Monday, April 07, 2014

Human Rights Journey

by Zinta Aistars
Published in LuxEsto, Spring 2014

Corrine Lewis with her husband Bruce Dresbach

From her home in Brussels, Belgium, where she lives with husband and law partner Bruce Dresbach '83 and their three sons, Corinne Lewis ’81 reflects on her winding journey that's not nearly done yet.

It has taken her to Tokyo to practice law; to Geneva to work with displaced persons; to Bangladesh to work with refugees; to Houston and to London to teach immigration law and human rights; to the United Nations as a legal office; and to the Congo, speeding through the night with the car's headlights dimmed to escape capture.

That wild (and wonderful) ride began at Kalamazoo College.

"K was my foundation stone," Lewis says. "I had never been abroad before I was a student at Kalamazoo College. For my career and personal choices, Kalamazoo College provided a supportive faculty, a unique combination of classroom and real world experiences." Lewis nods with appreciation. "It was a fabulous experience."

Like so many incoming freshmen, Lewis had no idea where she was going when she first came onto campus. She majored in English and minored in French, a language she had enjoyed in high school, but her future goals were undefined. Like most, she enjoyed study abroad—France—but it wasn't until the writing of her Senior Individualized Project (SIP) that even a hint of what was to come showed its first blush.

"I wrote my SIP in French," she says. "And I don't recall the details, or how the idea for it came up, but it was about women in World War II. I started to take a closer look at human rights in war."

Even as Lewis graduated and moved on to law school at Indiana University, her goal was not entirely clear—but growing clearer. "I wasn't yet sure about the specialty, but my studies were generally in international matters. There were no human rights courses at that time."

Her path, however, was undeniably moving her forward. Along with continued studies, Lewis met her husband, Bruce Dresbach, at law school. He was a Kalamazoo College graduate, too, and they had actually met, although only in passing, during their K years, although the memory of it didn't "take."

"You could say we first met when I worked in K's admissions office," Lewis smiles. "He was visiting the campus during his high school senior year, two years behind me, and only years later did we realize we had sat at the same table at a scholar athlete luncheon. We were both on the swim team."

At Indiana University, meeting (again) when introduced by yet another Kalamazoo College alumnus, the two finally started to pay attention. They realized they had a great number of common interests. Not least among those was an interest in going abroad again.

"Clearly, K was absolutely an influence on both of us. Our undergraduate years were an important time in our development. K gave us the confidence and courage to follow our interests and passions."

Those interests and passions had them both asking their families for the same graduation gift when their law degrees were completed: airline tickets to Japan.

Lewis explains: "We both wanted to live abroad. We wanted to see American law from the other side. One of our professors advised us to just go to Japan and trust that we would get a job."

Twenty letters of application later, Lewis held seven job offers in her hands. Japan was hungry for U.S. lawyers during a time when the country was flush with cash, buying up U. S. companies. Both Lewis and her husband were quickly employed, but her experience as a woman lawyer in Japan was quite different than his. Lewis was hired as in-house legal counsel working on acquisitions of U.S. companies and international transactions by the Kao Corporation in Tokyo.

"It was an incredible cultural experience. A company of 2,500 people, and I was the only woman that wasn't a secretary. In my interview, I was asked what size uniform I wore," Lewis laughs. "I was so much taller than the other women. They all wore pink and gray uniforms. The women were astounded to find out that I didn't cook—and the men all wanted to meet my husband. They wanted to meet a man who would marry a woman who couldn't cook!"

Undeterred, Lewis fully enjoyed the experience. Mornings at the office began with five minutes of group exercises; a bell signaled the opening and close of the work day. Community and companionship were the strengths of the Japanese lifestyle, and the two young American lawyers fit right in.

After three years, however, Lewis was itching to return to the United States again, and Kao Corporation, having a branch in Wilmington, Delaware, was willing to put through the transfer.

Lewis shrugs. "But you know, without that cultural challenge, I got bored." Lewis returned to school, this time to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to earn her master's in public international and comparative law. Foreign adventure beckoned once again, and she took a position as legal officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with postings in UNHCR Geneva Headquarters, at Cox's Bazaar in Bangladesh, and in Brussels, Belgium.

"I could have made a lot more money as a corporate lawyer, but by then I knew I wanted to work with human rights," Lewis says.

Maybe not more money, but certainly more adventure. In Bangladesh, Lewis was in the midst of a quarter million refugees, and she dove in to help people deal with the tangle of legal issues that arise when losing home and life as one has known it. She loved this work, which dealt, she says, with "such pertinent issues, protecting the rights of these people."

For a week, she was sent to the Congo to interview refugees from Rwanda about the genocide that had occurred in their homeland. "Governments were complaining that money was being spent on people who had participated in the genocide, so we were sent over to sort out the situation. We weren't told much beforehand, just briefed that some of the rebels were holding hostages. There were great tensions between the rebel groups, and the government in Congo then was very unstable."

When word got around what the representatives from the UN were talking to refugees, things got uncomfortable. "The refugees were forcibly returned to Rwanda so that they couldn't talk to us. We got up one morning, and all those people were suddenly gone. They seized most of the cars and the drivers, but let us go free. We had a car and drove out that night as fast as we could go—with our lights turned off. Oh yes, I was afraid."

Corinne and Bruce with their three sons
Lewis was also thinking about her children. By then, she and Richard had three young boys at home: Tristan, Julien, and Sebastian. Parental obligations were sobering, and the family had to consider safety over adventure.

School felt safer. Lewis resumed her studies and completed her PhD in London, now defining her focus to international refugee law and studying political influences on international law. Returning once again to the U.S., she taught international and human rights, and laws affecting refugees, at the University of Houston Law Center in Texas.

