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From refugee to Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year

12 March 2018

I was inspired to study law by the legal aid solicitor who helped me with my asylum case. My solicitor was really good, but I could see that many other asylum seekers were suffering badly without any proper representation.

I felt many claims were dismissed unfairly due to cultural unfamiliarity and a lack of understanding on the part of the Home Office and immigration judges. For example, one of the reasons that my friend's claim was dismissed was because he had an Arabic (Islamic) name. The judge said that if his family were involved with the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), as claimed, they would have chosen a Kurdish rather than an Arabic name.

Growing up in a Kurdistan village

I was born in a small village in Iranian Kurdistan during the Iran-Iraq war. Some of my earliest childhood memories were of tragic moments such as the bombardment of our area by the Iraqi air forces, seeing the injured people in our village and the people who had fled from the chemical bombardment in Halabja by the Iraqi regime.

Our village school had extremely basic facilities. Occasionally the school would even run out of wood or oil to warm up the classrooms. We would be listening to our teacher speaking in Farsi, the only official language in Iran and we would not be able to understand a word. Being Kurdish from a Kurdish region in Iran, we only spoke Kurdish in and out of our homes. Learning a new language is a good thing but there was nothing positive about the learning process. At the time I was resentful, but it was good practice for later in life.

Becoming an asylum seeker

I fled Iran when I was 17 years old and joined the KDPI at their base in Iraqi Kurdistan. KDPI is working for the rights of Kurdish people in Iran and is therefore a banned organisation within Iran. I remained with them until 2002. I left the party before the Iraq war happened, travelled to Turkey and claimed asylum via the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Whilst I was recognised as a refugee by UNHCR, the Turkish authorities refused to allow me to leave Turkey legally. I eventually arrived in the UK after leaving Turkey illegally. I arrived in 2004, aged 23 and speaking no English. I claimed asylum in the UK which was granted in September 2006.

Learning English

I learned English and did a foundation law course at the University of Glamorgan before enrolling for a law degree at London Metropolitan University. My English was good enough to pass the English language test which was required by the universities (IELTS exam) but it was not good enough to study a degree such as law. In my first week at university I had no clue what the lecturers were talking about so I decided to record the lectures to be able to listen to them again at home. I only had a small, basic dictionary so often I could not find all of the words.

Learning law: the difference between murder and manslaughter

It took six weeks for me to understand the difference between murder and manslaughter because the dictionary simply defined both as 'killing'. When the lecturer said that the module would be assessed by way of an unseen exam, I thought that meant you did not get to see the questions in the exam. I assumed someone would just read them and we would need to remember them to be able to answer.

Working nights

The first two years of my degree were a real struggle but my hard work paid off so I managed to enjoy my third year and do incredibly well. I was working four nights a week as a night receptionist to support myself. I also did some volunteer work for Citizens Advice and Amnesty International and some paid translation and interpreting for them.

In my third year at university, one of my lecturers advised me to do the Bar Course as she thought I was capable of being a successful barrister. I followed her advice. I applied for pupillages for four years but I could not secure one. My failure to secure the pupillage really dented my confidence but I did not give up.

Gaining a training contract

After finishing my Bar course, I started working as an immigration caseworker. I was then offered a training contract by Fadiga and Co Solicitors. I chose to complete my Legal Practice Course at the same time as doing my training contract. I cannot thank Fadiga and Co enough for their trust and support, giving me the opportunity to run complex and test cases at the High Court and Court of Appeal while I was only a trainee solicitor.  

My commitment to my clients meant that I was working around 12 to 15 hours a day including Saturdays. Immigration and asylum law are fast developing areas of law and I am proud of being involved in numerous litigations in which the law has developed.

I qualified as a solicitor in May 2016, and one of the barristers who I have been instructing for the last five years informed me that he wanted to nominate me for the LAPG Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year award and Law Society's Human Rights Lawyer of the Year award.

Being short-listed for an Excellence Award

I still find it hard to believe that I was shortlisted for the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year when I had been a qualified solicitor for only 13 months. I was even more junior than all the shortlisted candidates for the newcomers category! I was also shortlisted that same year for Human Rights Lawyer of the Year by the Law Society.

When it was announced that I was the winner of the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year in Immigration and Asylum for 2017, I knew I had been doing something right, and that hard work, commitment and dedication do pay off.

In the last 13 years, I have learned that you should never allow your failures to stop you striving for what often seems to be unachievable. If you focus on your goal, if you dream big and if you work hard, you will achieve your goal.


Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society. 

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Tags: human rights | social mobility | Excellence Awards

About the author

Kaweh Beheshtizadeh is a solicitor at Barnes Harrild and Dyer Solicitors practising immigration, asylum, human rights and public law. He won the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year in Immigration and Asylum Category in 2017 and was also shortlisted for the Human Rights Lawyer of the Year by the Law Society.

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