One Morning in Charlotte Immigration Court’s Pro Bono Room

The line starts around 10:30, after people have made their initial appearance in court. They come in, one or two at a time, to discuss their specific circumstances and inquire about next steps. Some clients are from Venezeula; some are from Mexico; one American woman comes in with a man from Haiti. Everyone seems to have a manila folder with a stack of papers to go through. Many conversations are had, along with a few tears. Lots of back and forth—usually calm and occasionally elevated. Frustration is coming through, and patience is needed. 

Most of the questions revolve around terminology, paperwork and next steps. It’s hard to move forward in the process when unfamiliar terms are thrown at you with no explanation. Plus, many documents are only shared in English. As for the next steps, that depends on where everyone is in the process. 

The advice to most: you need a lawyer to be successful. Most leave with additional paperwork: address change forms, lists of immigration lawyers, etc. If children come in with their parents, they also receive a page of stickers. 

It is a time fraught with a lot of unknown variables. Our pro bono services are there to help people understand what is happening, along with determining the next steps to move forward successfully with their lives in a new country. 

Advocacy Center hours in the Pro Bono Room are Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 9:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. The Charlotte Immigration Court is located at 5701 Executive Center Drive, Charlotte, NC on the fourth floor. 

“I want to move forward.”-Renita shares how she nearly lost her home and the stability the Advocacy Center was able to help her secure.

Renita is quick to acknowledge the crucial role faith has played in her life. 

“I have been through so much, but I have always had faith that God would see me through it.  Whenever I faced obstacles, he seemed to put the right people in my path.”

Her strong faith and personal determination helped her persevere when she nearly lost her home. 

Renita lived with her elderly mother until her mother passed away.  The oldest of five children, Renita was the only sibling at the time without a stable home of her own.  Her mother wanted Renita to inherit the home they shared.

“It was important to my mom that I have a place to call my own and my siblings were very supportive.”

Renita diligently took over the mortgage payments of the house, working long hours to ensure she could stay in the home.  But when she was contacted by a scam mortgage assistance firm in 2019, the company convinced Renita to send the mortgage payments directly to them.  The fraud continued for 6 months, causing Renita to fall behind on her mortgage.   After losing her job at the onset of the pandemic and unable to recoup the payments from which she was frauded, Renita’s home entered foreclosure.  Renita was unsure of what to do next and was referred to Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy.

“From my first phone call with the Advocacy Center, I felt reassured that we would figure out a solution.”

Leah Kane, Consumer Protection Program Senior Attorney, worked with Renita to officially deed the home in Renita’s name and defend against the foreclosure action.  The Advocacy Center also helped Renita apply for financial assistance through the COVID-related Housing Assistance Fund (HAF).  Once Renita was approved for funding, the Advocacy Center was able to argue in favor of withdrawing the foreclosure case entirely.

“I thank God for the help that was provided and what Leah was able to do.  She was so patient and helpful.  If I had lost my home, I would have had to move in with my daughter or find somewhere else to live.”

The affordable housing crisis in Charlotte and the surrounding areas would have made finding another place to live difficult.  Because Renita’s home has been in her family for nearly 30 years, it is known as a naturally occurring affordable home (NOAH).  Ensuring homeowners like Renita can stay in their homes is essential to building a more sustainable community and allowing families to build generational wealth.  

Renita’s gratitude for the Advocacy Center is effervescent, but when talking to her, one cannot help but be grateful for her in return.  Although she is approaching retirement age, she works 12-hour shifts, 6 days a week, fiercely determined that she will not lose her home. 

“I want to move forward.  Losing my house would have meant going backward.  I’ve worked too hard for that to happen.”

“It’s hard for someone to understand what I go through every day”

Janet* knows firsthand that life can change in a split second.  Several years ago she and her young daughter were in a severe car accident.  Janet’s daughter walked away from the scene without injury, but Janet faced severe injuries to her brain and body that left her in the hospital for months.

