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Attorney Elizabeth Lopez Named KPBS Community Hero For Her Work With Asylum Seekers

Attorney Elizabeth Lopez with one of her early clients, Shyma Eweedah, in thi...

Above: Attorney Elizabeth Lopez with one of her early clients, Shyma Eweedah, in this undated photo.

San Diego Attorney Elizabeth Lopez is the KPBS and National Conflict Resolution Center's Community Hero, selected for her pro bono immigration work with individuals fleeing persecution in their home countries and seeking asylum in San Diego and Imperial counties.

“Elizabeth is an absolute asset to her clients and to us,” said Kathi Anderson, executive director for Survivors of Torture International, who worked with Lopez and nominated her for the honor. “She serves survivors of torture, asylum seekers, those who are detained, those who would not otherwise have legal representation. She really is an unsung hero in our community for the issue of immigration.”

Lopez founded the Southern California Immigration Project in 2015, a nonprofit that provides free or low-cost legal services to asylum seekers, predominantly from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon, Rwanda, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Egypt. She works out of her home in Mission Hills, and, until recently, was a one-woman operation. This summer she shared her home office with four interns who are also working with immigrants.

Asylum seekers, like refugees, often suffer from persecution in their native countries, but their cases are processed differently. Refugees earn their legal status outside the United States, while asylum seekers begin the legal process within U.S. borders. As a result, asylum seekers do not receive the same level of support here as refugees, according to Anderson.

Understanding the level of need in this community spurred Lopez to concentrate her practice on asylum seekers. In fact, Lopez funds the nonprofit with her own money and tears up when she talks about why.

“Knowing that there are so many people from this population that are unrepresented, I felt I had to put my money where my mouth was,” said Lopez, who estimated that only 4 percent of asylum seekers win their case without an attorney. “They can’t go through this process without an attorney. And I decided that’s just what I had to do. I’ve found there are certain things that are put in front of you in your life that you can not turn a blind eye to. I really felt it was something I had to do, that I was called to do.”

Often her clients have no family members here and Lopez becomes like family to them. Such was the case with Shyma Eweeda, one of Lopez’s first asylum cases when she worked at the Casa Cornelia Law Center in 2008. Eweeda came to the United States with her sister, both vowing not to return home to Saudi Arabia, where as Palestinian refugees and as women, they were not afforded the same rights as Saudi citizens. Eweeda and her sister did not enjoy the same access to public education, social benefits and could not travel without a male guardian.

“From a political perspective, without (Elizabeth’s) help, I would have been stateless for the rest of my life,” said Eweeda, who has stayed in touch with Lopez, inviting her to her wedding and baby showers. “She did not just change my life - and made it literally brighter - she also changed the lives of future generations.”

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