Where are they now?

Where are they now?: Jonathon Hameed-Burne

Jonathon Hameed-Burne, a 2017 Community Fellow with the Arab American Association of New York, worked for the Innocence Project after completing the fellowship, as a case analyst and then a senior case analyst.

What are you most proud of from your time as a Fellow?

What is coming to mind now are the relationships that I made. It feels weird to talk about that as something that I’m proud of, but I think the reason why I’m thinking of those relationships is because of the friendships that I made, that I still have, with my AAANY coworkers, my clients, other Fellows and with supervisors. They were the things that I was most at risk of not keeping after the fellowship. And I think even during the fellowship, those are the things that often felt the most difficult to hold on to, just because there’s so much work and so many things happening. Being able to look back and say I still have really meaningful connections with the people from the fellowship, that feels more important to me than the number of applications that I filed or the types of cases that I worked on. I’m still learning from the people and learning from those relationships in a way that I don’t think I’m experiencing the same type of continuity from other aspects of the fellowship.

Were there challenges you faced as a Fellow that you felt were systemic to working within the immigration system?

A ton of things for sure. There are different ways that I can tie the challenges together.

I think there was the very visceral experience of the Fellowship being my first job and having a ton of responsibility for not five or 10 or 15 people, but 100 people. They are experiencing the application process as obviously, a really significant thing. For some of them, it felt like life and death. That was a difficult thing to navigate – managing work life balance and expectations with clients. It was something that just took a long time to learn and to internalize and practice.

The next concentric circle out of that as an organization, there were challenges there. There was definitely a need for more people to be doing not just the immigration services, but all the services that the Arab American Association of New York provided, which spanned from social work to immigration to community organizing. Even though we were kind of in our own little separate department as the immigration team, we were all really connected with each other and when one team was facing a challenge, we all felt it. That was definitely something that just took time for me as technically IJC staff, but also as a member of this community to figure out, what is my relationship to these things? How do I manage the expectations of my agency workload while also wanting to show up to other events that Arab American is holding to support the community? That was a challenge to navigate too.

The biggest circle is just working within the immigration system. That, in a lot of ways, informs all the other challenges because it all exists under the big umbrella of working in a really messed up system. It’s built in such a way to take the worst experiences that these people have to go through and reduce them into a 10-page application and have them sit through it for a year, sometimes even a year and a half. I’m still kind of processing some of the things that working within that system made me feel and made me witness. The term moral injury is something that I came across pretty early on in my time at IJC, that term as a way to describe this feeling of witnessing people go through really traumatic and damaging things and feeling really limited in your ability to help them, or sometimes even feeling complicit in that trauma that they’re experiencing. That’s definitely something that I’m still processing and trying to figure out. How does one do the work that needs to be done with that reality?

But at all the different levels at which there were challenges, there was also support and different types of bonding and healing.

What were some coping strategies that you found helpful during your time as a Fellow?

Early on, I felt a little frustrated by the way that, not IJC in particular, but I think just generally young working adults would talk about self care. I was kind of inundated with this messaging of self care as a very individual thing. You as an individual are burnt out or stressed out and so you as an individual need to take a spa day or take time off and recharge, and then get back to it when you’re feeling better. And that probably works for a lot of people, but for me that doesn’t really capture the actual causes of that burnout.

I feel lucky that around the same time that I started at IJC, I started to get involved with other community groups that were also involved in migrant justice, but from such a different perspective than me as a service provider. These were just people in the community that were witnessing increases in deportations or the ICE presence in various neighborhoods, and were just coming together to figure out how to support each other through the increased level of surveillance and enforcement. In those little networks, I found a lot of space to just do what I think is actually more of a healing self care for me, which is just being able to be with people throughout the highs and lows of the experience of doing this work. That was really meaningful. I did find those pockets within IJC as well, but having something that was totally divorced from my paid job was really essential for me.

We also started this reading group at IJC and then it kind of just morphed into a group therapy session once a month. But starting off as a reading group was important for me because I felt really alienated from the work. I felt like I was just greasing the cogs of this machine that I was seeing cause so much harm in my life and in my clients lives. Reading and hearing people talk about that dissonance of wanting to do good, but also feeling like you’re also contributing to the problem, that was really helpful.

What is your advice for a Community Fellow starting the fellowship?

The first piece of advice that I would give is to really connect with other Fellows as much as you can, for so many reasons. First and foremost, for the community care aspect. The reason why I was able to do the work and to not just survive the fellowship but thrive as well is because of those relationships that I had built with people.

At my site, we had so many people that needed support, and for the most part, they had pretty straightforward cases. The majority of my cases were approved, less because of my skill and more just because the cases were pretty simple and straightforward. There was another Fellow my year who had the complete opposite experience, where they were hunting down cases because they had so few people that they were able to help, and the cases that they did get were so much more complex and required so much more in-depth analysis and research and work. Being able to hear from the Fellows about their experiences, and even being able to work together on some cases that were maybe different from what we were being exposed to at our host sites, was such an amazing part of the fellowship.

And not just connecting with the Community Fellows, but the Justice Fellows too – connecting with them and making sure that you’re going out of your way to learn from these people and to hear about their experiences as recent law grads, as early career attorneys, especially for people who are considering law school and thinking that that could be a path that they want to go on. It’s just such a beautiful and rare experience that IJC offers for you to get that connection with people who are potentially doing the same exact thing that you’re going to be doing in four or five years. So connect with people as much as you can, that’s the biggest thing. And with the staff as well. Learn from people as much as you can, in addition to the Fellows, but also the other folks who have just such amazing stories that have led them to IJC.

The other thing that I feel obligated morally to talk about is boundaries, not just with your clients but with yourself too. There were so many days that I stayed till 8, 9, 10 p.m. because I put the pressure on myself to get as much done as I could. And I knew, intellectually, all the stuff about how the more that you burn yourself out, the less productive you are and the less able you are to actually help people. But in those moments, the only thing that mattered was just getting the applications out. Only when I had somebody else there, the new Fellow that came in when I was a second-year Fellow, only when I saw them doing the same things that I was doing was I able to say, ‘oh wait, this actually is not the way that we should be doing this work.’ So try to preempt that as soon as possible by telling yourself that you deserve to have rest in this work. You care a lot about this and you want to do your best and you want to help as many people as you can. You deserve to take a break.

I think a lot about someone who I worked with, Amy Meselson, a former staff attorney at IJC who actually supervised me on my first asylum case that I worked on. Just thinking about her story as someone who struggled with mental health and ultimately lost her life because of it is something that I come back to a lot – a reminder of the importance of caring for yourself in this work, whether that’s self care, taking a spa day, or getting help. It just feels important. So I want to remind people that whatever self care looks like to you, prioritize that as early as you can and know that that usually takes the form of some type of boundary drawing.