Hardy Vieux ’93 has never been in anything resembling a rut.
As a young lawyer, he chose to enlist in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps, where he handled criminal appellate defense in cases that sometimes involved homicide. Later, in private practice, he would provide legal assistance on a pro bono basis to an Army soldier facing court-martial for blowing the whistle on abuses at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He also began serving as a volunteer attorney for refugees seeking asylum in the United States. And he was a human-rights observer at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during pretrial proceedings involving prisoners alleged to have plotted the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 2010, the D.C. Bar recognized his efforts by naming him Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year.
Vieux also became a go-to source for commentary on military justice issues for NPR, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, among other news outlets.
On top of all that, he served on the Duke board of trustees from 1999 to 2013. He is a past president of the Duke Alumni Association, and he remains a member of Sanford’s board of visitors.
And yet, a year or two ago, he was longing for change. He says he simply found trial work less satisfying to him professionally than it once had been. He wanted to take more of a leadership role in human rights and development efforts.
Along came Duke, with an offer he could hardly refuse. He was selected as one of the university’s first Felsman Fellows, an initiative of the new J. Kirk Felsman Program on Children in Adversity. The program pairs a public policy scholar with a documentary filmmaker or photographer, both of them with connections to Duke. The pair spend up to ten months in the field working with a humanitarian organization. The goal is to generate reports and imagery that raise awareness of issues affecting vulnerable children and, ideally, that lead to solutions.
Vieux and visual artist and educator Laura Doggett M.F.A. ’13 spent half of last year working with Save the Children at Za’atari refugee camp in Amman, Jordan. The camp was for families fleeing the civil war in neighboring Syria.
The plight of refugees resonates for Vieux. He was born in New York to newly arrived Haitian immigrants who were largely uneducated and spoke little English. His parents were so doubtful about their ability to provide for him, they sent him back to Haiti to be raised by his paternal grandmother for a few years. His first words were spoken in Creole and French.
From such unlikely beginnings, he earned his bachelor’s degree with a major in public policy from Duke, then followed that with a master’s degree in public policy and a law degree from the University of Michigan.
As fellows, Vieux and Doggett focused on the problems of safeguarding and educating children in the camp. The Felsman Fellows website provides links to their blog posts, reports, pictures, and video. Several of Vieux’s thoughtful posts also appear on the Huffington Post website.
In one post, he describes in vivid detail the plight of two single mothers. One lives in a tiny cave-like apartment with no windows, running water, or protection from the elements. The other lives in a converted storeroom with five children. Vieux describes their situations to make a point.
He writes that he was shocked when he learned shortly after arriving in Jordan that the government had passed a new rule: Aid agencies were required to make Jordanians beneficiaries of 30 percent of all projects aimed at helping the Syrian refugees.
The requirement struck Vieux as selfish and unfair—until he spent more time in the field. That’s when he discovered that the Jordanians were suffering as badly or worse than the nearly 600,000 Syrian refugees the Jordanian government had allowed into the country.
The situation reminded him of when he volunteered with a medical relief organization in Haiti years earlier. The medical organization had begun charging nominal fees for its service. They didn’t do it to be cruel to the impoverished Haitians, he said. They did it because if they didn’t charge, the Haitians would wait for free medical care to be provided by foreign aid organizations, which would end up putting local health-care workers out of business. “In addressing one problem, we ran the risk of creating another,” Vieux writes.
When Vieux was in high school, he was accepted into an experimental initiative of the Catholic Church, the Bishop’s Leadership Program. The two-year program aimed to create leaders for the African-American community. Vieux says the rigorous curriculum of readings, meetings, retreats, and other enrichment experiences dramatically changed the direction of his life.
In his Felsman Fellows blog, he speculates that something like the bishop’s program is needed to develop leaders for the post-conflict societies in both Syria and Jordan. This past summer, he returned to Jordan to float the idea to potential supporters.
After completing his fieldwork in Jordan, Vieux returned to Washington last fall to start his new job, far removed from the world of corporate and criminal law. He is legal director for Human Rights First, an international advocacy group formerly known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
If he wanted a change, he found it. The refugee representation team he heads includes nearly thirty lawyers, legal assistants, and social workers who provide legal and other assistance to people who are in the United States, he says, “lawfully or unlawfully and can’t return to their home country for fear of persecution.” Vieux oversees everything about the team—policy, operations, budget, personnel, fundraising.
Much of the group’s work involves recruiting and mentoring lawyers at the nation’s top law firms who have an interest in doing pro bono work on behalf of indigent refugees. But Vieux and his staff still take on cases themselves from time to time. One that the boss himself is handling involves a fourteen-year-old deaf and mute Salvadoran boy who lost his hearing when he was a year old, Vieux says.
“People just put him in a classroom in El Salvador and shouted at him, as if that was going to do the trick,” the Sanford alumnus says. “He never was given the chance to flourish.”
With help from a dedicated ESL (English as a second language) teacher, Vieux says, the youth is finally, slowly learning sign language. Vieux is telling the story during a phone interview, but the excitement in his voice comes across loud and clear.
It’s the excitement of happy empathy, of someone who, against long odds, was himself given a chance to flourish.