Recent graduate Valentina Zavala-Arbelaez strives to help people like her. Having experienced family separation due to American immigration laws herself, the anthropology major, educational studies minor, and Latin American, Iberian, and Latinx studies concentrator now works to support Philadelphia’s immigrant communities in the Asylee Outreach Program (AOP).
Placed as a caseworker there as a part of the 2021–2022 cohort of the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship‘s HaverPhilly Alumni Fellowship Program, Zavala-Arbelaez collaborates with both the social services and legal teams to provide asylees and refugees with important resources. “For my legal responsibilities, I am drafting different applications, such as green cards, travel documents, employment authorization documents, and family petitions,” she explained. “For my social services responsibilities, I am often completing public benefits applications, checking in with clients on how they are doing, signing them up for ESL classes, applying for rental assistance, and overall trying to help my clients meet their needs.”
When she began the work in July 2021, she had to learn an abundance of information on the fly and communicate it to AOP’s clients. She uses her language skills to speak with Spanish-speaking clients, ensuring that they feel comfortable and understand their legal rights. The hardest part of the job is dealing with the slowness and frequent setbacks of these legal processes. “Because our clients are low-income, I often enroll clients in Medical Assistance for a legal application’s fee waiver, to more easily demonstrate financial need to USCIS,” she said. “Sometimes getting a client public benefits for the fee waiver can take much more time than the actual application itself due to a County Assistance Office’s unfamiliarity with the rights that asylees have to benefits, for example. There is much client advocacy involved with this position, and learning how to best do this has been significant for my work.”
All of the struggles, however, make the successes feel extra triumphant. “I recently helped one of our clients apply to become a U.S. citizen, and she sent me the kindest email with lovely photos celebrating her citizenship in light of the troubles she had experienced throughout her life to get up to this point,” said Zavala-Arbelaez. “Our clients are so great to work with and form relationships with, and it’s been a privilege and joy to do so.”
Her academic and extracurricular experiences at Haverford focused on community-building within the Latinx and immigrant community. This experience at AOP has continued that focus, and prepares her for an exciting future. “With my experiences in HPAF to fuel me, I am very excited to continue pursuing a legal career and go to law school soon.”