As a Christian human rights activist in Iraq, Ban Jamil Yousef Katto lived in fear. Her priest and friends were killed in a church massacre and nearby explosions twice destroyed her apartment in Baghdad.
A documentary filmmaker referred Katto to Becca Heller Brooklyn, N.Y., a recent Yale Law School graduate who started the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project as a student. The group worked with officials to get her family evacuated to Jordan in January and is helping them resettle in the United States.
"Thank God, me and my family, now we are safe," Katto, who is pregnant with her third child, said in a phone interview. "I thank Becca. She assisted so much."
Heller doesn't speak Arabic and acknowledges she's no Middle East expert. But that didn't stop her from starting a group that reports resettling more than 400 Iraqi refugees in the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, Ireland and Sweden.
"I think it's an excellent initiative," said Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Washington. "They've been effective. Certainly refugees are here in the United States because of work they did."
IRAP has been especially effective in handling appeals of cases involving refugees rejected for resettlement in the U.S., Yungk said. The student group has won more than 100 cases, Heller said, or 90 percent of their cases.
Yungk said that compares to the traditional success rate of only about 10 percent, crediting their effectiveness to their expertise in American law.
While other groups offer legal assistance to refugees overseas, IRAP says it's the first organization to provide comprehensive legal representation to refugees at all stages of the resettlement process.
A gay doctor said he fled Iraq for Jordan the day he faced an honor killing by his uncles. He said he later fled to another country, where he was arrested, jailed, tortured and raped, and fled back to Jordan to avoid a penalty of 700 floggings in public.
The doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears for the safety of his family still in the Middle East, said he was seeking refugee status in Jordan. The U.N. agency told him he was already resettled in another country, he said, and an interviewer made fun of his sexual orientation.
Heller intervened and contacted the highest managers at the U.N. agency, who apologized and assured him his case would be treated seriously and urgently. The doctor said he was interviewed shortly after that incident and then resettled in the United States.
"I'll never forget their support and great assistance that changed my whole life and future," he wrote in a statement.
IRAP began with Heller's random idea to meet Iraqi refugees in Jordan in 2008 while in the Middle East for a human rights internship. Heller was curious about the refugees she kept hearing about, so she took a bus alone and met with six families over five days.
Heller figured she would find starving refugees, but the families told her their most pressing problem was legal: They needed help resettling in a third country because they couldn't work in Jordan and feared they would be killed if they returned to Iraq. Many groups help refugees with humanitarian needs, but it was the lack of legal assistance that Heller discovered.
She and co-founder and classmate Jonathan Finer of Washington, D.C., began recruiting Yale students and law firms to help the refugees.
"IRAP is such a crazy accident," Heller said.
The group has given White House briefings and met the foreign minister of Jordan at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York.
IRAP has grown to a dozen law schools in the United States and has even opened a branch at the University of Jordan. Nineteen law firms provide free legal help.
Nearly all refugees from Iraq arrive in the U.S. without the help of an attorney, according to Chris Rhatigan, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Her agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, sends officers to U.N. refugee camps to screen potential refugees.
IRAP conducts extensive interviews of the refugees, first in person and then by Skype or phone, to document their plight. They get copies of documents, write up briefs and affidavits on the urgency of their refugee status and submit the evidence to the countries of potential resettlement.
They follow up with emails to press officials to accept the refugees. The group is pushing for reforms, such as providing details on reasons for rejection and establishing the right to an attorney during appeals.
IRAP brought a psychiatrist to the Middle East in January to evaluate nine cases, marking the first time anyone has attempted to introduce psychiatric evidence into U.S. resettlement proceedings.
Heller, who is working with the group full time, said she wants the U.S. to accept more refugees, though she acknowledges the poor economy makes that difficult.
"Literally families will live or die depending on the outcome," Heller said.
She is especially proud of the case of a family resettled last fall in New Haven. The family's application was originally rejected for failure to prove persecution, but IRAP appealed. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security overturned the decision based partially on a medical emergency involving a girl in the family suffering severe seizures, Heller said.
IRAP arranged for the girl to receive free medical treatment from a specialist and provided car pools to get the family to doctor's appointments. Students collected donations of clothing, furniture, blankets and toys and set the family up in an apartment.
The girl's father said her seizures are now under control. But he's struggling to find work.
"Maybe in the future the life will be better," he said.