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Legal fund is helping provide lawyers for undocumented kids in NEO, like teen who lost leg in Iraq

Posted at 5:54 PM, Feb 09, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-09 17:54:25-05

She lost a leg in a missile attack and was brought back from the brink of death.

Now an Iraqi teen and her mom are in another life-or-death battle — the fight to stay in this country.

Their story is just one of thousands playing out right now across Northeast Ohio as immigrants, many of them fleeing violence, try to navigate the legal system.

But a big setback for them was when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled undocumented children do not have a right to free counsel.

A special fund set up in Cleveland is trying to make sure every child seeking asylum gets the help they need.

A lot of people in our community are throwing their support behind this cause. In just the first few months of seeking donations, the Immigration Legal Services Fund has already collected more than $800,000.

"We were having dinner and I came down from the stairs," said Shahad Al-Jumaili.

Seconds later, Al-Jumaili watched as a missile tore through her grandfather's Baghdad home.

"And she said 'mom, help me,'" said Shahlaa Al-Sudani, Shahad’s mother.

Al-Jumaili, just 6 years old at the time, lost her left leg.

"She lost her childhood. She couldn't play with the children," said Al-Sudani.

Al-Jumaili tells News 5 her home country was unable to properly care for her.

“They used vinegar instead of every medicine I need," said Al-Jumaili.

Al-Jumaili and her mother left Iraq to escape the violence, but they also needed to get the little girl a prosthetic leg and on-going treatment.

"When she come here, they give her more hope to live," said Al-Sudani.

The pair has long-term plans to stay in Northeast Ohio.

"I must go to the court if I want to have a new life for me and my family," said Al-Sudani.

They're just two of the thousands of undocumented immigrants requesting asylum in Cleveland's immigration court.

"There is not a right to free counsel in immigration court," said Camille Gill.

Catholic Charities is one of the organizations that's trying to fill that void with free or low-cost legal aid.

"The need has grown a lot more in the last year," said Gill.

With 300 people on a waiting list, there's clearly not enough lawyers to go around.

"There's a big difference in what happens if you have a lawyer or if you don't have a lawyer," said Gill.

Statistics show only one in ten asylum seekers, like Al-Sudani and her daughter, are successful when they navigate the system on their own.

"The stakes at immigration court are so high, it is life and death," said Gill.

Catholic Charities, along with The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, Asian Services In Action, Inc. and Building Hope in the City have teamed up to create the Cuyahoga County Immigration Services Fund of the Cleveland Foundation.

"We're trying to grow the fund to over a million dollars," said Ilana Horowitz Ratner, volunteer attorney.

With more than $800,000 raised so far, it's money that'll be used to hire more attorneys.

"To have a source of funding that you can go back to year after year really just changes the landscape for organizations like mine," said Gill.

As Al-Jumaili and her mom wait to meet with an asylum officer the medical fight continues.

"Every two years they get her again to do a surgery in the right leg and change the prosthetic leg," said Al-Sudani.

The mother and daughter are also waging another battle to build a better life outside of Iraq, where for now the teen’s father and sister remain.

"They used to hit me with rocks when they see me for some reason because I had one leg not two and here they help me, there is a difference," said Al-Jumaili.

Al-Jumaili and her mom tell News 5 not only do they felt safer living in Northeast Ohio, being here gives the her a chance to continue getting medical care for her injuries that she cannot get in Iraq.

The pair is early in the court process. They are currently waiting to speak with an asylum officer.