Meet Our Staff: Noelle Lemon
“The number one biggest honor and privilege is getting to work with young people, and gaining their trust – that trust is the best feeling in the world.”
We spoke with Noelle Lemon, one of our Staff Attorneys on the Youth team, about what her role at HIAS PA means to her. Read the extended interview below!
What brought you to HIAS Pennsylvania?
I first came to HIAS PA as a volunteer when I was a law student at Drexel. Drexel has a program where a lot of students will do their pro bono hours with HIAS PA, and I speak Spanish, so I was doing a little volunteer work using my Spanish skills and law student skills. I made some good connections, and I really liked working with HIAS PA, and I really believe in their mission.
After I graduated two years ago, I applied for and got the Equal Justice Works Crime Justice Works fellowship position, where I serve survivors of human trafficking. Since I was on the youth team, my clients have predominantly been younger people. In my role, I offer direct representation – legal services screenings, advice and counsel – for young people who have suffered some kind of trafficking history. Starting this month, I transitioned to a new role as a “Staff Attorney” on the Youth Team – officially the Immigrant Youth Advocacy Project – where I’m doing a lot of the same things, predominantly removal defense and helping young immigrants with their immigration issues.
Why do you do what you do?
I like helping people. I especially like helping people who I feel are part of vulnerable populations, or whose voices don’t get heard as much as they should in our country. Seeing a lot of discrimination and lack of appreciation for the life of the average immigrant, and how messed up our immigration system is and how immigrants have the deck stacked against them, and how there’s a lot of racism and discrimination, made me feel connected to the immigrant population and want to work with them.
In law school, I did a lot of internships with organizations that helped vulnerable people – survivors of domestic violence, women and children, any kind of vulnerable population that could use more support – so I really like HIAS PA’s mission of welcoming the stranger, and I think that’s a really important mission.
Do you speak any other languages, and how does this help you with your clients?
Spanish comes in handy every other day. I have a wide variety of clients from all over the world, but the majority are from Central America and Spanish-speaking countries. I think it’s invaluable to speak the same language as your client – I can’t imagine doing the work that we do through a translator. My clients have all been trafficked – labor- or sex-trafficked – so when you’re building a rapport with someone with trauma and a complex history, it’s really important to be able to speak the language – it makes all the difference in the world. I can’t imagine connecting with my clients, building trust, and having to explain these really important issues through a third person. Being able to speak Spanish has helped me connect with my clients on a deep level.
What does a typical day look like for you?
That’s what I love about this job – there’s no typical day. Pre-COVID, there could be a day where I would get up at 3AM to drive to New Jersey for an asylum interview, or I’d be in court, or I’d be in the office working on an affidavit or an application. Some days it’s mostly paperwork. Now that I’m working from home, it’s sad because I have less client contact, but we’re working on connecting virtually and trying to carry on despite the difficult times. Every piece is different, every client is different, and sometimes it can be frustrating because you never know what you’re going to face that day, but it keeps things interesting and keeps things fresh.
What is one interaction you’ll remember for the rest of your life?
There are so many! That’s a tough one. The joy from the kids. Any time I’ve gotten a concrete result for my client, whether that’s getting them granted asylum or a work permit – the joy that they get and express when we’re finally able to get things working for them is priceless. Getting to work with the clients is my favorite thing.
It’s too hard to pick one memory, but if I had to pick one, it’s the moment when they get the document in the mail that says the asylum decision is granted. We usually work on these cases for a year or two, sometimes longer.
There was this one teenage girl who I’d been working with for awhile; she had had a really hard life, and made it here. We did the asylum application and she was amazing at the interview, and then she got the grant in the mail and texted me a picture, and I was overcome. I texted her and asked if she could call me. I didn’t want to tell her through text that it was a grant, but I think that made her nervous, because she texted me right away, and I said “just so you know, that paper means they said yes, that your asylum application was granted”.
I could hear her and her older sister (her guardian) in the background screaming and crying and laughing and giddy, and I told them, “This is it! This means you were granted asylum – you’re getting a work permit in the mail, and in a year we can apply for your real residency. No more immigration court, they’ll stop trying to deport you – you’re safe”. To be able to explain that to her and to hear the relief and joy was priceless. That’s why I do what I do – for those moments.
The highs are so low – happy moments are so happy, and the sad moments are so sad. Such an extreme area of work, but so rewarding. The young people I get to work with are so resilient, and the perspective they have and the gratitude they have serves as a reality check on your own life.
What’s the most meaningful part of your position at HIAS PA?
The number one biggest honor and privilege is getting to work with young people, and gaining their trust – these young people who have been through so much, who have worked so hard to get themselves here to start over and have a chance at a better life, who have been hurt by so many different people. For them to trust you – which I believe you have to earn by putting the time in, connecting with them, listening, showing up for them, and making sure they know they’re in charge – that trust is the best feeling in the world.
I remember sitting in the asylum office with one of my clients, and it was going kind of rough – that’s the asylum officer’s job, but it’s a traumatized kid, so she was kind of all over the place with her answers – and the asylum officer was asking why there was a difference in what she said versus what was in her affidavit, and the kid said, “I trust my lawyer. My lawyer met with me, worked with me, talked with me for hours, and I trust her”. That moment was the biggest paycheck I could ever get. It meant so much for her to say she trusted me. Or moments when they’re sitting there answering questions about the worst time in their lives, and they look over at you, and you give them a look of encouragement – you don’t even have to have words, but that’s what gets me – working with the kids, and the trust and the bond.
My work is intense, and when I start to think about it, I realize it’s really emotional and meaningful.
What is some advice that you would give to someone who wants to work in your position?
Do it. Absolutely do it. There’s so much work that needs to be done. We need all the help we can get. If you think you want to work in this position, do it.
If you’re not sure, there are so many other ways you can help. You don’t have to dedicate your life and career – you can volunteer or do things part-time. There are so many ways to do the work and there’s so much work to be done. If you care about immigrants, and equality, unity, and democracy, make sure you pay attention to advocacy events like comment-writing parties, or volunteer with HIAS PA. You don’t have to be pious and poor and working all the time – you can do things in ways that your life still works. You have a life, too – you can’t burn out. We need more people, and we need you to last. Take care of yourself.
What is something you’d like to say to HIAS PA?
I’m so thankful for having had this opportunity. I was a law student who was really passionate about immigration, and about helping immigrants, and this type of work, but I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do. Volunteering at HIAS PA and getting to work with Mary McCabe made an impact on me – here’s a really cool organization full of people who really care, and who are choosing to do this work.
One of my first days at HIAS PA was a protest, and they said, “you can either stay here and work, or you can come with us to the protest”, and that’s when I felt like this was my home – I fit here, these are my people. So when the position opened up for the fellowship, I jumped at the chance, and then got unrestricted funding to work with youth trafficking survivors. If a kid had a trafficking history, thanks to Equal Justice Works and my fellowship, I could do anything for them – there were no restrictions. Working with these clients – they’ve made an impact on my life. I’ve learned from them, and they’re amazing people. I feel the same about my colleagues. I’m really excited to stay on and become a staff attorney at HIAS PA.
What is your favorite thing to eat in Philly?
Acai bowls in the Comcast food court – “Greens and Grains”. Best acai bowls around! It’s a treat. I highly recommend the acai bowls with granola and almond butter on top.