The woman lived in a village in the eastern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like other African nations, the DRC has been wracked by tribal violence, with rebel Hutu militia committing unspeakable acts against rival Tutsis, including burying people alive and committing mass rapes.
One day in 2006, the Hutu raided the woman's village. She chooses not to divulge the details, only that she tried to protect her family and was left for dead in the forest. But she was saved by United Nations workers and brought to America where she met another immigrant - Dana Bucin, an associate at Hartford's Updike, Kelly & Spellacy.
"Part of my personal background plays into why I took the case and stuck with it," said Bucin. "I'm from Romania, which has gone through oppression [under former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu]. So I feel for folks who have been persecuted."
Bucin came to America when she was 18 to attend college; she became a U.S. citizen this past summer. She estimates that she's spent more than 200 pro bono hours working on the African woman's case. She asked that the woman's name and home village not be published to protect family members who remain behind from possible retribution.
Upon arriving in America, the African woman was directed to the University of Connecticut School of Law's Asylum and Human Rights Clinic in 2007. The first barrier was that she spoke no English. She did speak French, however; the DRC - formerly known as Zaire - was once a colony of Belgium.
Attorney Bucin speaks French, practices immigration law and had once taken an asylum course in law school. "It's right up my alley," Bucin remembers thinking when she agreed to help the woman.
At first, the African woman was hesitant to tell Bucin her story. "Victims of torture are known for not trusting people in the beginning," said Bucin. "It's important that you make her feel like you understand what she went through."
Gaining that trust was just the first step.
After finding a home for the woman at the South Meriden Trinity United Methodist Church, Bucin had to figure out how to win asylum for her without having much evidence to document the woman's past. There was the woman's own word, the account of a witness who transported her from the airport after she came to the U.S., and a doctor who verified signs of torture. Timing is a key issue: Refugees must apply for asylum within one year of their arrival in the U.S.
"Some folks bring articles from their country or paperwork that identifies them or [they] present you with plane tickets, boat details. A lot of those elements were missing," said Bucin. "But you don't gather that type of evidence when you're being persecuted to that degree."
Additionally, asylum applicants must prove they have a well-founded fear of future persecution because of their race, religion, ethnicity, political opinion, or membership in a social group.
Bucin spent hours researching conditions in Africa and made comparisons to the Holocaust. In her law firm job, Bucin routinely writes briefs, but doing trial work was a new experience. However, on the day her case went before Immigration Judge Michael Straus in Hartford, she had a four-hour presentation ready to go. "I put on a show with witnesses, testimony, arguments," said Bucin, now a fifth-year attorney.
Still, Judge Straus denied the asylum request in February 2008. But he did grant something called withholding of removal. That allowed Bucin's client to remain in America, but she faced the possibility of being sent home to the DRC if conditions there improved.
Not satisfied, Bucin went to the Board of Immigrations Appeals. This past May, the board sided with Bucin. Part of Judge Straus' ruling was that there was little proof that the African woman had filed for asylum within a year. Bucin had an affidavit from the airport driver, but the person was unable to come to Hartford to testify at the four-hour hearing. The appeals board decided Bucin had done everything possible to try to secure the driver's testimony and that the affidavit was sufficient.
That's not the end of the story. After being granted asylum, the woman is permitted to bring her family to Connecticut. But that, too, won't be easy. The family must move from place to place to stay clear of the violence. There was one phone conversation, but the woman and her kin have lost touch. Bucin has put out the word to humanitarian organizations, but that's no sure thing - even Red Cross workers get shot at in the DRC.
Bucin said she is proud of how far along her client has come in the past three years. She has learned English and is studying to be a nurse.
"Now she can stay here, work here, have a life, perhaps bring her family here. That's worth 200 hours of your life," said Bucin, who urges other attorneys to take on pro bono cases helping asylum applicants. "You can make the difference between life and death."