We all have memories of that day, some painfully personal because of loved ones lost — others shared and communal, like how blue the sky was, how searing the images of devastation. But perhaps the most important memory for me and others in the nonprofit sector, is learning firsthand about the extraordinarily long-term nature of disaster relief services. While the families of those murdered on 9/11 can never be made fully whole, it is important that we as advocates remain available to help them, no matter how long it takes.
It’s obvious that mobilizing an immediate response is the first step. To accomplish this, agencies need to be nimble and adaptable — with the flexibility to suddenly re-allocate resources in creative ways. For example, at NYLAG, we didn’t wait to be asked to help victims with their legal needs. Within 48 hours of 9/11, we had five of our attorneys sitting at a table near Ground Zero. Not even knowing what to expect, we immediately found ourselves helping victims’ family members navigate the maze of FEMA benefits and other emergency programs. Later on, we began seeing more employment issues related to workers compensation and pensions. Then came a surge in estate issues and family matters, such as custody and guardianship. We worked with many immigrants whose status was affected by the attack – and even now, 12 years later, we still have immigration cases pending for immigrant family members of victims.
In total, we helped over 2,000 individuals whose lives were impacted by the 2001 terrorist attacks. Nine years later, this experience enabled us to immediately launch a program to help New York’s Haitian immigrants in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti. Over the last three years, as temporary protected status was renewed for Haitians, NYLAG has continued to serve this vulnerable community. In addition to immigration matters, we are helping them access public benefits, address employment discrimination, and a host of related issues. And of course, in 2012, NYLAG became the largest provider of disaster legal services to victims of Superstorm Sandy. Eleven months later, we have only just scratched the surface of the legal assistance needed to help these clients rebuild their homes and their lives.
Today I sit within blocks of the Freedom Tower, a memorial to those we have lost, and a tribute to the strength and resilience of our city. As a public interest lawyer, I am proud that the lessons of 9/11 have made our agency stronger for the future, by teaching us to recognize that the needs after a disaster are both immediate and long-lasting. As a husband and a father, and a citizen of New York, I honor the memory of those who were lost, offer my support to all who still suffer, and feel so grateful for the many people I love and cherish in my life.
Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge