A Yale University law-school graduate who established a legal-aid program for Iraqi refugees after traveling to Jordan as a student to learn about their plight has been named the 2015 recipient of the Charles Bronfman Prize. Every year, the $100,000 humanitarian prize is given to an individual or team of people under age 50 doing work that improves the world and reflects their Jewish values.
Becca Heller said she hopes the award will draw grant makers’ attention to the plight of refugees in the Middle East.
"These are some of the keystone issues of our time and our generation, and they need to be addressed," Ms. Heller said
Ms. Heller is director and co-founder of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, a program of the nonprofit Urban Justice Center that provides legal representation to refugees looking for United Nations recognition, help settling in new countries, or local protection related to issues like child custody.
At age 34, Ms. Heller is the youngest recipient of the prize, but she’s no newcomer to the nonprofit world. She started working on what eventually became the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project during law school while doing public-interest work in Israel. She traveled to Jordan to meet with six families, determined to hear their stories.
"I felt an obligation as a U.S. citizen to understand what the fallout of my country’s foreign policy was," she said.
She was surprised to learn that her law-school education was relevant to their concerns.
"Every single one of them independently identified their primary need as a legal need," she said.
Working for Better Laws
With other law students, she created the organization where she now serves as director. Fifteen people work for the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, including six in the Middle East, and the group recruits law students from more than two dozen schools to partner with law firms and corporate lawyers to work on cases.
In addition to directly helping 2,500 refugees resettle, the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project has successfully lobbied to change laws in the U.S. to better serve refugees’ interests, such as creating more visa slots for Iraqis whose lives are at risk because of their ties to the U.S.
To other young people aspiring to do humanitarian aid work, Ms. Heller’s advice is simple: "Go for it."
"There’s so many really enormous problems in the world, and there’s certainly a shortage of people who are willing to dive in and address them," she said.
But youthful enthusiasm should be tempered by the wisdom that comes with experience, she said.
"You need to respect people’s experience and find diplomatic ways to communicate opportunities for change," she said. "You need to know when to be patient and when to be impatient," such as when there’s an injustice that requires immediate attention.