Months later, Janet underwent an extensive neuro evaluation to determine the full extent of her brain injury.  Hoping to return to college to finish her education, Janet was crushed when the doctor informed her that would not be possible. Work was not an option either as she faced difficulties with memory and sight.   Janet’s mom stepped in to help, keeping track of Janet’s doctors and documents, all while encouraging Janet to apply for disability benefits. When she tragically lost her mom, Janet applied for disability benefits only to be denied multiple times.

“It is hard for me mentally to even complete the documents and forms.  I get frustrated and confused.  It’s a really long process and I did the best I could, but it wasn’t enough.  My mom was my memory; she helped me keep track of my doctors and information, but she wasn’t there anymore.”

CareRing, a health-service nonprofit helping Janet with her medications and medical insurance, referred her to Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy.  Janet connected with Health Insurance Navigator, Abigail Duemler, who served as a resource when Janet became increasingly frustrated that she was unable to receive the services she needed. After her application was denied again, Janet and Abigail appealed the denial and the decision was finally reversed, providing Janet critical health insurance under Medicaid for Disability.

“[Having access to the benefits I need and at a lower cost] has put me in a better place mentally.  I don’t have to worry as much.”

Janet said using her own voice to describe how the accident affected her life during the appeal helped them understand why she needed Medicaid for Disability in a way that words on a paper had not.

“It’s hard for someone to understand what I go through every day, but when I can talk to someone and explain [how my life has been impacted], they get it.”

Abigail’s help gave Janet the extra encouragement and knowledge needed to get through the long process. Janet explains, “I knew what I needed to do [to apply for Medicaid with Disability], but not entirely. [Abigail] helped me so much.”  For Janet, the process was long and exhausting, but her main takeaway was to not give up. “It was the extra push and motivation I needed to know someone was behind me, helping me through the process.”

Janet’s experience is just one example of how Medical Legal Partnerships, such as that between CareRing and the Advocacy Center, are central to helping community members. Medical Legal Partnerships form when health care organizations work alongside public interest law organizations to serve their community, playing a crucial role in addressing the needs of people who cannot otherwise afford health or legal services.

Janet is still awaiting a disability approval on her Social Security case, but with the positive ruling of her Medicaid case there is hope. She looks optimistically to the future, and proudly shares how well her daughter is doing in school.  “It’s taken awhile but my life has finally turned around to where I want it to be.  I’ve learned to deal with [the lasting effects of my car accident] and managing my pain.  I’m really happy now.”

Help support our efforts empower clients like Janet.

*Name changed for anonymity

Hope for a promising future for clients like Kevin

Kevin greets you with a shy smile and a kindness that immediately warms your heart.  His journey to the present has not been an easy one, yet he chooses to focus on the good that has brought him here and the bright future that lies in front of him.

Kevin left Honduras to emigrate to the United States with his stepfather when he was 14 years old, leaving behind his mother and younger brother.  His stepfather had encouraged Kevin’s mother, Maria, to allow Kevin to join him for the arduous journey, believing that it would be easier to enter the United States accompanied by a minor. 

“It is very difficult to live in Honduras.  It’s very poor and there is a lot of crime and gangs.  I wanted to come to this country to study and make a better life for my family.”

Kevin’s stepfather assured Maria that he would look out for the young boy, provide for him, and enroll him in school as soon as it was possible.  Kevin said the journey was hard, but he and his stepfather survived without any major problems.  Shortly after they arrived in the United States, things began to change.

Kevin’s stepfather began drinking and would leave him alone to care for himself in their apartment.  He forced Kevin to work a grueling 6-day-a-week job in construction and would not allow him to enroll in school.  One day his stepfather left and never returned. 

Kevin decided to move to North Carolina to live with his uncle in hopes things would be different, but quickly life settled into a similar pattern.  His uncle forced Kevin to work in construction to pay rent and cover other household expenses. He would not allow Kevin to enroll in school.  One day Kevin fell from the second story of a construction job, severely injuring his back.  Because Kevin was undocumented, his uncle was afraid to take him to the hospital and forced Kevin to recover on his own at home.  He eventually returned to work, but he knew it wasn’t sustainable.