"Human rights in business was a developing area around that time in 2010, and my corporate law background was helpful. Corporate responsibility was becoming more important, effects on the environment but also on human rights. We were talking about human trafficking, about how businesses must incorporate human rights principles into their business decisions. Corporations can't just think about making money. For instance, mining in Africa—you have to look at how that affects the people who live there, how they are pushed off their land and the land is ruined."

Lewis was in her element when working with human rights, advising businesses, and the only thing missing was … home? Once again, the family decided to return overseas, this time to Brussels, Belgium, and this time, for good. In March 2011, Lewis and her family planted their flag and set down roots, not only with a home base but with a business.

Lex Justi ("An obligation arising out of the right of humanity in our own person." ~Immanuel Kant) is a specialist law firm that provides legal consulting services to multinational companies in human rights issues.

"Having our own law firm gave us the ability to each practice in our own areas of law," Lewis says. "Human rights are a basis for peace. In general, I'd have to say that Europe is ahead of the United States on human rights; it's a good place for us to be. Business with a consideration for human rights has been fully taken up by many large European companies, whereas in the U.S., when you look at Nike, BP, Shell, it takes a problem to create proactive policy and raise awareness."

Living abroad has given Lewis a clearer perspective, she feels, on the strengths of both sides of the ocean, and also on those areas of weakness. She sees these as a lawyer but also as a mother. "The boys have a very intense education here, and there are times I regret that they don't have more time for their own interests, as they might in the U.S. At the same time, education is accessible to everyone here, as it should be. Sports, the arts, all the cultural aspects are open to them. Europe leans toward the socialistic, the U.S. is very capitalistic. I would encourage a combination of both."

Lewis pauses thoughtfully. With the family keeping a second home in Petoskey, Michigan, where they spend their summers so as to stay closer to family there, they maintain an inside perspective on American life, too.

"I don't mean to say one system is better than the other," she says. "But we can learn from one another. Kalamazoo College taught me that, too—to look at home from an international perspective. When you live abroad for a while, you are able to step away and gain distance, have a different way of looking at things, be curious and start to ask questions. That's the importance of a liberal arts education. I am really thankful to K for that."

Corinne Lewis '81 writes, speaks, and publishes regularly on business and human rights. Her recent article "Corporate Responsibility to Respect the Rights of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples," is contained in the Minority Rights Group International’s 2012 annual report, and her article "Businesses’ Human Rights Responsibilities and the Prevention of Displacement" will be published in an upcoming issue of the University of Oxford’s Forced Migration Review.Routledge published UNHCR and International Refugee Law by Corinne Lewis in June 2012.


LuxEsto Spring 2014
An American Perspective on Health Care Overseas
by Zinta Aistars

Corinne Lewis '81 has lived abroad for much of her adult life, ticking off countries she has called home, at least for a while, like others might name vacation spots. Today, she lives in Brussels, Belgium, with her husband and three sons—but the family also calls home a summer residence in Petoskey, Michigan.

"When you live abroad for a while, you are able to step away and gain distance, have a different way of looking at things, be curious and start to ask questions," Lewis says.

One such area for comparison has been health care. If not as an expert, she has formed opinions and insights as a patient, as a mother, but also as someone intensely focused on human rights.

"Personally, I think it is important that everyone has the ability to obtain health care and given my human rights penchant, this is consistent with a right to health," she says.

Health care in Belgium is universal and forms part of the social security system, Lewis explains. "We are reimbursed for one-half to two-thirds of our medical expenses, and private insurance is available to take such reimbursements up to 90 percent. It is a system that I find highly administrative and confusing at times due to the paper work. There can be an uncertainty as to how much a particular expense is reimbursed, which varies and can depend upon whether the doctor is charging the fixed rate set by the government or a higher rate. Even so, pharmaceutical expenses are quite low given the reimbursement rates."

Lewis offers another personal perspective when it came time to choose where—and how—to give birth to her sons. "I spent seven-and-a-half months of my first pregnancy in Bangladesh, where I received minimal health check-ups because I was in a remote region of the country. Women in Bangladesh had babies all the time without going to a hospital. I realize that women with complications do die, but I tend to view child birth as a natural process rather than a medical situation."

When Lewis came to the United States for a doctor's visit, she was astonished at the clinical nature of medical services. The clinical approach made her uncomfortable. "As my assignment in Bangladesh came to an end, I did not feel comfortable having the baby with only the rudimentary emergency care available. I began to look into where to have the baby and read quite extensively on natural births."

What Lewis discovered was that Holland had one of the lowest natal and mother mortality rates with its predominantly home birth system. She was not able to arrange for a home birth in the United States. "Given my age at the time, 37, I was ineligible for most birth centers in the U.S.," she says. "I was considered too old and thus, at risk of complications. My husband was in Holland, so I decided to go there. I found a midwife who lived in our neighborhood and two weeks later gave birth at home in a bath after nearly 24 hours of labor.

"Under the Dutch system, insurance paid for a woman to come to the home after the birth and to help with laundry and to show me how to care and feed the baby. This was incredibly helpful given that we were new residents and without family there. I discovered that Belgium had what can be loosely translated as ‘well-baby clinics’ where one takes a newborn baby for check-ups and vaccinations at little to no cost. This is a government-funded service staffed by doctors who take the time to answer the myriad of questions I had. It was fantastic."

Lewis's other two sons were also born at home. For the second birth, she had planned a water-birth as well, but went into labor before the birthing pool was set up. "We soaked in the water while we waited for the midwife. The water is like the warm amniotic fluid for newborns. I didn't require any stitches after the births given that water has a relaxing effect on muscles and tissue. We had friends over for drinks in the evening after the birth of our third child, and within two days I was out taking walks again." 

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