Lawyers Help Stranded Peruvian students

ROANOKE Va.

Three work-experience exchange students from Peru were supposed to spend their three-month break from college working in retail, perfecting their English and discovering a new part of the world.

That plan fell through when the students, Liz Chiquillan, Piero Unzueta and Mayra Ramirez, all 19 years old, arrived in Newport News and found themselves without work, thanks in no small part to the tanking economy. Two of them had never been out of Peru before

By the time they showed up in front of Roanoke lawyer Correy Diviney’s desk, the trio had been in the United States for a month and had applied for dozens of jobs. They slept in crowded hotel rooms because no one would rent an apartment to unemployed people.

When they called their Nashville, Tenn.-based exchange program for help, the director told them to be patient; something would open up soon.

“We were very worried,” Chiquillan said. “We called our parents every day.”

 The $600 they were advised to bring was long gone, and their parents had to send more.

Ramirez’s mother called a friend who also had a son in the United States on a similar exchange program. He was in Roanoke, it turned out, living with a group of Peruvian students in an apartment. They boarded a bus for Roanoke, where they crashed on the friend’s floor.

Someone referred them to Diviney to help them get their $1,000 fee back from a Nashville exchange company. Diviney, a bilingual lawyer in Art Strickland’s practice who handles civil and criminal cases, took on the pro-bono case and filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging breach of contract and constructive fraud.

Meanwhile, he took the students home last week and fed them. Strickland and his wife, retired judge Diane Strickland, took over the next day.

In the meantime, Strickland said, “We took an immediate shine to them. A friend of mine asked, ‘How do you know you’re not being scammed?’ but some things you just know. These are good, polite kids stuck in a situation that you would not want for your own children.”

Strickland pictured his own daughters in the same circumstances. His daughter, Danielle, was once an exchange student and now lives in Guadalajara, Mexico, where she runs a children’s rights organization.

“I don’t want people to come to the U.S. and not think well of us.” he said. “This has just turned into a labor of love.”

Finally, the lawyers found then a temporary apartment, where the landlord says they only have to pay if they find jobs.

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On Sunday, the Stricklands took the students to their church, Unity of Roanoke Valley, where the minister told their story and had them stand up at the end of the service. Parishioners welcomed them afterward, some with cash gifts.

“It was embarrassing,” Ramirez said. “I didn’t want to take it, but the person said I could pay the gift forward some day.”



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