THEY SIT ACROSS a table and share their emotional stories of verbal attacks, beatings, rape and torture.
In Babak Mohassel’s recounting, the specifics — names, ages, home countries, abuses — are blurred like an out-of-focus photograph. They are applicants seeking political asylum in the United States, hailing from nations as varied as Russia, Poland and Ethiopia. The vagueness of the details is to protect their pri- vacy. In Babak Mohassel’s memory, though, the courage of the applicants is in crystalline focus.
For two years as adjudicator with the Department of Homeland Security in the Washington, D.C. area, Mohassel decided whether these people would be granted asylum or be referred to the courts.
The issue of human rights drives his life. Describing himself as both a sociologist and an attorney, Mohassel began working with torture victims and victims of other human rights abuses before he earned his graduate and law degrees from SUNY Buffalo and Georgetown University Law School. “I decided to become an attorney in hopes of assisting them more,” he says.
“There were so many gruesome events happening around the world, I felt that there needed to be some movement,” says Mohassel, assistant professor of criminal justice at BU since 2009. “I went to grad school to learn about society. Human rights came in when I start- ed learning more about Amnesty International and doing this type of work. That fueled me.”
While an adjudicator with the Department of Homeland Security, Mohassel decided the fate of indi- viduals, including unaccompanied youths under age 18, who feared a return to their home country would place them in danger of persecution based on gender, political opinions or nationality. Relying on his knowledge of national security law, asylum law and history, he listened as attorneys presented evidence and applicants told their stories.
“It takes a certain degree of courage to come in front of a decision maker who will decide whether you must return to your nation state to face persecution. It is so intense — the actions against them — and so emotional,” he says. “We needed to make sure they got recognition for their testimony, that they got support and respect as they shared something so special, so intimate, in an open space.
“I was impacting lives,” he adds. “I was determining whether people could have asylum in the U.S. As an adjudicator, it was a huge responsibility.”
A member of the Washington, D.C., and New Jersey bar associa- tions, Mohassel still accepts the occasional political asylum case, offering his services pro bono for the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network (GAIN) and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). Last summer, for example, he provided legal consultation to three cases in Atlanta in which the clients were facing deportation.
“The case was expediting their removal from the U.S., and they expressed a fear of returning to their country during the process,” he explains. “I gave legal counsel when the individuals were seeing the adjudicator.”
At BU, where he teaches courses in criminology, criminal justice, and national security law and terror- ism, Mohassel has combined his passion as a civil rights advocate and experience with political asylum cases in both the classroom and the campus’ Center for Human Rights and Social Justice, which he founded in 2009. By sharing the plight of political refugees and other human rights victims with students and the community, Mohassel hopes to begin a dialogue about the issues facing individuals in other countries and propose solutions to end some of the abuses.
The center offers diverse programming in conjunction with the student club, Institute of Human Rights and Social Justice. For one recent presentation, the center partnered with the Coalition of African Youth to discuss child slavery in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Children are forced to work in mines and find minerals that are used in cell phones,” Mohassel says. “There are a number of human rights violations going on there — minerals are being stolen, children are being exposed to dangerous minerals. Human rights violations are criminal to various degrees.”
In another program, a mother and daughter shared their experiences with forced movement issues in Africa. The center also hosted Manhattan attorney Travis Johnson, who talked about domestic human rights issues, including the abuse and exploitation of children.
Mohassel says he wants these stories to resonate with his students and others who hear them. “I want people to not just learn the information, but to remember what they heard. I want to have this engage- ment touch them and for them to become aware and think about it, not just hear it in passing. I’d like them to deeply consider it. It’s one thing to gain education and go through school; it’s another thing to become educated. I want the audience to become educated about these human rights violations.” •
Sara Hodon is a freelance writer and college-level English instructor from Schuylkill County, Pa.