Maria connected Kevin with her uncle in Charlotte who assured Kevin that he could support him and would allow Kevin to enroll in school.  In 2020, Kevin was finally able to start school, a memory that brings an instant smile to Kevin’s face. 

Kevin describes his mother’s uncle and now caregiver as a father figure, someone who has created a home and future for Kevin.  It was through his uncle and his uncle’s church that Kevin learned about Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy. 

“I would not have been able to afford an attorney on my own because I was not working.  My uncle was willing to help me, but he was already helping me with so much: food, rent, and everything.  It would have been difficult for him to also pay for an attorney.”

Sharon Dove, Attorney and Immigrant Justice Program Director, connected with Kevin and quickly learned the compelling facts of Kevin’s situation.

Sharon was able to pursue a T-Visa on Kevin’s behalf, a form of immigration relief for victims of human trafficking.  Sharon demonstrated to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that Kevin was coerced to enter the United States under false pretenses and was compelled into involuntary servitude.   Kevin was granted a temporary visa that will allow him to become a legal permanent resident.  It will also enable Kevin’s mother and younger brother to apply for legal permanent residency, a fact that brings Kevin tremendous joy and relief.

“Finding the [Advocacy Center] was like winning the lottery for me.  I never thought I could get legal status in this country.”

Kevin eagerly shares that he will graduate from high school this May.  Although his mother will not be able to attend his graduation, she is incredibly proud of all that Kevin has accomplished on his own.  Kevin modestly admits she admires the strength he has shown over the past few years and his dedication to finishing school.  Kevin is not just passionate about learning.  He also excitedly talks about his efforts to help other immigrants in the community, assisting those he can as a translator.  Kevin looks forward to his future and plans to study medicine in hopes of one day becoming a doctor.

When asked to describe the Advocacy Center, Kevin simply calls it, “la casa de esperanza, the house of hope”.

Help us continue to provide hope for young immigrants like Kevin: support the Access to Justice Campaign today!

Providing long-term stability for clients like Wendy

Wendy affectionately calls her older sister, Melody, “the manager”.  Melody laughs at the nickname but graciously takes on the role, balancing her job at a local restaurant, managing the daily operations of their home, and caring for her younger sister.  The sisters have come to rely on each other but are quick to recognize that there are some things for which they need support.

Wendy and her sister Melody share a laugh

It was Melody who suggested Wendy contact the Advocacy Center.  Staff attorneys negotiated a payment plan for Melody with the county when she was facing foreclosure from back property taxes on her parents’ estate.  Then in the first year of COVID, the Advocacy Center helped Melody access unemployment insurance and food stamps.  She knew firsthand what a lifeline public benefits could provide. 

Heeding her sister’s suggestion, Wendy connected with Cara Meyer, a Health Insurance Navigator, who helped her enroll in Food and Nutrition Services (food stamps) and Medicaid for the Disabled, health care coverage that proved crucial when Wendy’s health condition deteriorated months later. 

Wendy spent three months in the hospital suffering from complications related to congestive heart failure and had her right leg amputated after developing blood clots. 

“When I came home from the hospital, I knew that I would need someone to help me learn how to maneuver with one leg, how to shower, [how to take care of myself],” Wendy says, “I was in a deep depression and needed help.”

Living with Melody and her husband, Wendy was grateful for everything her older sister did.  But Melody was the primary financial support for the family and Wendy knew it was taking a toll on her.  Wendy was unable to work because of her disability and her disability benefits were terminated years prior. 

“I physically could not get to the [Social Security Administration] office.  When I called, they said they could not take my message so I kept trying to call any number I could.  I couldn’t reach anyone.  Julieanne was able to get in touch with the right people.”

Julieanne Taylor, Senior Attorney and Public Benefits Legal Services Unit Manager, worked with Wendy to successfully appeal her Social Security Insurance (SSI) denial.  Wendy was granted back benefits and ongoing payments, providing a stable source of income for Wendy that allowed her to take care of her own personal needs and contribute to the household. 

