In the 1980s, Michael Smith opposed U.S. support for repressive military regimes during the terrible civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. He participated in many protests and was arrested many times. “This is how I began working with refugees,” he says. “I was arrested several times with the co-coordinator of East Bay Sanctuary. She said they needed Spanish-speaking volunteers to work with refugees from the wars I was protesting.”
Michael first volunteered with the Sanctuary as an on-call interpreter and chauffeur in 1985. Founded three years earlier by a consortium of San Francisco Bay Area religious groups, the Sanctuary assisted refugees fleeing conflicts in Central America. Over the years, it expanded its services to help immigrants and refugees from 61 countries, offering basic support, legal services, community organizing, advocacy, and education.
Michael’s role has also expanded. Since 1992, he has directed the Sanctuary’s Affirmative Asylum Program. “Our office has filed more than 2,800 asylum cases, and 96 percent of the cases adjudicated have been granted,” he says. “All are refugees who fear persecution should they return to their home countries. Many have already suffered atrocious forms of persecution. All are poor, and many are poorly educated or illiterate and would not know how to navigate our complex immigration system.”
While most of the refugees whom Michael represents still come from Latin America, their reasons for coming have changed. “Where previously our clients were fleeing political persecution from repressive governments,” Michael says, “now the majority are victims of domestic violence or face persecution because of their race or sexual orientation.”
Michael feels a deep empathy for the people he serves. Born in 1943, he grew up in racially segregated Missouri. “My mother was tolerant, not a racist as were many of our neighbors,” he says. Michael half-heartedly studied biology in college, primarily to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War. “I was finally kicked out because I couldn’t pay dorm fees,” he says. In 1967, he was drafted and served a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam. “Vietnam was a good and bad experience. I learned a lot. I got angry about the senselessness of war,” he says.
Nearly a decade after his military service, Michael re-enrolled in college to study history and anthropology. “While working summers on archaeological sites in El Salvador and studying Spanish in Guatemala,” he says, “I witnessed the effects of oppression as those countries were beginning their descent into long and bloody civil wars, prolonged by American support for the military juntas.”
“From my experiences in Vietnam I under- stood the brutality and senselessness of war,” Michael says. “My concerns led me to protest, but ultimately, I felt I could do more by helping people at the East Bay Sanctuary.”
Michael feels privileged to do the work he does; his greatest reward is seeing people who suffered persecution rebuild their lives. He says, “There is an incredible amount of racism against the Maya, the indigenous people of Guatemala. Non-indigenous people say they are stupid and worthless. It is very moving to see Mayan refugees flee to the U.S., get asylum, and rebuild their lives. One outstanding example is a young Q’anjobal Mayan woman whose family fled the genocide in Guatemala. She got a bachelor’s from University of California, Berkeley and is now a teacher.”
His years of work have provided Michael with material for two books based on his clients’ experiences, including Sanctuary Stories, which is used as a textbook at UC Berkeley. “My work has made me realize how privileged I am,” he says. “Privileged because I lead a comfortable life and because I work with people I consider the real heroes: victims of rape, torture, domestic violence, female circumcision, and those who have suffered a lifetime of persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. These people are not heroes because of their suffering, but because of their determination to rebuild their lives and their children’s lives, their generosity, and their kindness to others.”