Refugees get introduction to American legal system in Chattanooga

Refugees get introduction to American legal system in Chattanooga

June 20th, 2012 by Perla Trevizo in News

Elizabet Morera, center; her 8-year-old daughter Danela Rodriguez; and Yusnaimy Jorge, second right, attend a legal seminar for refugees new to Chattanooga on Tuesday. Chattanooga attorney Sam Gowin, right, assisted by translator Ediee Perez, leads the session.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.


• World Refugee Day is observed June 20 to raise awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the world. This year's theme is "Refugees have no choice. You do" and focuses on the tough choices facing refugees, helping the public to empathize with and understand their dilemma.

• A record 800,000 people were forced to flee across borders last year, more than at any time since 2000.

• About 42.5 million people in 2011 were either refugees, internally displaced or in the process of seeking asylum.

• Afghanistan remains the biggest producer of refugees at 2.7 million; followed by Iraq, 1.4 million; Somalia, 1.1 million; Sudan, 500,000; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 491,000.

Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees


1,200: Refugees resettled in Tennessee in 2011.

70: Refugees resettled in Chattanooga in 2011.

23: Countries represented in 2011's resettlement in Tennessee.

Source: Tennessee Office for Refugees

"Buenos días mis amigos."

Good morning, my friends, local attorney Sam Gowin says as he introduces himself to a small group of Cuban refugees. He is about to conduct the second "Introduction to our Legal System" - an orientation to help newcomers learn about the U.S. court system, what to do when a police officer stops them and what can happen if a child has too many unexcused absences from school.

Every year, Chattanooga is the new home to several dozen refugees - people forced to flee their countries because of persecution, war or violence - and when they arrive, they must learn everything from where and how to shop in grocery stores to how to find a job and how to make sure they are not breaking any laws.

"Part of our job is to provide orientation to the different aspects of American life. Very often people make mistakes because they don't know the rules," said Marina Peshterianu, office manager for Bridge Refugee Services, the local agency that helps refugees resettle.

Gowin moved with his wife to Chattanooga less than two years ago from Atlanta, where he volunteered extensively with refugees. When he moved here, he still wanted to help.

"I like to learn from people, and I'm trying to be useful as an attorney. There are so many things they don't know about how to navigate our system," he said Tuesday after the hourlong presentation.

And there were a lot of questions at the orientation session, especially about women's rights, children and school and how to deal with the police.

"We ask a lot of questions because we don't know about the laws here," Elizabet Morera, who arrived with two daughters and her husband four months ago, told Gowin through an interpreter.

Morera and her friend Yusnaimy Jorge said the orientation was very important for them.

"These are new laws for us and they are different from those in our country," said Jorge, who arrived from Cuba with her son only a couple of months ago.

"For example, here women and children are protected," she said. "In Cuba, children miss school whenever they want to and, if a man hits a woman, he may spend a night at the police station or pay a fine but then he is free to go home. Nothing happens."

Gowin also talked to the group about car seats, divorce laws in Tennessee and the drinking age. He said he is still in the learning process and adjusts the presentation based on refugees' questions.