Neda Hassanzadeh is a graduate student at Columbia University.
At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys from Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP for their brilliant and effective advocacy on behalf of “Diane.” The Stroock team worked tirelessly to help Diane not only apply for legal status but also negotiated with law enforcement to ensure Diane received the legal restitution she deserved.
This dedicated team included partners Kevin Curnin and Claude Szyfer, and associates Joy Baskin, Ben Smyser, and Jonathan Konig.
The Dream of Coming to America Turns into a Nightmare
Diane came to the United States from Nigeria under the impression that she would be working for a wealthy and powerful Nigerian family to fulfill their housekeeping needs. Much to her dismay, her documents and all of her money were taken from her upon arrival. A heartless husband-wife team of labor traffickers worked her nearly to exhaustion and serious illness, forbidding her from leaving the home and paying her very little and inconsistently, sometimes not even paying her at all.
Diane worked for her traffickers for five long years. Due to the horrendous labor conditions, Diane developed pitting edema and started coughing up blood. The family took her to the hospital a few times, but kept her under close watch. They threatened that if she said anything about her working conditions, she would get deported.
One day she asked the husband, “What happens to people who get sick and don’t have papers?” He looked at her and sternly responded, “They die.” At that moment, Diane very bravely decided that she was not going to die like this. And so, she planned her escape.
A Plan of Escape Gone Awry
After five long years of maltreatment, Diane fled to a neighbor’s home and revealed everything the family had done to her. From there, she was sent to a shelter but she ended up being moved to the home of a friend of her traffickers. Unsurprisingly, her traffickers were quickly alerted to her presence. Thanks to the quick work of Diane’s caseworker, Diane was able to escape to a safe shelter.
Stroock Steps In
Partner Kevin Curnin founded the Public Service Project at Stroock 16 years ago and has been working with Sanctuary for Families for years. When Lori Cohen, Director of Sanctuary’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative, brought Diane’s case to Curnin’s attention, he quickly assembled a team.
Kevin, Claude, Joy, Ben, and Jonathan got to work immediately. The committed and dedicated pro bono attorneys put in many hours gaining Diane’s trust and preparing her for meetings with law enforcement. Thanks to their work and Diane’s cooperation, prosecutors were able to secure a guilty plea from her traffickers. A guilty plea would have been a great victory in and of itself, but the Stroock team went even further and ensured that the prosecutors put safeguards into place requiring upfront payment of a portion of the monetary restitution owed to their client as part of the plea deal. Lori Cohen enthused,
“This legal team is tenacious! While other teams would have rightly been proud to help secure a guilty plea from a husband-wife team of heartless labor traffickers, Stroock went the extra mile in ensuring that their formerly enslaved client got true justice in the form of compensation.”
Since the conclusion of the criminal case, the Stroock team has filed a T nonimmigrant status application for Diane, so she can have long-term legal status in the United States. Diane is enjoying her life as a freed person and now spends her Sundays at church attending services and volunteering, an experience Diane’s captors took away from her.
Reflecting on her experience working with Diane, Joy Baskin said,
“It’s been a labor of love—long and very hard, but it’s been wonderful. In these projects, you feel like you’re getting more than you’re giving. Our client is a wonderful, wonderful woman.”
Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 17, 2017 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor the Stroock team’s outstanding pro bono work. Learn more about the event here.
If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.