Wendy and Melody’s story is reflected in many of our clients’ experiences.  Our clients often face multiple civil legal issues but lack the financial resources to address them.  As with Wendy and Melody, our clients’ needs are not limited to just health care, or public benefits, or property taxes, but more often a combination of several, which means we always need to look at the bigger picture. 

“[Each time your staff would address a problem] they would ask if there was anything else they could do to help.  Your staff [treated us with dignity] and that meant a lot,” says Melody. 

Julieanne, Cara, and Advocacy Center staff worked together to address Wendy and Melody’s problems in a holistic way, creating economic security, accessing critical health care, and ensuring longer-term stability.

When asked to describe the impact of their experience with the Advocacy Center, Melody struggled to find the words:

“I don’t think they’ve invented a word that’s big enough to say how wonderful this place is.”

Your support of the Access to Justice Campaign ensures we can fight for neighbors like Wendy and Melody, facing civil legal issues impacting their safety, security, and stability. Donate today to help us keep up the fight.

One man’s journey to save his family from the Taliban

When the government of Afghanistan fell in August 2021, Americans watched with disbelief at how quickly the country would slip into Taliban rule. News footage showed swarms of American and Afghans citizens at the Kabul airport hoping to get a flight anywhere away from their crumbled democracy. We asked ourselves, how could there have been no evacuation plan? 

Bahroz and young Afghan children, Jalalabad, 2009

For one American, Bahroz Mohmand, a plan to get his family out of Afghanistan was two years in the making. He successfully secured safe passage for his parents, some of his siblings and their children to legally enter the United States. One year later, his family is learning English and trying to build a life in Charlotte, N.C. Now they are safe but what is next for them? 

“I was an interpreter in Afghanistan working with American troops for years,” says Bahroz. “If my family goes back, they will be tortured and killed.”

Though his family did not directly help the American military, his service as an interpreter put a target on their backs. While interpreters like Bahroz have a path to citizenship, their family members do not. 

Bahroz’s Journey

Bahroz was 17 and had just finished high school in his native Afghanistan when he took a job as a translator helping Afghan military forces communicate with Americans there to train them. With the permission of his parents, he used the English he knew to help in the effort to build an independent Afghan government and a military force to protect its citizens and their rights, most importantly from the Taliban. On many occasions, he risked his life to do so.

Bahroz and US military partners, Laghman Province, 2008

“When the U.S. Army came to Afghanistan in 2001, there was nothing,” says Bahroz. “They started everything from scratch: screening soldiers, translating materials from their handbook, teaching. We became cultural advisors, just trying to get rid of confusion.”

On April 6, 2008, Bahroz was part of a group of American Special Forces soldiers and 100 Afghan commandos that were dropped off by helicopter into the desolate Shok Valley. They were ambushed by 200 well-trained and well-armed terrorists. Two people were killed, including an Afghan translator, who was Bahroz’ childhood friend. Bahroz helped get his wounded American teammates to safety. This bloody and harrowing battle would earn Staff Sergeant Ronald Shurer and Master Sergeant Matthew Williams Medals of Honor for their bravery.

On Dec. 5, 2012, Bahroz emigrated to the United States. Though he did not serve in the U.S. military, he was given a path to citizenship. On October 1, 2018, he was invited to the White House for the Medal of Honor ceremony honoring Sgt. Shurer, where Bahroz was individually recognized by the President of the United States. Bahroz’s once quiet employment as a translator became international news and increased scrutiny on his family.

President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence participate in a Medal of Honor ceremony for retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ronald J. Shurer II Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Amy Rossetti), Bahroz was recognized at the ceremony for his contributions.

“The Taliban were slaughtering the families of people who worked for the Americans, calling us infidels,” Bahroz said. “I didn’t want to see my nieces forced to marry into the Taliban or my nephews get kidnapped. I couldn’t live with the guilt.”

Bahroz’s Efforts to Save His Family

Tahira, Bahroz’s niece

With suicide bombings still a regular occurrence, Bahroz started working all of his contacts to get his family out of Afghanistan to safety. With the help of his friends, Bahroz was able to add his family’s names to the evacuation list, but not before the Afghan government collapsed.

