April 15, 2012
Diala Shamas is one of only seven recipients of Yale Law School’s Arthur Liman Public Interest Fellowship this year. And she’s spending her fellowship at the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility (CLEAR) project of the Immigrant & Refugee Rights Clinic (IRRC) at CUNY Law.
It was the unique focus of CLEAR that caught the attention of the Liman Fellowship selection committee. “The project is distinct because it offers a more holistic approach to lawyering,” said Shamas. “We represent individual clients, but we also work with community organizations to address the overall policies that affect our clients. It’s rare that those two things come together so organically in one project.” CLEAR works with Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and other communities in New York City that are particularly affected by national security and counter-terrorism policies and practices.
Community-based work comes naturally to Shamas. Born and raised in East Jerusalem, she engaged in human rights work with communities in the West Bank before attending Yale Law School. At Yale, Shamas worked with Professor Ramzi Kassem, who was co-teaching the National Litigation Project clinic there at the time, and who is now director of CLEAR and the IRRC at CUNY Law. Shamas’s work with Kassem, representing a detainee held at Guantánamo Bay, cemented her interest in working on issues related to national security policies.
She joined CLEAR in the fall of 2011, and almost immediately her year’s plans were reshaped. The Associated Press had just begun to release a series of articles about the New York Police Department’s undercover surveillance of Muslim communities and groups around the city, including Muslim student associations (MSAs) at almost a dozen schools.
Shamas and CLEAR recognized that the NYPD surveillance program would become a top concern of the Muslim community for the foreseeable future. “Many people suspected that the police were monitoring Muslims, but these reports confirmed it and revealed their shocking scope,” she said. Shamas was soon leading CLEAR’s efforts to offer accurate information to Muslim student groups and to organize know-your-rights workshops on their campuses, focusing on interactions with law enforcement and informants. “Many of the MSAs were understandably overwhelmed by the sudden media attention and by the reports that they were somehow considered suspicious by the police. But it has also been great to see students respond so thoughtfully and constructively to the challenge.”
Shamas, along with a team of CLEAR students, is also developing a report due out this summer that documents the effects of the surveillance program on the Muslim community of New York City. “The goal is to create a document that would support the efforts of our partner community organizations in their advocacy work,” she said. The report will be primarily drafted by CLEAR on behalf of the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition, a group with which CLEAR works closely. In researching the report, the team will conduct a series of interviews with individuals and organizations that have been affected by the NYPD’s practices. “We hope the report will shed further light on the program, go beyond what’s been reported in the press, and paint a picture of a community under siege,” said Shamas.