VU clinic helps woman win fight for asylum

Tamir Tommalieh, left, a recent Valparaiso University law school graduate, and Geoff Heeren, director of the school’s immigration clinic, recently worked with a woman from Tanzania to gain asylum.


VALPARAISO — A Tanzanian woman persecuted in her country for being a lesbian has won asylum in the United States, thanks to the Immigration Clinic at Valparaiso University Law School.

The woman, whom The Times has agreed to call Mary to protect her identity, was represented by law students Jacquielynn Wolff and Tamir Tommalieh, with oversight by clinic director Geoff Heeren.

In addition to Heeren, the law students were supervised by James Morsch, a partner at the Chicago-based law firm of Butler Rubin.

“On April 18, 2016, when I was granted asylum, this is the day I will never forget in my life,” said Mary, 32, who now lives in the Chicago area. “I can’t thank my legal team enough. I’m so grateful to be here.”

Mary’s harrowing journey began when she was 13, when she ran away from her village to escape the ritual practice of female genital mutilation. She hitchhiked to a city in Tanzania, where she worked in a restaurant in exchange for housing from the owner.

“At this point, she was pretty happy she had a place to stay and food to eat,” Tommalieh said.

One day, a customer who visited the restaurant regularly, asked Mary to deliver food to his room.

“As she was going to hand him the food, he pulled her inside and raped her,” Tommalieh said.

The man told Mary he would kill her if she reported the rape, so she went back to work and didn’t tell a soul. After learning she was pregnant from the rape, however, she was forced to go live with the man who had raped her, Tommalieh said.

“She had no money, and she had nowhere else to go,” he said.

While living with the man, Mary was physically abused and forced to become a prostitute. When the man learned Mary had entered into a romantic relationship with a woman, he severely beat her and subjected her to gang rapes to punish her for being a lesbian.

Mary couldn’t report the abuse to the police because in Tanzania anyone who engages in a lesbian or gay relationship can receive up to 30 years in prison, Tommalieh said.

Although Mary eventually escaped from the man, she continued to be persecuted in her country for being a lesbian. She was beaten so badly on the street that she lost two teeth, Tommalieh said.

After suffering a mental and emotional breakdown, she was able to make her way to the United States with the help of a friend. She applied for asylum, and the Valparaiso Law School’s immigration clinic took her case.

Tommalieh and Wolff met with her regularly and gradually gained her trust.

“You can tell she’s very intelligent,” Tommalieh said. “She is an amazing person.”