When things became too unstable, Bahroz’s family headed to the airport. Among his family was then 17-year-old Tahira, his niece. 

Though Tahira had become accustomed to daily danger and instability, she lived the life of a normal high school girl. She loves writing and hopes to become a journalist one day.

When it was time to go, she took only a backpack. It was complete chaos.

“The Taliban were shouting and shooting,” Tahira says. “Everyone was trying to get in the airport to get out because they were afraid of what the Taliban would do if they weren’t able to leave. We were able to get into the airport and board the plane. Everyone was sitting on the floor of the plane. We went to Qatar and then Germany. We were so happy to be safe, but we asked ourselves, ‘how did everything happen so quickly?’”

While the paperwork Bahroz secured for his family got them here, it is not a guarantee of permanent citizenship. They have work permits but the rest of their documentation is incomplete. Bahroz has found it challenging to get answers despite the fact he is an American citizen who speaks fluent English. He is concerned for their safety and Tahira’s future. He is also trying to find a way to bring his remaining family to the U.S. who are still hiding in Afghanistan.

Afghan Adjustment Act

Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both house of Congress to establish a path to citizenship for the Afghans evacuated to the United States.  Known as the Afghan Adjustment Act, the legislation would allow Afghans with temporary status that undergo additional vetting to apply for permanent legal residency.  The Act would ensure Afghans evacuees have a feasible opportunity to legally stay in the United States, fulfilling a promise the United States pledged to keep them safe. 

In the interim, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy is assisting Bahroz’s family to apply for asylum. But if granted asylum, they will not automatically become a legal permanent resident. Instead they must wait a year to apply for such status and then after four years can apply for U.S. citizenship. After everything Bahroz’s family and other Afghan evacuees have endured, passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act would provide an opportunity for a more stable future.

Bahroz speaks from the heart: “The families of interpreters and the people who sacrificed their life, they should get help. I carried wounded American soldiers on my back, not once but hundreds of times. I am a citizen; I am part of this country. This country saved me and my family. I have three kids here, I work. My family is your family, now please save them. They are not a threat. I was the only one working with the Americans, but all my family is at risk.”

Learn more how you can support the passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act.

Learn more about the Interpreting Freedom Foundation, a non-profit created by Bahroz to support Afghan Interpreters, allies, and families as they transition to their new life in the United States.

“Light at the end of a tunnel”: Moniek’s Juvenile Record Expunction

“I love bringing things to life.”  Whether it’s creating something for a friend, the bulletin boards at her church, or arts & crafts time with her daughter, Moniek loves spending her free time working with her hands. But that precious free time is hard to come by as she fills her busy life taking care of her 1-year-old daughter, her birth mother and the mother who raised her, as well as working as a dental assistant.

It was her work as a dental assistant that brought her to Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy.  As she began to prepare for her national dental board exams, her instructor expressed concern that Moniek’s past might impact whether she could take the tests.  These concerns were not new to Moniek.

Since the age of 15, Moniek had difficulty finding employment because employers were unwilling to overlook her juvenile criminal record.

“I was a child, I was crazy, and I didn’t want to listen to anyone.  But I’m not that person anymore.”

She determined her juvenile record would not impact her dental board exams, but Moniek did not want the charges hanging over her head any longer.  Having investigated the expunction process before, Moniek knew she needed a lawyer, an expense she could not afford.  She decided to contact the Advocacy Center where she connected with a pro bono attorney from Robinson Bradshaw, Blaine Sanders.  Blaine is helping Moniek get her juvenile record expunged, creating a future Moniek did not think was possible. 

Moniek’s adorable daughter

For many North Carolinians, criminal records can spark collateral consequences by limiting a person’s housing, employment, and other opportunities.  By removing those barriers, expunction has proven to have a significant impact on an individual’s economic opportunity.  Research also shows expunction can lead to increased wages and reduces the possibility of a person receiving another charge or being incarcerated.

For Moniek, it personally meant she could confidently apply to dental hygienist school and be proud of the example she was setting for her daughter. 

