there was no way for him and his young family, who belong to a religious minority group heavily targeted by ISIS, to return there with any expectation of safety or success. He decided to seek out resources to help.

“It was a very difficult decision not to return home,” Ghandour said. “The violence and instability there made it clear it was not — and is not — safe for us.”

It was around this time that a friend and classmate suggested Ghandour reach out to Student Legal Services, a unit of Penn State Student Affairs that offers free, confidential legal services to University Park students in need of assistance.

“I had worked with Student Legal Services before during a conflict with my landlord,” Ghandour said. “So I was familiar with their office, and was hopeful they’d be able to help me with this case.”

After conversations with the licensed attorneys within the Student Legal Services office, it became clear Ghandour had a case to seek asylum in the United States, a protection granted by the U.S. government to someone who has left their native country as a political refugee. It would be a long and challenging process, spanning more than four and a half years, but Ghandour and the team at Student Legal Services believed he had a case.

“Asylum cases, like Ilias's can take years from start to finish,” said Aaron Brooks, licensed attorney with Student Legal Services. “It’s important to realize it is not an easy process, but once we have accepted a case we do everything we can to ensure a successful outcome for the student.”

Brooks served as the primary contact for Ghandour’s case, and worked closely with him and his wife, who would also be interviewed, throughout the process.

“Since my first meeting with Student Legal Services, they have been very helpful,” Ghandour said. “Aaron assisted with my application, explained every aspect of it, and helped me collect the appropriate documentation I needed to submit my application.”

Two-and-a-half years after filing the initial application for asylum, the notification of an official asylum interview arrived. With the help of Student Legal Services, Ghandour prepared by sitting through mock interviews to prepare for the nearly five-hour questioning that would determine the success of his application.

“It would not be an exaggeration to say that Aaron did everything he could to help and prepare me,” Ghandour said of the application and interview process. “He answered every question, helped me to understand the process. Everything he said was correct, and I mostly knew what to expect at every step of the way. I could never have done all of this on my own.”

Though Ghandour and his family are still awaiting notification of their asylum application status, he continues to remain in contact with Student Legal Services for consultations and questions along the way.

Student Legal Services provides referrals, advice, or representation to University Park students in need of assistance with a wide range of issues, including summary criminal citations, traffic citations, landlord and tenant matters, power of attorney and even the creation of living wills, among others. 

“The service we provide is different in every situation,” said Kelly Mroz, director of Student Legal Services. “If we can’t help a student with a particular situation, we do what we can to help them find someone who can.”

For more information on available services, making an appointment, or visiting open office hours, visit Student Legal Services online at studentaffairs.psu.edu/legalservices.

Last Updated April 13, 2018