“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.”
The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) is the first organization to provide comprehensive legal representation to refugees throughout the registration, protection, and resettlement processes.
IRAP’s mission is to create and enforce a system of legal and human rights on behalf of refugees, one of the world’s most vulnerable populations, and to provide comprehensive legal assistance and policy advocacy affecting 150,000 displaced persons seeking resettlement.
IRAP has assisted more than 3,200 refugees whose lives were in immediate danger and has provided more than $20 million in legal aid to refugees from the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan in 2016 alone. IRAP focuses its assistance on those most in need of protection and resettlement: women at risk of trafficking or sexual and gender based violence, LGBTI individuals, U.S. military allies, and survivors of torture.
IRAP was the first organization to mobilize more than 1,600 volunteer lawyers at airports around the country to defend the rights of incoming refugees and immigrants affected by President Trump’s executive order. IRAP is named as the lead plaintiff in the first lawsuit filed that challenged the order in its entirety.
In addition, IRAP has sought and won broad systemic reforms of U.S. and international laws and protocols that have aided 150,000 displaced persons, including the enactment of six pieces of U.S. Congressional legislation that played a key role in saving the lives of displaced persons subjected to torture, persecution, and death. This year alone, IRAP will pair 1,200 students from 29 IRAP law school chapters with attorneys from more than 75 top international law firms and multinational corporations. The IRAP model is effective and cost-efficient — leveraging every $1 spent into $10 of legal aid.
IRAP provides law students with a pedagogically-sound clinical education experience, creating a bar of international human rights and refugee lawyers. Today, one in six first-year Yale Law School students works on IRAP cases. Since its inception, IRAP has engaged more than 2,000 students and 1,000 attorneys in human rights law and advocacy, and fought to win a place for refugee legal aid in the pro bono portfolios of some of the world’s most prestigious law firms.
Rebecca (Becca) Heller is the Director and Co-Founder of the International Refugee Assistance Project (formerly Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project) at the Urban Justice Center, the first organization to provide comprehensive legal representation to refugees in the registration, protection, and resettlement processes. IRAP works to create enforceable legal and human rights on behalf of one of the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Heller’s interest in the legal challenges facing Iraqi refugees began in 2008 while she was living in Israel during her Kirby Simon Fellowship from Yale Law School, when she traveled to Amman, Jordan, to learn about the situation facing Iraqi refugees. While in Jordan, Heller met with Iraqi refugees suffering from persecution, discrimination, and intense poverty. They sought international protection and resettlement in order to save their lives, yet none understood how to navigate the legal system and no legal aid was available. Upon returning to Yale, she and four peers created IRAP to mobilize law students to meet this need.
What began as a way to aid the resettlement of refugees from the Iraq War led to the establishment of IRAP: a non-governmental organization (NGO) that has been responsible for resettling more than 3,200 of the world’s most vulnerable refugees and providing more than $20 million in legal aid to refugees worldwide.
In partnership with pro bono lawyers from some of the nation’s leading law firms and multinational corporations, IRAP has achieved policy victories in the U.S. Congress and international bodies that are affording rights protection to more than 150,000 displaced persons worldwide. A global leader for legal issues in refugee resettlement, IRAP has won broad systemic reforms of U.S. and international laws and protocols that include the enactment of six pieces of U.S. Congressional legislation.
IRAP’s innovative model for providing legal services has remained in place since its creation: organizing passionate law students and pairing them with experienced pro bono lawyers to provide legal representation to the most at-risk refugees. To date, more than 3,200 students from 29 IRAP law school chapters have worked with attorneys from more than 75 top-tier global firms and five multinational corporations to provide legal assistance to more than 3,200 refugees with an 85 percent success rate. Most importantly, IRAP’s model is sustainable and flexible, with the ability to expand in order to accommodate a growing caseload and new partners including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as one of IRAP’s main referral sources. The model leverages every $1 spent into $10 in legal aid, while simultaneously creating a bar of international human rights and refugee lawyers.
Heller’s human rights efforts began when she was an undergraduate at Dartmouth College where she was awarded the Campus Compact Howard Swearer National Student Humanitarian Award for her work on community food security and affordable housing. Later, Becca received a fellowship to conduct research on community-based solutions to AIDS-related malnutrition in Zimbabwe. After graduating from Dartmouth in 2005 summa cum laude, she continued to pursue this work as a Fulbright Scholar focusing on direct outreach with Malawi’s National Nutrition Policy for the Minister of Nutrition, HIV, and AIDS.
Heller is a Visiting Clinical Lecturer at Yale Law School. In addition to being the 2015 recipient of the Charles Bronfman Prize Heller has received numerous awards in recognition of her work with IRAP, including a fellowship from the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, a Skadden Fellowship, an Echoing Green Fellowship, a Gruber Human Rights Fellowship, a Cordes Fellowship, a Truman National Security Fellowship and a Dartmouth College Martin Luther King Jr. Emerging Leader in Social Justice Award. She was named one of The Christian Science Monitor’s “30 Under 30″ change-makers, and is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Heller received her J.D. from Yale Law School in 2010. While in law school, she participated in the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, the Immigration Legal Services Clinic and the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic. She served as an Articles Editor for the Yale Journal of International Law and received a Coker Fellowship to teach legal writing to first year law students. She was awarded the Charles G. Albom Prize for excellence in judicial and administrative appellate advocacy in connection with a law school clinical program.
Heller’s work with IRAP has been covered in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, the BBC and other international publications. IRAP has also been featured in the VICE Media film The Interpreters, on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and at Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her family.