“I know I’ve made mistakes, but there was light at the end of the tunnel.  I want people to know that the person you are in the past does not have to define who you are in the moment, or the person you could become in the future.”

“I no longer feel afraid”, Feeling safe and secure after years of instability

Domingo and his family

Domingo is a quiet man who loves his wife and children.  He is respected by his friends and greets everyone with a smile.  He works hard in his job in construction and aspires to open a small business.  And now, after 8 patient years, he is also a legal resident of the United States. 

Domingo emigrated from Mexico in 1998 in hopes of economic opportunity.  If he stayed in Mexico, he knew his job options were scare and the future he could create would be full of hardships.  It was a difficult decision to leave his parents behind, but he said goodbye, not knowing it would be 23 years before they were reunited.

Domingo eventually settled in North Carolina where he met his wife, Esperanza.   Esperanza was recently divorced from her abusive ex-husband and raising her children alone.  They became a family and went on to have children of their own. 

During this time, Domingo found himself living in fear.  His wife and children were all U.S. citizens, leaving Domingo as the only undocumented person in their house.  He worried about being deported and what would become of his wife and children if his undocumented status was discovered.  He knew he needed stability.

Domingo and Esperanza contacted Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy in 2013.  Staff attorneys with our Immigrant Justice Program helped Esperanza file an I-130 petition, establishing her marital relationship with Domingo and started his process to apply for legal permanent residency.  As a spouse of a U.S. citizen, Domingo was eligible to file an I-601A waiver for his unlawful entry into the U.S. in 1998, thereby enabling him to apply for an immigrant visa at the U.S. consulate in Mexico. In 2018, the Advocacy Center was able to submit Domingo’s immigrant visa application, a process that was further delayed by the pandemic in 2020.

If this all sounds complicated and difficult to navigate, that’s because it is.  And if you are an immigrant doing everything you can to work hard and provide for your family, it is downright terrifying.

Domingo and his parents, reunited after 23 years

Research has found that the probability of a positive outcome in an immigration case increases dramatically, from 5% to 95%, when an individual has legal representation.  But in Charlotte, having legal representation to help guide you through this stressful, confusing process is less likely.  In a recent report, only 24% of respondents in Charlotte Immigration Court had legal representation, compared to 60% nationally.  Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy is determined to change that.

Armed with the knowledge and experience of the attorneys at the Advocacy Center, Domingo’s immigration process had a positive ending.  In 2021, Domingo traveled to Mexico for the final interview of his visa process and was reunited with his family for the first time since 1998.    He returned to the United Status as a legal permanent resident with feelings of safety and security he never thought possible. He looks forward to applying for his U.S. citizenship in three years.

Learn more about our Immigrant Justice Program and how we support the Charlotte immigrant community.

“I can tell you really care”: Treating clients with dignity and respect

James and his late wife, shortly before her death

To James, it seemed life was testing him.  Coping with the loss of his wife and his mother within the same month, James felt hopeless.  Countless roadblocks were preventing him from moving forward and he wasn’t sure where to turn.  He decided to call Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy. 

No longer able to keep up with the physical demands of his job with a moving company, James had been forced to retire early.  James relied heavily on his wife’s social security income.  Without his own source of income at the time of her passing, James’ economic security and stability were critically threatened.  At the Advocacy Center, he was quickly connected with a Health Insurance Navigator, Cara Meyer, and social work intern, Whitney Cooper, who addressed his concerns. 

“I had a lot on my plate and they pointed me in the right direction.  Everything they could do to help me, they did. By the grace of God, Cara & Whitney have been there for me.” 

Cara helped James apply for Food & Nutrition Services to address his immediate food insecurity, as well as to apply for Medicaid for the Disabled.  Cara took it a step further, helping James make an appointment with a primary care physician for the first time in years.  James needed a doctor that was easy to get to, due to limited transportation options.  With that in mind, Cara found a physician that would accept his insurance and was easily accessible by bus.  Whitney is now helping James apply for social security disability and the team connected him with resources to appeal denied unemployment benefits and request financial assistance from Crisis Assistance Ministry. 

