Vermont company helps asylum seekers around the globe

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Sharon Abramowitz outside the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies in Burlington. Photo by Max Scheinblum/VTDigger

It used to be a real challenge for Kim Alabasi to track down a country-of-origin expert.

The Cleveland-based immigration lawyer specializes in removal defense — fighting against deportation — and often calls on anthropologists, social scientists, historians and the like to give expert testimony in deportation cases. It’s essential, she said, to have a credentialed witness explain conditions that now-asylum seekers would face if they returned to their home country.

But for a long time, lining up those experts was an inexact science.

“One way to try and find one is to throw it on the email list and say ‘Hey, does anyone have a good expert for, you know, Colombia?’” she said, referring to an American Immigration Lawyers Association email chain that she used in the past. It had mostly lawyers on it, not actual experts. 

She reached out to several other organizations, too, but they often had only a limited number of experts available.

“Sometimes you get a response. Sometimes nobody responds. Sometimes you reach out, and they say we’re not taking any more cases. It’s very time-consuming,” she said. “Removal work is already very labor-intensive with everything else you have to do. And so on top of that, I’m spending all this time, sending people emails, waiting to get funds back, finding out if this is a case they would take — just going back and forth, back and forth.”

Enter Communitology, the Vermont-based business that connects a well-trained network of experts with immigration lawyers. 

Alabasi, who has been a practicing attorney for nearly two decades, said Communitology is now her “go-to” when looking for country experts and that she relishes the time she saves by using its streamlined process.

“All the witnesses that I’ve gotten have been really well prepared and on top of their game,” said Alabasi, who has used six Communitology experts in the past two years. “They’ve done it before and are very professional, just really nice to work with.”

The company was founded in February 2021 by Sharon Abramowitz, a Georgetown University research professor and medical anthropologist who lives in Isle La Motte and operates the company largely remotely. The organization’s goal is to train and educate a growing network of scholars and professionals and seamlessly connect them with attorneys, making a murky system a little bit easier to navigate.

“We take away the hard thing so that (immigration lawyers) can do the thing that they love to do, which is help people,” Abramowitz said.

What started as a small network of anthropologists, political scientists, historians and sociologists has grown into a lineup of more than 60 experts able to provide insights on more than 90 countries. Their knowledge covers 23 specialities, including gender-based violence, child abuse and public health.

In the two and a half years since its inception, Communitology has assisted in more than 200 cases, providing written and oral testimony. Abramowitz said she charges half what similar experts normally cost — she calls it her “low-bono” rate — to keep costs predictable in what largely is an unpredictable system.

Though it’s a bit early to calculate a success rate because cases have long wait times, Abramowitz estimated they’ve gotten a positive result in four out of five cases so far. One factor: Communitology declines a lot of cases, taking on only those that it can support and has a good chance of winning.

A woman working on a laptop.
Sharon Abramowitz working at her desk at Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies in Burlington. Photo by Max Scheinblum/VTDigger

Abramowitz said a country-of-origin expert’s role is to describe the differences between the letter and the spirit of the law. In many cases, a country will have laws that appear to provide protections for certain groups, but there’s little enforcement, especially in cases involving LGBTQ+ rights and gender-based violence

Having someone who can speak knowledgeably on behalf of the asylum-seeker is particularly helpful, she said, in part because many asylum-seekers have been traumatized and have difficulty speaking about their situations themselves.

“Being able to put a narrative behind how bad things happen to asylum-seekers, that make the risks that confront them more real, that are grounded in our social science experience and our social science research, can be very, very powerful for a judge when they’re making a determination about the kinds of risks that people face,” she said.

The Communitology work benefits the experts, too, she said.

“There’s something very different from doing your teaching and your writing, your research and your public presentations, and then, coming home and having a file in front of you that tells the story of a person’s life,” she said. “A person who’s facing real risk, real hardship, who has survived unimaginable things, and trying to think about the context, the law and the ethics that are involved in explaining to a court, you know, the kinds of risks that this person faces in order to help the court make a fair decision around an asylum determination.”

