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Lila Mansour Breaks Legal Barriers for Newcomers During COVID-19

Written by Samantha Moss

Well, 2020 happened and things are definitely still rocky. But, we’re not the same people we used to be. I mean, this era started off with a global concern for Florida’s zookeeping standards, toilet paper, and the hidden conspiracies behind the social posts of a 90’s pop icon. It’s safe to say that after some merciful healing, reflection and change, we’ve made some serious progress. Speaking of progress, we spoke with Lila Mansour, a fourth-year Arts and Economics student at the University of Northern British Columbia. Lila commits much of her time volunteering with different community organizations that promote legal aid and awareness and is committed to bettering legal education for all.

Here’s what Lila had to say about becoming a more informed and involved member of society, especially during a time of divide, healing and hopefully growth.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am the eldest of four siblings, and a daughter of two Syrian immigrants. (I was born in the US and came to Canada when I was two.) I am also a proud Muslim woman.

Passionate about supporting diversity, inclusion and anti-racism initiatives, I commit much of my time towards different volunteer efforts. That includes, representing my riding during the national Daughters of the Vote event in 2019, and speaking in the House of Commons on Islamophobia, discrimination, and lack of support for newcomers to Canada. I devote time to support online projects and activities for Arabic-speaking newcomers to BC with the COUSINS Network.

Can you expand a bit on what you do and your inspiration behind it?

“As the daughter of immigrants, I have a unique cultural and religious background that puts me in a strong position to help newcomers or people of color seek legal help.”

I’ve always wanted to pursue a career in law, but it took me a while to determine which avenue would be the best fit for me given my personal and professional goals. Ultimately, I want a career where I can help those who require more support and representation. 

I loved volunteering because I could improve the lives of others first hand, and help drive social change. I helped organize my first fundraiser in grade six for the Red Cross after the Japanese tsunami and earthquake. Throughout high school I mentored many students, volunteered with various community not-for-profits, and was awarded Prince George Youth of the Year in 2017. I have built over 800 volunteer hours and continue to volunteer at least four to five hours a week for various initiatives. 

I went to university for economics thinking it would help me develop the analytical and critical thinking skills I would need as a lawyer, while balancing my interests in social welfare, politics and math. 

In my second year I signed up for my school’s co-op program. There were limited opportunities for legal co-ops or internships within my city or province. But when I received an email from the co-op manager regarding a volunteer posting for an organization that promotes legal education and awareness – JACKPOT! Finally, I could gain experience in the legal field, and decide if it was right for me. 

I began volunteering as an office support staff in February 2019. By October, I had become a full legal educator and the regional coordinator for Northern BC. I supported school visits to the courthouse and planned and presented legal workshops to the public. Working in the courthouse was a huge eye-opener. I could see the Legal Aid desk from my office, and once each week, Family Duty Counsel would be available for free legal help. I started to see how the system was trying to become more accessible.

In March 2020, the pandemic changed the nature of my work, I had the chance to update content daily on a comparable platform that provides information and legal updates related to COVID-19. I also help to prepare and present various public legal education webinars on family law, will writing, renter’s rights, and legal capability. I present to the general public, as well as to immigrant groups. 

In the summer of 2020, the organization I was volunteering with was approached by an agency who earnestly needed an Arabic speaking presenter who could explain how to write a will to newcomers. Surprisingly there are few Arabic speaking lawyers in BC. I took up the offer and spent a month learning about will writing and acquired new Arabic legal terminology. As a Syrian Canadian, I was eager to support Syrian refugees and other newcomers in understanding the law.

On the day of the presentation, participants had SO many questions. Occasionally I had to respond with, “Lazm tahki ma muhami” (You need to speak with a lawyer). But, I knew that finding an Arabic-speaking lawyer might be challenging. So, I decided I wanted to help newcomers and other marginalized communities access the law, especially Arabic-speaking newcomers and Syrian refugees. I want them to feel supported and represented under the law, many still have no idea how to create a will, get divorced or how the Canadian justice system works. As the daughter of immigrants, I have a unique cultural and religious background that puts me in a strong position to help newcomers or people of color seek legal help. 

How has COVID-19 impacted, changed or influenced your initiatives?

“I would never have had this opportunity to see the huge gap in legal services and support for Arab newcomers, and those within other marginalized communities.”

Before the pandemic, my work was primarily at the courthouse organizing school visits and in the community. I was uncertain how we could deliver those services virtually. Months later, we’re delivering programs online and reaching people we never imagined reaching!

If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I would still be at the courthouse giving school visits and providing legal workshops to people within my community. I would never have had this opportunity to see the huge gap in legal services and support for Arab newcomers, and those within other marginalized communities. I expected to serve only the people within my community, but now I’m serving people across the province! 

Moving forward, even after the pandemic, we will continue to provide webinars and other online events so that we can reach locations where we don’t have staff, and reach underserved communities where technology provides easier access. 

What did you do or implement to combat obstacles posed by COVID-19?

With a little creativity and a lot of effort, we were able to deliver our programs online. All our court visits switched to online legal sessions with virtual visits with lawyers, judges and sheriffs. Our public workshops and immigrant sessions are now held on Zoom. We had to rely a lot more on social media to get the word out, and developing partnerships was crucial to attracting new clients and being able to provide our services. We even introduced a new service that allows us to provide one-on-one legal help, which I truly enjoy, because I get to work one-on-one to meet people’s needs. 

What are you currently working towards? 

“Everyone deserves to feel empowered and to better understand the law!”

I will continue to provide more legal webinars and activities, both in English and Arabic. I’m even planning on expanding and developing new content. I’ve been asked to host webinars in Arabic on contact with the police, employment rights, and what to do after a car accident. We’re hoping to expand through different partnerships to reach more immigrants and newcomers.

We recently added a Mandarin-speaking legal educator to our team. Currently, we can serve clients in English, Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi, and Panjabi. It is so exciting to get to reach more people who would have otherwise been excluded. We’re also looking to increase our community partnerships and reach the broader general population. Everyone deserves to feel empowered and to better understand the law! 

What is your biggest pain point right now, and what kind of support do you need or would benefit from?

I miss being in-person and getting to see people, interact with them and host in-person events. Sitting in front of a computer for most of the day gets lonely, tiring, and some days I struggle with headaches and dry eyes. I can’t wait to finish school and take a short break away from the screen. Zoom fatigue is real! But, I’ll be patient until it is safe to return to in-person gatherings and classes. I hope that Canadians across the country stay committed to overcoming this virus, listen to public health orders and stay safe. I know that it has been a very difficult time for many, but we have to get through this together and support one another. 

If you, or someone you know, would like to offer a story to our “Students with Stories” series, please contact us here.

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*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.