James is grateful for the stability Cara and Whitney have been able to provide during this difficult time.  “If I had to [navigate the situation on my own] I think I would have gone crazy.  I had so many things going on.  They have been there for me, without them, I don’t know where I would be.”  But what James appreciated the most was the dignity with which he was treated.  “I can tell by the way they talk to me and what they do for me, that they really care.  It means a lot to know I have someone I can trust to help me make my situation better.” 

Fighting for Veterans like Rocky

Rocky proudly shows off his Air Force hat as he begins to share stories of his time in the military.  Adorned with the year 1947, the year the Air Force was formed, and the phrase “No one comes close”, the hat is a reminder of his service as a radar operator in the early 1970’s.  During his time in the service, Rocky spent a year stationed in Okinawa and then later off a remote island in the South Pacific.  After his remote duty, he returned to the United States and was ultimately discharged as a Sergeant in 1975.   

The physical toll of his military service followed Rocky into older age.  His loving wife of over 25 years became his primary caregiver as he faced the onset of Parkinson’s, in addition to suffering from colitis and other agonizing physical injuries throughout his body.  During his time overseas, Rocky was exposed to chemicals linked to Parkinson’s, colitis, Crohn’s disease, and other auto immune disorders.  Like many veterans, Rocky was slow to connect his resulting medical issues to his time in the service.   

“As American soldiers we are trained to be independent.  We are hesitant to go to the Veteran’s Administration (VA) to ask for help or to get disability benefits.  It’s easy to relate to someone with a bullet wound or a shrapnel wound, but when you look like you are healthy, it is harder to see the damage that was done.” 

Rocky’s condition became so debilitating that he had to stop working in 2014.  He and his wife were forced to sell their home when their social security benefits were insufficient to cover their mortgage and his medical bills.  He knew additional benefits were available to him as a veteran, but he did not know where to start. 

“I didn’t know how to navigate the disability benefit process alone.  It was too daunting.  There is no way we would have been able to do it without help.  Thank God for Emon.” 

Emon Northe, staff attorney and Veterans Legal Services Project Coordinator at Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, became an impassioned advocate for Rocky and his wife, Celeste.  Ultimately submitting an application over 400 pages long on Rocky’s behalf, Emon worked tirelessly to help Rocky secure a grant of individual unemployability which provided access to backpay and disability benefits, as well as healthcare benefits for his wife.  Emon’s work had a lasting impact on Rocky’s long-term economic stability: 

“The disability benefits have allowed us to totally turn our lives around financially.  We were able to buy a house and make it wheelchair accessible.” 

Unfortunately, Rocky’s experience is not unique.  The VA’s disability benefit process is extremely stringent, requiring extensive documentation from the time you are hurt through the day you apply for benefits.  Rocky leaned on his wife’s thoroughness to help him supply the necessary documentation and acknowledges that not all veterans are fortunate to have that family support.  In addition, Emon’s legal experience and thorough knowledge of the benefit system meant she knew where to push for further documentation and what would ultimately be required to ensure Rocky was granted access to benefits.  Without support from family or legal representation, many veterans are left to navigate the system alone and are vulnerable to continued instability. Rocky is grateful for the Advocacy Center: 

“It gives us peace of mind that there is an organization like yours that is willing to step in for people that don’t have the money or the resources.  Having someone there for you is a blessing.  You showed me that it was not my fault.  You helped me see that I served this country and was hurt because of it.”      

During his time as a client, Rocky developed a special relationship with Emon and expresses deep gratitude for her dedication: 

“Emon went above and beyond to help us.  I would adopt her if she let me.  She was like an angel to us, but I guess angels don’t carry cell phones.” 

If you or someone you know is a veteran facing economic instability or housing insecurity, Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy is here to help.  We serve low-income veterans and families in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus and Union Counties who are seeking help with disability benefit claims and appeals, discharge upgrades and over-payment issues, as well as additional civil legal matters, at little or no cost.  Learn more how we can help.