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Students, law, & human rights

February 27, 2014

This story first appeared in Inside IUBloomington.

The formative refugee experiences of Mahja Zeon, of Liberia, and Eldin Hasic, of Bosnia, led them both to study at the IU Maurer School of Law — each with a focus on human rights issues. Both students also work as affiliates with the Center for Constitutional Democracy, which promotes human rights, peace, and good governance in South Sudan, Libya, Burma, Liberia, and Vietnam.

“The center helps people in countries where their legal regimes have led to war, poverty, and oppression to build a basic legal structure that gives them the chance for peace, prosperity and freedom,” says Susan Williams, the Walter W. Foskett Professor of Law and director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy.

Eldin Hasic’s story

Hasic’s passion for international law and human rights led him to work as an affiliate in the South Sudan and Pakistan group at the Center for Constitutional Democracy.

Eldin Hasic Eldin Hasic

A second-year law student, Hasic was born in the city of Velika Kladusa, in the northwest corner of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a few years before the Bosnian war.

“I remember waking up at night and hearing tanks driving through,” he recalls.

In 1994, when he was 6, the war’s front lines came too close, and Hasic and his family fled to Croatia. After living for a month in a tent, they traveled to SAO Krajina and spent seven months in an abandoned house, getting food from bread lines and UN refugee aid.

When Hasic’s family returned to their home in the spring of 1995, the house had been looted and was covered in ash. Soldiers had taken the house over and were using it as headquarters. “One of the rooms had been hit by an incendiary bullet and was burned,” Hasic says. “There was a white square on the tablecloth where the TV used to be.”

Hasic’s father was captured for a month and held as a prisoner of war, but was released when the war ended. In 1996, Hasic’s uncle fled to the United States. Two years later, he sponsored Hasic and his parents to come and live with him in Fort Wayne, Ind. Hasic started fourth grade there without knowing a word of English.

During college at IPFW, from which he graduated in 2010, Hasic studied political science and international relations. In 2008, he began an internship with then-Sen. Richard Lugar — a professional relationship that he continued through 2012 — and studied abroad in the University of Strasbourg’s human rights program.

After college, Hasic received a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant scholarship to study and teach English in Ukraine.

Majha Zeon’s story

Mahja Zeon Mahja Zeon

Zeon, a third-year law student, was just 3 years old when former Liberian president Charles Taylor led the uprising that initiated the First Liberian Civil War in 1989. Her father was in the United States on business at the time. He sent for Zeon’s mother and sister — who had been born a U.S. citizen — but wasn’t able to get Zeon and her brother out of the country.

The two children and their aunt walked from Grand Bassa County to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire — a distance of more than 300 miles. They stayed with a family in Abidjan for a few months before moving to a refugee camp in Ghana.

Zeon’s parents vowed to send for her and her brother as soon as possible. But when they finally got clearance, in 1993, it was to bring only one child to the United States — Zeon’s brother. He put his sister first.

“The morning the lady arrived to take John to America, he was gone,” Zeon says. “He ran away so that I could be saved.”

Zeon traveled to the United States in her brother’s place and reunited with her parents in New York, eventually moving to Atlanta. She attended college at Valdosta State on an Alexis Grubbs Scholarship.

Destiny intervened again: her pre-law advisor and international relations professor, Marc G. Pufong, ’89, was a Maurer School of Law graduate, which prompted Zeon to apply to IU.

“My journey to IU was destiny. Everything fell into place in its own way,” Zeon says.

Zeon’s brother remains in Liberia, inspiring her work as a managing affiliate for the Center for Constitutional Democracy, where she is currently helping to draft amendments to the Liberian constitution. “I want to be a lawyer, and I want to save Liberia,” Zeon said. “That has always been my path.”

“People like Mahja and Eldin are the reason that we do the work that we do,” says David Williams, the John S. Hastings Professor of Law and executive director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy. “Such brave and idealistic people force us to remember that humans make their world, and so they can remake it better, if only they believe they can — if only we believe they can.”