rainbow wall

Asylum, safety and hope for med student

White & Case fights six years to win a new life for "M.I."

4 min read

"M.I." was targeted.

His true name concealed here to protect his privacy, M.I. was studying medicine in Crimea in 2012 when a sophisticated anti-gay group made contact with him on an internet chat room, lured him to a public park under false pretenses and beat him unconscious. One of the men who attacked him wore a police uniform. Another recorded the savage beating with his phone.

Rushed by ambulance to a hospital, M.I. received only marginal treatment for his severe injuries—once doctors discovered that he was HIV positive.

M.I. survived the attack, with physical and emotional scars he would carry for a lifetime.

As do citizens of many other nations, LGBT+ Ukrainians still encounter discrimination and violence, despite homosexuality having been legal in Ukraine for nearly 30 years. And some Ukrainians living with HIV continue to face discrimination in the provision of medical care and other basic services.

Months after the beating, M.I. was approached by men in police uniforms who demanded that he pay them money or they would hurt him again, and would tell his university that he was gay. M.I. paid large sums of money to his persecutors over several years. But the threats never stopped.

This time, M.I. escaped.

After completing his medical coursework in 2014, M.I. fled Crimea alone, seeking refuge in the United States. He settled in Washington, DC, and found work in hospitals and emergency care centers as a medical technician. M.I. was safe at last—unless, of course, his application for asylum was denied and he was deported back to Ukraine. M.I. worked, and he waited.

Through a referral from its longtime pro bono partner Whitman-Walker Health, global law firm White & Case LLP learned of M.I.'s plight. David Courchaine and John Dalebroux, associates in White & Case's Washington, DC office, volunteered to represent M.I. pro bono before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) Asylum Office in Arlington, Virginia.

To help build M.I.'s case for asylum and prepare him for USCIS interviews, Courchaine and Dalebroux assembled an asylum team, which included associates Sadie Pulliam, Claire Leonard, and Alexander Andresian from the Washington, DC office and associate Vivake Prasad from White & Case's New York office.

With the aid of Ukrainian/Russian interpreters, the asylum team worked closely with M.I. to meticulously document the full force and extent of the persecution he had suffered in Ukraine. The team researched immigration case law, and drafted a detailed legal brief outlining M.I.'s strong claims for asylum in light of past persecution and the likelihood of future persecution, were he to return to Ukraine.

Even with White & Case's close support, the road to a decision in M.I.'s case was long. By visiting the Asylum Office and drafting two separate requests, White & Case won M.I. an expedited interview to end more than three years of his fruitless waiting for an initial encounter with USCIS.

At the initial interview—which was assigned on very short notice—Pulliam (whose wedding was the next day) and Prasad represented M.I. at the Asylum Office, and argued on his behalf.

After yet another year of waiting, USCIS informed M.I. that he would have to endure a second interview. At that interview, Courchaine and Pulliam represented M.I. through an exceptionally long day of questioning, followed by a scramble to quickly assemble and submit a supplemental package of corroborative evidence to bolster M.I.'s case, in light of the passage of time and new lines of questioning.

"The team stayed on top of our client's case as the years ticked on," says Courchaine, "thinking of creative ways to keep the process moving, and adapting to changing circumstances every step of the way."

In July 2020, two years after M.I.'s second interview, USCIS granted his request for asylum in the United States.

"I am proud of the asylum team's tenacity and determination in this long and challenging representation," says Courchaine, who has previously helped to win asylum for four separate LGBT+ pro bono clients. One of the world's largest providers of pro bono legal services, White & Case provided 140,000 hours of free legal services in 2019 alone.

Now 35 and secure, M.I. plans to finish earning his M.D and to practice medicine in his new home country, free from fear of being forced to return to the threats and violence that had nearly ended his life.