Sead Avdovic was not a typical Temple University student. Along with balancing hectic college life last year, the mechanical engineering student was preparing his petition for political asylum in the United States. Representing him in that effort were Eunice Trevor and Dan Bencivenga, two lawyers from the Philadelphia-based law firm Brigham & Trevor.
Avdovic came to Philadelphia to escape ethnic violence in the Serbian province of Kosovo. Avdovic and his family are Slavic Muslims, and Avdovic claimed they were being persecuted by the Albanian majority in Kosovo. The Albanians, who were themselves the target of ethnic cleansing by former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, regained majority status in Kosovo after the June 1999 military intervention by NATO. Since then, many repatriated Albanians have sought retribution for Milosevic’s conduct by using violence and intimidation to rid Kosovo of non-Albanian minorities, including Slavic Muslims and Serbs.
Avdovic had other reasons to fear persecution. While living and attending school in Pristina, the provincial capital of Kosovo, Avdovic worked for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an international organization charged with monitoring, protecting, and promoting human rights in Kosovo. Avdovic’s association with OSCE placed him in danger with the local Serbian population, who believed that the organization, with the NATO forces, ousted the Serbs from Kosovo.
In 1999, Avdovic and his family received a series of death threats culminating in a failed attempt by a group of Albanian men to break into Avdovic’s family’s home.
With the help of the Community of Bosnia, a United States-based aid organization, Avdovic was able to obtain a student visa and a scholarship to attend Temple University.
Although this was their first pro bono asylum case, Trevor and Bencivenga heard of Avdovic’s situation through the Community of Bosnia and immediately agreed to represent Avdovic in his asylum petition before the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Although only 25 percent of asylum applicants are granted political asylum, Trevor and Bencivenga said they were extremely eager to handle the case. “[Avdovic’s situation] is a great area for pro bono work,” said Trevor. “It’s a wonderful way [for attorneys] to broaden [their] knowledge about what’s going on in the world while doing something good at the same time.”
“Sead’s ethnicity and his OSCE involvement made him a target of both the majority Albanians in Kosovo and the minority Serbs,” said Bencivenga. “He really had no place to turn.”
“Every day that Sead remained in Kosovo, he risked becoming a victim of violence or persecution because of his ethnicity,” said Bencivenga.
“The difficulty with these asylum cases is finding the supporting documents,” stated Bencivenga. “Asylum applicants such as Avdovic very often do not bring documents that support their claims. Therefore, as a result, it makes their case look unbelievable.”
The lawyers found the Internet a valuable resource in building Avdovic’s case. Through several weeks of preparing and researching on the Internet, Trevor and Bencivenga found United Nations’ reports, international aid organizations documents, and NATO reports which provided INS with accurate and specific information regarding the seriousness of Avdovic’s case. They were also able to use e-mail to retrieve affidavits from witnesses in Yugoslavia.
“The internet was literally a lifesaver in this case. Without access to these resources, Sead would have difficulty making a clear and compelling argument to the INS,” Bencivenga said in a phone interview.
Along with finding supporting documentation, Trevor and Bencivenga helped Avdovic prepare for his interview with INS.
“The actual interview itself is the longest part of the whole process,” stated Trevor. “We wanted to ensure that he knew exactly what to do in the interview in support of his case.”
In order to convince the INS to grant asylum, Avdovic had to be completely familiar with the different documents that Trevor and Bencivenga found. He also had to be completely aware of the process. Unlike other asylum applicants, Avdovic speaks English well, which was to his advantage.
“This was extremely important,” Bencivenga said. “The fact that Sead spoke clear English allowed INS interviewers to completely understand his situation.”
Advised in their representation by Joe Hohenstein of National Services Center, a Philadelphia-based non-profit agency that assists immigrants in a wide range of immigrant issues, Trevor and Bencivenga learned a lot from their first pro bono asylum case.
“It was a learning process for us,” said Trevor, who specializes in products liability law, “both in terms of the very complex ethnic disputes that exist in Kosovo and in terms of American immigration law.”
This month, Avdovic received the results. The INS had granted his petition for political asylum.
Said Trevor: “When all was said and done, it was well worth that effort.”