When Leyla arrived in court on the morning of August 31, 2017, she felt uneasy. “I knew we had a strong case, but I was scared the judge wouldn’t see it that way,” she recounts. “For me, knowing the dangers I faced at home, this was a matter of life or death.”
Leyla was born and raised as a man in the Russian republic of Chechnya, a tiny Muslim-majority country in the North Caucasus, a thousand miles south of Moscow. Realizing her true gender identity at a young age, Leyla began to live as a woman when she left for college. But Chechnya is a dangerous place for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTQ) people: In recent years, there have been reports of LGBTQ individuals being arrested, tortured and even murdered.
Chechnya wasn’t always unsafe for the LGBTQ community. When Leyla was growing up, the republic was still part of the Soviet Union and heavily influenced by its secular public culture. “I remember wearing dresses in public,” Leyla says. “The people were more tolerant.”
Many Chechens become more religious after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, adopting an ultraconservative form of Islam that discriminates against LGBTQ individuals.
“Chechen law enforcement officials regularly round up gay men as part of an apparent anti-gay purge,” says Tanya Lokshina, Russia Programs Director, Human Rights Watch. “Some of their victims are forcibly disappeared, and others are returned to their relatives. These relatives are shamed for having homosexuals in their families and effectively encouraged to carry out honor killings.”
After years of enduring threats and verbal abuse, Leyla moved to Moscow in 2008 to live freely as a transgender woman. She stopped visiting Chechnya and kept contact with her family to a minimum. For a period, she was safe among the city’s transgender community. But her persecutors in Chechnya eventually tracked her down and began harassing her. On October 10, 2014, while taking groceries from her car, she was stabbed in the back and suffered a collapsed lung. “We are tired of you and the shame you have brought upon our family,” the attacker said as Leyla fell to the ground and lost consciousness.
When she woke up in the hospital, Leyla knew she had to leave Russia. “They were after me,” she says. “I chose to leave everything and start a new life.”
Discouraged by slow responses from foreign consulates and afraid for her safety, Leyla booked a flight to Mexico City. She planned to take a second flight to Argentina, where she had friends, but soon realized she could not afford it. Within hours of her arrival in Mexico, she began receiving threatening text messages in Chechen detailing her location. “Don’t think you are safe there, we know where you are,” one message read. Leyla saw no choice but to flee to the United States.
A few days later, Leyla crossed the U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana. Her memory of arriving in America is vivid: “I had no idea where I was until I received a text message from my service provider saying ‘Welcome to the U.S.A.’,” she recounts. “Right at that moment, a bright light started shining in our direction. It was the U.S. border patrol.”
Leyla said one of the few words she knew in English: “Asylum.”
It was at the immigrant detention center in Santa Ana, California where she met a representative of the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), a nonprofit dedicated to protecting human rights and providing access to legal counsel for immigrants and refugees.
“People face real hurdles accessing legal counsel,” says Mary Meg McCarthy, Executive Director, NIJC. “Immigrants – and refugees in particular – who are fleeing dangerous situations often don’t come with their checkbook.”
The NIJC relies on corporate partners for volunteer legal services and immediately reached out to Sherene Awad Jodrey, Assistant General Counsel, Aon and leader of the law department’s pro bono efforts. “Leyla had clearly experienced severe abuse in her home country and faced grave risk if she were forced to return,” Jodrey says. “I knew that we could help.”
Aon’s Global Pro Bono Initiative, launched in 2014, is part of the firm’s commitment to make an impact around the world using the skills and experience of its people. Attorneys regularly volunteer with community organizations like Equip for Equality in the US, Islington Law Centre in UK, and Pro Bono Ontario in Canada, donating their skills to help people in need. “As an attorney, there’s nothing more empowering than using your skills to help people navigate the system,” says Peter Lieb, General Counsel, Aon.
Since 2015, Aon’s pro bono legal team has taken on nine asylum cases with the NIJC, helping people like Leyla facing persecution and violence in their home countries find a safe haven in the United States. “While many large law firms pursue pro bono work, it’s less common for an in-house legal team like ours to have the talent and commitment to do so much for the community,” says Lieb. “Asylum cases are complicated and can take years to resolve.”
“Human rights abuses against transgender women in Chechnya are well-documented,” says McCarthy. “But we knew we had to work hard to demonstrate that to the court and secure justice for Leyla.” With the help of Aon and NIJC, Leyla was paroled after a few months in detention and moved to Chicago, where she applied for asylum.
On August 31, 2017, due to the grave risk of persecution she faced in her home country, a federal judge granted Leyla asylum in the U.S. “The judge had tears in her eyes when she told me I was given asylum,” Leyla says. “For me, after everything I had been through, it was a magical and surreal moment.”
Leyla stresses the close friendship she formed with Jodrey over the course of the case. “Sherene was like a mother, guiding me through the process and holding my hand through every step along the way,” she says. “She defended me and gave me a new start in life.”
Jodrey also recalls feeling elated the moment the verdict was read: “Leyla was crying, I was crying, I think most of the people in the room were crying. It was the light at the end of the tunnel for Leyla after all the hardship she faced.”
Leyla is now able to live the rest of her life in the U.S., free from being persecuted for who she is. In addition to Aon’s work for Leyla, the firm recently secured asylum for a woman fleeing gang violence and sexual assault in Honduras.
“I couldn’t be more proud to be making a difference in people’s lives through our pro bono efforts,” says Jodrey. “We are living our values as a firm, and I know that because I see it everyday.”