Brave, Brave, Brave

CW: Sexual assault and violence against women

“What is your favorite subject in school?” I was trying to make small talk, to not make her wonder if I pitied her, to keep her mind busy with something–anything–else while the attorney was out of the room. For the record, I don’t pity her. She is brave, she survived, and she found her voice somehow; I admire more than pity her.

It seemed odd to be talking about school. I could feel the tension, feel the awkwardness of my question. But it seemed less heavy than the silence. What are you supposed to ask a 12-year-old when she tells you she has been raped multiple times by a family member, by a man she thought she could trust?

I left the room to find a box of tissues. I grabbed a bottle of water for her and for her mother. I had not expected to hear her story–though I never really know what to expect; I more or less brace myself, fill myself up with the joy that they are here. Now. In the same room. And then I focus.

The girl did not want to share the details with her mother present. At first I thought she was ashamed, but then I realized she was protecting her. Brave.

I forced myself to look back up at her while I was repeating what she said in English. The tears were definitely there, but I kept my composure. I didn’t blink. I didn’t let myself cry. I had to be professional.

That night I met with other clients, too: a woman who was beaten so often on one side of her face that her cheek is permanently swollen13237811_1200055040035307_563390575867806518_n, a father whose former partner refuses to sign a temporary custody agreement in order to help their daughter obtain an SIJ visa, a teenager who was assaulted twice a week by her father for 8 years, a boy whose parents could no longer feed him, and a young adult who fled recruitment by a drug cartel.

They are so much more than their stories.

Today I rode the bus and the metrorail and the metromover with two clients: a mother and her baby. The baby smiled up at me and held my hand. In the coming months, we will work through the story with the mother, about how she was raped on the way home from the hospital, about how she became pregnant and gave birth to a beautiful little baby. She is a good mother. Brave.

The baby cried during court. Her mother sat her down on the bench next to me. She kept crying, and I scooped her up. The ICE attorney gave us a dirty look. Maybe she had never seen a baby before.14433184_689048377916189_7321588638507753587_n

Babies cry. Babies do not belong in court.

As I tried to sort through my thoughts, I read this story from a former National Justice For Our Neighbors intern. It really puts into words some of the things I have not been able to explain.

Interpreting is hard. It’s hard to hear about bodies being hacked to pieces or about sharing a 5-meter by 4-meter cell with 100 other men in a Salvadoran prison. It’s hard to hear about children being robbed at gun point and about girls being raped and impregnated by gang members. It’s hard to look at photos of the dead bodies of clients’ friends. It’s hard to hear about police who do not respond to domestic violence and abuse. Mostly, it’s hard to understand how those things could possibly be associated with a beautiful mother and her children or with a boy who looks at his uncle for the correct answers to my questions.

It’s hard to be professional, to repeat words without responding to them, without crying, without expressing emotions.

But then again, I let myself take in the blessing that they are here. I get to laugh with a beautiful mother and her children, and I get to kiss them on the cheek because they are here. Despite the brokenness of the immigration system and all of the battles they have yet to face, they are here. They’ve made it this far.

As hard as it is to translate their stories in my mind and repeat them out loud, I know that it was much harder to live those stories. I sometimes feel mentally exhausted at the end of the day–both from speaking Spanish and from trying to remember the details of their stories and the rules for various immigration forms, but I know I am not nearly as tired as an undocumented farmworker who has labored in the fields from 7 AM until 7 PM to bring food to our tables. I don’t have flashbacks of riding the Bestia or sleeping in the Hielera. I don’t remember how it felt to be threatened by a gang. I don’t constantly worry that I will be deported or that my family will be torn apart.

My biggest problems right now involve cockroaches, black mold, and my LSAT book. I am privileged for a variety of intersecting factors–white skin, upper-middle-class upbringing, education, etc.–including that I was lucky enough to be born in the United States.

So each day that I look into my clients’ eyes, the realization washes over me: I owe it to them to be brave, too.



Emily Kvalheim

GMF US-2, Class of 2015-2017

South Florida Justice For Our Neighbors

Cutler Bay, FL




  1. […] My work with South Florida JFON has changed slightly in the past month or so–with one of our attorneys out of the office for awhile, the client side of things seems to have slowed down a bit. While we still have clinics, court dates, and client appointments at our office, we are not accepting new clients at the moment (for the most part). I have had more time to work on things like updating client lists, sending out letters, evaluating our interpreter policies, researching immigration issues, and working on a grant report for the American Bar Association. […]


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