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Commitment to Community Service Recognized

Law students nominated for Premier’s Volunteer Service Award

May 3, 2019 — 

This April, law professor Shauna Labman was surprised and pleased to learn that a volunteer group started by some of her students had been nominated as “Volunteer of Outstanding Merit in the Province of Manitoba” for the Premier’s Volunteer Service Award. The award is intended “to honour the efforts and dedication of outstanding volunteers, and to recognize and encourage valuable services performed by volunteers throughout Manitoba,” according to a letter the group received from the Premier’s office. While the group was not selected to receive the award this year, they were sent a Certificate of Recognition by way acknowledgement and thanks for their hard work and dedication.

Maddie Pearlman [J.D./2018] was a second-year law student at Robson Hall when she read media articles about refugee claimants arriving at the Emerson border in Winter of 2017, and further, that the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council’s Welcome Place resources were being stretched to the limits. “I immediately contacted my colleague Kobra Rahimi [J.D./2017],” Pearlman said, “and together we spoke with Professor Labman about the possibility of volunteering and getting other students involved. I knew this was a major access to justice problem, and there seemed to be a practical and mutually beneficial way to address it at Robson Hall.

Pearlman reached out to second and third-year law students by social media and emails to recruit students, asking especially for volunteers who spoke French and/or Arabic. In her third year, she and a classmate recruited new students and developed an application process to sign up more volunteers for which they found there was ongoing need.

“It has been incredible to watch the program grow with student engagement and interest strengthening each year.”

At first, Labman thought the initiative would provide the Welcome Place with short-term assistance from those particular students, but subsequent students have continued to organize and develop the program. “It has been incredible to watch the program grow with student engagement and interest strengthening each year,” Labman said.

Students who volunteer at the Welcome Place, Pearlman said, get a chance to build relationships with settlement organizations and refugee claimants. “Each volunteer spends time speaking with claimants and asking them questions about their life story and journey to Canada to create a narrative for their Basis of Claim, which will be submitted as their refugee claim. The placement and student training provided is an opportunity to learn the foundations of refugee law and apply the skills we learn in school, outside of the classroom. Volunteering at Welcome Place also offers law students a chance to work with vulnerable populations and learn about access to justice issues here in Winnipeg and around the world. It allowed me to develop my active listening and interviewing skills.”

“I was amazed by the level of interest that students showed and the compassion and commitment that volunteers demonstrated.”

Maria Ingrid Ruiz, who graduates from Robson Hall this spring, said she was looking for a unique “clinical” experience at law school, and while immigration and refugee law were not quite on her radar, she found that volunteering at the Welcome Place allowed her to “make a lasting impact on people’s lives,” even with simply helping someone start an immigration claim.

“I was amazed by the level of interest that students showed and the compassion and commitment that volunteers demonstrated,” said Ruiz. “This task of filling in forms and getting people to tell their story, often in their second or third language, after experiencing significant trauma – requires attention to detail, issue spotting, patience, showing respect and effective questioning. These skills are all transferable to any area of law that students end up practicing in.”

Together with fellow student Nina Holatova, Ruiz inherited the role of recruiting, coordinating and training Robson Hall volunteers this past year. “We have been incredibly grateful that so many students have been interested in helping out, so much so that we have had to create “reserves” of students to engage in the volunteer cycle,” she said.

“This work is important, it can mean that someone who had fled persecution will be able to live safely in Canada.”

Jesse Blackman, entering his third year of law school, has taken over coordinating the program, together with classmate David Theissen. In his recruitment email to fellow law students this spring, Blackman advised that “This work is important, it can mean that someone who had fled persecution will be able to live safely in Canada,” and that as volunteers, law students’ roles are “to help refugee claimants tell their story as clearly as possible.”

Rita Chahal, Executive Director of MIIC, who nominated the students for the Premier’s Volunteer Service Award, shared that “Our work would have been incomplete without the help of your students.”

“For a busy organization to take the time to recognize our students for such an honour is a true statement of the value our students are bringing to the community,” Labman said.

Related Story: Law students helping refugee claimants: A Robson Hall Welcome at Welcome Place

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