Anthony David Gipe
As a leader in the Spokane immigrant community, and as an African who immigrated to the United States, Francis Adewale introduces us to some insightful case
studies of the immigrant experience in the legal system. This
article delivers a compelling and personal reminder that while
immigrant members of our community face similar legal challenges, sometimes the hardest cultural competency lesson is
that the clients do not fall neatly into the usual legal boxes.
Often the solutions are found in cultural details of human interaction for the attorney and the client. — A.D.G.
by Francis Adewale
Arefugee’s story is not just a single story1 — the story of war, deprivation, and pain. More often than not, the refugee’s story is deeper and richer than their lucky escape. Our chal- lenge as attorneys is to dig deeper to learn our
refugee clients’ stories. A few examples will illustrate how to
put this into practice.
There was a couple who met at the United Nations Refugee
Camp in Guinea Bissau. She was from Sierra Leone. He was
from Liberia, a child soldier recruited by the notorious warlord and dictator, Charles Taylor. Following traditional African
customs, they were married in the presence of the elders. They
both applied for refugee visas and resettled in Spokane. Despite
vehement opposition from her husband, she started attending
classes at Spokane Community College. There was comfort in
education and it helped her overcome some of her fears.
One day, there was an altercation over his sexual demands.
She told him she had to be in class, but he tried to force himself on her. She pushed him away. He picked up the car keys,
and as she reached for the keys in his pocket, his pants tore.
He called the police. She was arrested and charged with malicious mischief.
The prosecutor looked only at the fact that she tore his
pants; therefore, she was guilty of malicious mischief. The
stakes were very high; she faced potential jail time, the fear of
deportation, or worse yet, losing the opportunity to become a
One line item in the police report stood out. The officer
stated that during questioning, the defendant refused to look
the officer in the eye. To the officer, only familiar with West-
ern culture and behaviors, this was a tell-tale sign of guilt. As
an African, I know it is not a sign of guilt to look
down when you are telling your story. In fact, it is
a sign of disrespect to look an elder or an author-
ity figure straight in the eye. The jury absolved
the wife of all charges. The case was won purely on explaining
with clarity the complexity of an African woman dealing with a
new life in America. This illustrates the fact that cultural com-
petency, like other legal skills, requires a disciplined approach
to viewing the world from different perspectives.
“An effective lawyer must possess skills for cross-cultural
engagement by developing cultural competency.” 2 We cannot
effectively advocate for our client when we know little to nothing about where they are coming from or what drives them.
Culture encompasses a person’s ethnicity, race, gender, nationality, age, economic status, social status, language, sexual
orientation, physical attributes, marital status, and a variety
Refugees — Prisoners of
a Single Story
The Cultural Competence Challenge
of other characteristics.
Many African refugees cannot understand a “no-contact
order” that restrains them from their residence. In African
culture, a man’s very essence is tied up with his house. When
you take him away from his “house,” you diminish him. In
2011, a Sudanese refugee was charged with a misdemeanor
violation of a no-contact order stemming from a felony assault–DV conviction.
Through the interpreter, we learned that the client had no
formal education, was illiterate, and understood only basic
Arabic and a smattering of English. It was extremely difficult