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Becca Heller

The ‘Genius’ Who Gets Legal Help To Refugees

As climate change and political brinksmanship increase the numbers of immigrants and refugees, our treatment of them will shape how history views us. If history treats us kindly at all it will be due, in part, to Rebecca “Becca” Heller.

When Heller, 36, won the 2015 Charles Bronfman Prize for her work with the International Refugee Assistance Project, she was the youngest recipient in the history of the prize. Since then, her work with IRAP has sharpened even further.

In addition to its work with refugees, IRAP has made legal representation available to others affected by anti-immigrant measures. For example, responding to the Trump administration’s attempted Muslim ban, IRAP coordinated to make sure that there were lawyers at every port where people were being detained or threatened with deportation.

This year, the MacArthur “genius” prize committee recognized the importance and effectiveness of Heller’s work with IRAP and chose her as a 2018 Fellow. They describe her work in this way.

IRAP functions as a nimble, “virtual” public interest law firm that partners with volunteer attorneys who work pro bono on urgent refugee cases, often teamed with law students.  Founded as a student organization at Yale Law School in 2008 to help Iraqis displaced by war safely resettle in the West, IRAP has since established chapters at 29 law schools and partnerships with more than 100 law firms and has expanded its reach to refugees from countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Heller, herself, sees the work she’s doing as an extension of her Jewish values. She told the Bronfman committee that she saw IRAP as a tool of Tikkun Olam.

For me, tikkun olam has always meant pursuing justice for those who are enslaved, disenfranchised and in danger; shining a light on what is broken in the world; and enlisting people with power to join the fight for the women, men, and children who cannot fight for themselves.

Heller’s work with IRAP is as audacious an example of agile, nimble and effective tikkun olam as we, or the MacArthur committee, have seen in 2018.

— Dan Friedman

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