Shortly after immigrating to Canada from South Korea as a teenager, Jennifer Roggemann had an encounter with our justice system that opened her eyes to the impact someone with her particular background, academic drive and desire to help could have on the lives of other newcomers.
“A family member got into legal trouble,” she recalls. “It was all a cultural misunderstanding, but we had to go to court.” From there, the cultural misunderstanding continued. “My father’s head was down — in embarrassment at having to be there — and the judge told him ‘not to sleep in my court.’” This led to further reprimand from their own counsel who explained angrily that they needed to get the judge on their side. Says Roggemann, “I remember thinking that if I’m ever able to speak English proficiently – if I ever become a lawyer – that would never happen.”
More than 25 years later, Roggemann, who helms Roggemann Immigration Law, a highly regarded boutique firm in Waterloo, has not only helped countless people become Canadians, through her legal acumen; she has helped them belong to a community, through her volunteer leadership.
This year, as she transitions off the Waterloo Region Immigration Partnership’s Leadership Council after nearly a decade of service, Roggemann has occasion to reflect on how its collaborative, constructive and compassionate community undertakings have made Waterloo feel like home to immigrants and refugees from across the globe.
“Government agencies, health organizations, universities, settlement agencies, language schools, immigrants, the police – we all have a meaningful voice at the table,” says Roggemann. “In a unified format, we decide what we have to focus on to move things forward.”
She cites translation — making sure services and resources are available in multiple languages — among the group’s major achievements, as well as local resettlement efforts for an unprecedented influx of Syrian refugees to Canada. Whether developing new policies or procedures, or ensuing newcomers have their immediate needs met — where to buy groceries, learn the language, or send their kids to school — the Council is dedicated to harnessing their energies and experiences toward easing the transition for those coping with highly stressful circumstances.
Equally important is the dialogue Council members undertake to increase understanding of the issues new Canadians face. Roggemann lent a legal perspective and, as an active member and regular participant in OBA and CBA programs, was able to bring things to the policy level. This shared wisdom and understanding is then disseminated to the community through their respective organizations. “It’s an incredible cascade,” says Roggemann, one that makes a huge difference. “Belonging is very psychological,” she observes. “You may choose Canada, but feeling a part of it is based on others’ reactions,”
Among the highlights of her volunteer work has been delivering congratulatory remarks at citizenship ceremonies where Canadians get to see what if feels like — the joy and the excitement — of becoming Canadian. “In ’93, when I became a citizen, the speaker at the presentation asked who is a better Canadian — the ones who choose this country or those who were here first by accident of birth?” she recalls. “There is a great sense of affirmation in this …‘we accept you.’”
As a lawyer, Roggemann must build trust in an immigration system that is challenging to navigate and that endeavours to institute, on a national scale, uniform regulations within very diverse communities. “Some immigrants come from countries where there is no rule of law, no trust base, where the government is not there to protect. I have to create an understanding that [our] government is not creating policies to punish people.” She believes, in the words of former Chief Justice of Supreme Court of Canada, Madam Justice Beverley McLachlin, that “justice and the rule of law are simply the best hope for the future.” “Law is a part of the community,” Roggemann asserts. “We as a community cannot function without it.”
That belief, her Christian faith, healthy boundaries and mindfulness sustain her as she assists clients struggling with tumultuous events. So, too, does her volunteer work. “You can be jaded, you can be challenged; there are so many uncontrollable factors. You can get disappointed in the human race — people do desperate things at desperate times,” she explains. “Through volunteer work, you come to have incredible compassion for clients, and not only compassion, but gratitude: I’m grateful for my community; I’m grateful for my staff; for my friends and my family; I appreciate where I am in my life.”
Empathy is more important to the practice of law than most new lawyers realize. Roggemann recalls a volunteer experience at a soup kitchen — a place she was not at ease, as a self-professed poor cook. Being so far out of her comfort zone, it occurred to her how vulnerable her clients are when entering her office feeling overwhelmed and uncertain.
“At work, you become more savvy, you learn; in volunteering, you become more humble,” she offers. “Clients don’t care about the sections of the Immigration Act – they want to know what it’s going to mean in their lives.”