Jessica Binzoni ’15 J.D. came to Notre Dame Law School knowing that her calling was to work with refugees, especially those displaced by international conflicts. Her path after law school—including two years as a Thomas L. Shaffer Public Interest Fellow—led her to northern Iraq where she serves displaced Iraqi and Syrian refugees through the nonprofit organization she founded, HOPE + FUTURE.
As a Shaffer Fellow, Binzoni worked as an attorney for the Asylum Project at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. She represented people who had fled persecution in their home countries and were seeking legal protection in the United States.
After completing her fellowship, she knew she wanted to continue to work with displaced people. But not just anywhere.
She wanted to work in a developing country in the Middle East due to her prior research and experience in that region, and where a significant population of internally displaced people faced increased vulnerability and lack of access to services because they live outside displacement camps. She wanted to serve those that were the most vulnerable and the most in need of services. And, she felt called to go somewhere few people would be willing to go. She found that fit in Iraq, where all of these factors came together.
“I am called to go where few will go and serve those that few will serve. These are the beliefs that inspire my work, and they are the foundation on which every other decision I make is based upon,” Binzoni said.
“I believe that every human is created in the image of God and is born with inherent value, worth, and dignity,” she said. “Some people, by virtue of where they are born, experience war, trauma, violence, poverty, and lack of education and opportunity. I am called to use the privilege inherent in the circumstances of my birth, my education, and the opportunities I have been given to alleviate suffering, champion justice and freedom for all people, to follow Jesus’s example of service.”
Jessica Binzoni '15 J.D., left, started HOPE + FUTURE to serve displaced people in northern Iraq. Photos provided.
Notre Dame Law School’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program is another factor that enabled Binzoni to pursue her calling.
Under LRAP, the Law School helps those beginning legal careers in public interest and public service repay their student loans. Binzoni continues to benefit from LRAP as one of the program’s recipients.
“Without Notre Dame’s LRAP program, I would not have been able to work as an attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center and I certainly would not have been able to start a nonprofit in Iraq," Binzoni said. “Thanks to LRAP, and the generous donors that support the program, I have been given the financial freedom to pursue a career that advances justice.”
Building HOPE + FUTURE
One in four people living in northern Iraq are displaced, uprooted from their homes by fighting in Iraq and Syria. About 1.5 million are from southern and central Iraq, and 250,000 are Syrian refugees. The majority have no access to aid or services because they live outside of camps run by humanitarian groups, such as the United Nations, due to overcrowding, the inability to find work because the camps are located far away from cities, and the fact that some camps do not allow residents to leave.
When Binzoni arrived in Iraq, she connected with other humanitarian aid volunteers. They conducted needs-based assessments with both displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees. They found that most did not have basics such as food and shelter. Jobs were scarce.
Children were not attending school because the schools were located far away and required children to take a bus or taxi. The families could not afford the transportation costs, or the costs of uniforms and school supplies.
She said the need was far greater than any of the volunteers had anticipated. That discovery, along with a core belief that displaced people are people with dignity, skills, and intelligence became the philosophy behind HOPE + FUTURE.
“We believe that we are called to be facilitators, connectors, mediators, restorers, reconcilers, and helpers—but never designers or constructors—as displaced people are empowered with the tools to build their future,” Binzoni said. “Hope-filled people are the best architects of their own future. The most important seats at the table should be saved for those who will be directly impacted by our work. Their voice, their needs, and their desires should drive everything we do.”
The first project HOPE + FUTURE launched was the Student Sponsorship Program. Through the program, people all over the world can sponsor a child to attend school. Sponsorship provides transportation costs, school uniforms, and school supplies for an entire school year.
HOPE + FUTURE’s main mission is developmental projects. Binzoni explains that in conflict settings there are often two types of work: humanitarian and development. Humanitarian aid is immediate, short-term aid intended to alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity, but not a long-term solution for communities. However, in many cases, this form of assistance is necessary before displaced people are able to access more long-term solutions. Development projects are aimed at empowering people for sustainable change.
“Not only do development projects eliminate dependence on ongoing humanitarian assistance, they also empower displaced people to rebuild their lives in meaningful ways and be the agents of their own future,” Binzoni said.
Her organization also provides humanitarian aid, such as heaters and barrels of kerosene for families to heat their homes, with the ultimate goal of placing people in a better position to take advantage of development projects.
Becoming a different kind of lawyer
While Binzoni’s interest in working with displaced people was sparked on a study abroad trip to the Middle East while she was an undergraduate, it was cultivated and reinforced while at Notre Dame Law School.
“I wanted an education that would allow me to work with displaced people wherever and however it would be most needed. I was confident that a legal education would enable me to do just that,” Binzoni said.
During law school she had two internships with refugee rights organizations. During the summer after her first year, she worked with Asylum Access, an international refugee rights organization in Oakland, Calif. She used the research she did there to develop the vision and methodology of HOPE + FUTURE.
Binzoni returned to the Middle East during the summer after her second year of law school. She lived in a refugee camp and was a legal advocacy intern for a refugee rights organization.
She also completed a Notre Dame Law School externship at the National Immigrant Justice Center before becoming a Shaffer Fellow there.
She says the Shaffer Fellowship and the professional education she gained empowered her with the skills and confidence to think outside the box as an advocate.
“My education at Notre Dame reminded me that I can be a different kind of lawyer. I can use my legal education in unconventional ways as I strive to best serve displaced people here in Iraq,” she said. “I may no longer be arguing for my clients in a courtroom, but I am still using the skills I learned as a law student at Notre Dame and as a Shaffer Fellow at the National Immigrant Justice Center to advance justice.”
Binzoni pointed to Notre Dame Law School’s support after graduation—both through the Shaffer Fellowship and LRAP—as enabling her to do this important work.
“I am able to live out Notre Dame’s mission to educate a different kind of lawyer who realizes the practice of law is not an end in itself,” she said. “It’s a calling and a powerful way of giving back to society.”
Learn more about HOPE + FUTURE at www.hopeandfutureinternational.org.