‘Basically an idea on a piece of paper’

Abramowitz, like many new Vermonters, moved to Vermont in 2020 after the Covid-19 pandemic began. She and her husband and their three children had been living in Massachusetts. A key factor in relocating was the Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports program. Abramowitz wanted to make sure two of her children, who are visually impaired, had access to those experiences at a time “when the world was shut down.”

The down time also gave her a chance to reflect on her experience as a country-of-origin expert — work she began six years earlier while teaching at the University of Florida. From 2014 to 2020, she provided testimony in more than 60 asylum cases, mainly about mental health concerns in West African countries. 

“I realized that … the kind of work that I was doing was profoundly meaningful and had a deep impact on the success of asylum-seekers,” she said, and she had seen that the piecemeal expert system caused many issues for immigration lawyers. She thought she might be able to do better. But with no experience in business, it was “basically an idea on a piece of paper,” she said.

“I’m an anthropologist,” she said. “I had never taken a course in accounting. I didn’t know anything about human resources. Marketing is a word that I’ve heard people throw around a lot. I had no brand. I had no logo. I don’t even think I had an email system set up at the time.”

However, the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies was there to show her the ropes. She started co-working at the company’s headquarters in Burlington and, through various mentorship programs, was paired with local business leaders who gave her guidance on how to start the business.

Abramowitz established Communitology as an LLC in February 2021, with the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies playing matchmaker with consultants, human resource professionals, bookkeepers — “the network of essential business services that I needed in order to make this business grow,” she said.

“There’s nearly unlimited demand for what Communitology does, given the nature of immigration and refugees and the processing that needs to be done by governments,” said Dave Bradbury, president of the center. “But in order to scale and meet that, a team really needs to put some time in on the business as well. Because without margin, it’s tough to support mission.”

Communitology grossed about $300,000 in the past year, and Abramowitz is looking to get B Corp certification — a way to cement the company’s social mission while maintaining for-profit status, similar to what Fair Trade certification means to a coffee business. Companies with broader goals than just making money, such as Ben & Jerry’s or Patagonia, also fall into the B Corp category. 

“In our case, it’s very clear that we have an ethical commitment to strengthening the human rights and asylum systems internationally and in the United States,” she said. “So we want to have the ability to (always) make business decisions that are aligned with our mission and values.”

‘A significant expansion’

So far, the majority of Communitology cases have come from the United Kingdom, largely because that country offers substantial financial support for asylum-seekers, but Abramowitz is planning “a significant expansion” into the U.S. immigration system in the coming years.

With U.S. asylum laws in flux and a record backlog in cases, Abramowitz said the United States is “one of the biggest spaces for asylum demand in the world. … There’s a lot of people who are trying to get into the United States, but the United States system is not really efficiently using country-of-origin expert testimonies to understand the conditions that asylum-seekers face. We think that we can help improve the system by making ourselves more available.”

Now, asylum seekers are “very much on their own” when looking for legal representation and funding, Abramowitz said. If private or family networks can’t provide enough money, asylum-seekers typically have to find funding through nonprofits, churches or NGOs, but those sources have been drying up as asylum has become less discussed in the post-Trump years, experts said.

Communitology doesn’t plan any explicit political advocacy in that arena, but Abramowitz said the work in itself is a way to pressure the system to improve. Providing “low-bono” services, plus an efficient system to connect experts and lawyers, could help the day-to-day mission.

“Strengthening the court’s ability to make fair, accurate, contextualized determinations will strengthen our asylum system — full stop — and I think that we play a role in that,” she said. “It’s really a core part of my mission: I want to make our courts better because I believe that we need them and I believe that they can work And we’re seeing the results of that because we are seeing a lot of positive determinations in our cases.”

For Abramowitz, asylum is personal. Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors and refugees in the post-World War II era, instilling a belief in her that all nations of the world have a moral duty to protect human rights.

With Communitology, she has the opportunity to be on the front lines of that fight.

“If we want to maintain our moral leadership in the world, we can’t become bystanders to human rights violations,” she said. “We have to have skin in the game.”



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