Chimaltenango, a city of some 45,000 people in south-central Guatemala, seems an unlikely place for a 20-something from Golden, Colo., to experience her epiphany.
But there sits Rachel Lee, now a 26-year-old Creighton law school student, telling just that story. Slight of build, but bright of eye and sturdy of spirit, Lee explains how she came to know and love the women of that Guatemalan community, many of whom lost husbands and sons in the epochal brutality of the 1980s. She explains how those peasant women, who eke a living weaving scarves for American consumers, persuaded her to pursue a law degree, and how that commitment led her to the nonprofit world of providing legal aid to immigrants — a class she views as “marginalized” and struggling to be seen.
“For me it means people who are overlooked in society,” Lee said. “People who don’t really have a voice, whether because they’re poor, or they’re minorities, or they don’t speak the language, or they don’t have legal documentation — those kinds of things.” Lee holds a Dean’s Academic Scholarship, which covers the cost of tuition at Creighton’s School of Law, a privilege she shares with the wider Omaha community by working with Justice For Our Neighbors, a South Omaha nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to immigrants who have some path to legal status, and who subsist on incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.
“There are several paths available for some sort of protected status, and we help them to get that, whether they are asylum seekers, victims of violence or children who qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile status,” she said.
Lee’s path to Omaha was not as direct as it might have been considering she is a native of Golden, Colo. She graduated from Hastings College in Hastings, Neb., in 2012, majoring in English and history, but it was Spanish, and the world that language represents, that sounded the call.
Lee had intended to join the Peace Corps, but when her college roommate at Hastings College mentioned the Young Adult Volunteers mission program run by the Presbyterian Church (USA), things changed. She attended an orientation meeting in Kentucky and signed up, fully understanding that she could be assigned anywhere in the world. As it happened, she got Guatemala, where she could put her creditable high school Spanish to use. She was placed among a small group of some 15 local women who lived in a community known as “Heart of the Women.” For the next two years, her life would revolve around the needs of those women, helping them learn English and acting as a translator as groups of American tourists visited and bought their wares. The practicality of the work, the ecumenical aspect of a Catholic woman serving with a Presbyterian mission, and the opportunity to learn what life can be like outside the safe confines of Colorado, all appealed to Lee. “I was intentional about it,” she said. “I really wanted to get to know the culture, their way of life and be enveloped by it. I wanted to find a way to contribute. “It was about being the hands and feet of Christ, rather than telling people how to interpret the Bible,” she said. “It fit well with my ecumenical point of view.” The stories she was told proved unforgettable. “Hearing their stories of injustice, and seeing their resilience, was very inspiring to me,” Lee said. “I talked to them a lot about politics and the law, and they suggested that because I was so passionate about effecting change that I pursue a career in law.”
As she nears graduation in May of 2017, Lee said she plans to pursue a career in immigration law while remaining open to other areas that tend to intersect. While her final year of law school must be completed, and a clerkship at the Colorado Supreme Court awaits, the goal is clear. “I’m very inspired by the example of Archbishop Oscar Romero who was in El Salvador during very violent times and who acted as a voice for poor and marginalized people.”