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Egyptian counterrevolution led to student’s passion for the law

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Chris Opila passed the LSAT in his senior year of college — and applied to law school four years later from the UNHCR compound in Jigga near the Ethiopian-Somali border, after stumbling into refugee work while studying Arabic in Egypt in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

“My journey back to the law was a reaction to Egypt’s counterrevolution and a realization I wanted to spend my life mitigating the human cost of poor political outcomes,” says Opila, a 2L student at the University of Michigan Law School.    

His path overseas has its roots in high school; an avid newspaper reader, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Opila developed a keen interest in the Middle East.

At Middlebury College in Vermont, Opila studied Arabic language and international politics and economics to better understand the people behind the headlines and prepare for a potential career as a diplomat — but nixed that career path during his junior year at the University of Alexandria in Egypt.

A week after his May 2011 graduation, Opila returned to Egypt on a Department of Education grant and continued learning Arabic via political conversations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (also known as Freedom Square) with Egyptian activists and civilians from various political currents.

He and his friends spent many late nights drinking tea and playing backgammon in Egyptian ahwas (street cafes).

“We discussed — and claimed to have solved — American and Egyptian politics, theorized on the proper construction of just and equitable societies, and debated what the appropriate balance was between religion and government,” he says.

“One day in November 2011, I watched the Egyptian police on TV drag the dead body of a protestor across the Square and leave it in a pile of garbage,” he recalls. “In that moment, I realized I could no longer write about and research human rights violations — I wanted to actually do something about them.”

Opila experienced the July 2013 coup d’état when General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi led a coalition to remove President Mohamed Morsi from power and suspend the Egyptian constitution.

“I was watching a country undergo willful collective amnesia and witnessing the construction of an authoritarian cult of personality from the ashes of a revolution,” Opila says. “Since experiencing the Egyptian counterrevolution, I’ve convinced myself that each marginally beneficial change to an individual life has value. We each only get one life to live so one individual wrongfully incarcerated, one person confined to a refugee camp, or one family separated is one too many. The only way to reduce these numbers is to roll up our sleeves and get to work. If enough people join in this effort, change is possible.”

His experiences led him to refugee and immigration work, starting at St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS) in Cairo. There, he referred vulnerable refugees to the UNHCR for resettlement consideration and enjoyed cooking Thanksgiving dinner for colleagues from more than 13 countries. “It was really special to break bread — and turkey — together and hope for a more just and equitable world,” he says.

“At the time, I had no idea I would fall in love with refugee direct client services thanks to its confluence of cross-language cross-culture communication, and political research and analysis,” he adds. “In the course of representing refugees in the U.S. and UNHCR resettlement process, I began to encounter unjust policies in U.S. immigration law such as material support that prevented vulnerable individuals from reaching places of safety. These encounters planted the seed of going to law school to learn more about the unjust opaque legal system I inhabited.”

In March 2014, Opila left Egypt to work for Church World Service in Nairobi, Kenya, to gain insights to the inside of the U.S. resettlement system. Over the next few years, he traveled to nine refugee camps in five countries to interview refugees for resettlement consideration and draft their referrals.

Once, when interviewing Sudanese refugees inside a dark corrugated aluminum shed in Tongo Refugee Camp, Ethiopia, torrential rain from a thunderstorm was so loud that he and a client had to shout back and forth.

“All the time and energy I had spent into becoming fluent in Arabic was worth it in that moment because but for it I wouldn’t have been able to learn his story and write the referral to get him out of the refugee camp,” he says.

In his leisure time, Opila enjoyed innumerable board game dinners in Nairobi where he and his peers lived in the same building and took turns cooking dinners for each other most nights. “This supportive community gave me the emotional support to listen to people talk about the worst days of their lives on a daily basis and prolonged my pre-burnout period,” he says.

“Eventually, though, I burned out thanks to vicarious traumatization and spending almost two years living out of a suitcase on a 10-week in the field and 2 weeks of R&R/vacation schedule so I transitioned into management.”

Opila helped grow his unit from eight to 32 individuals over the course of a year only to witness layoffs trim it to five people when Donald Trump became president. Facing the prospect of being laid off himself as funding dried up, Opila quit and decided to finally matriculate to law school, after deferring for two years.

Being a student again is an absolute privilege, he says. “I get to spend my days thinking deeply about the legal system that undermines our democracy, learning avenues to attack the parts of the system I believe to be unjust, and expanding my horizons beyond the immigration and refugee work that brought me to M-Law.

“My fellow law students, particularly those dedicating themselves to legal careers in public defense, legal aid, and other public interest tracks, inspire me and support me on a day-to-day basis. It’s a privilege to be surrounded by a tightknit group of people who believe it’s possible to make the world marginally better each and every day and that eventually a bunch of marginal changes stacks up into something larger.”

Outside of class, Opila also is treasurer for the Organization of Public Interest Students (OPIS), a legal director for MLaw’s International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) chapter, and Notes Editor for the RefLaw Online Journal and an associate editor for the Michigan Journal of International Law. “To have a weekly – if not daily reminder – of the causes that brought me to law school in the first place provides me with the energy and balance necessary to push through heavy doctrinals, such as jurisdiction and choice of law, that appear to be at best tangential to my future practice,” he says.

A Dean’s Scholar, Cohen Fellow, and Telluride Residential Fellow, Opila has been awarded a Dean’s Public Interest Fellowship and will spend this summer at the National Immigration Project in Washington, D.C. helping with litigation and ‘crimmigration’ research for immigration direct client services nonprofits.

Opila, who clerked at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center last summer, anticipates his future law practice will be focused on immigration and addressing civil liberties, criminal, and poverty law issues.

“While I know I’ll spend my legal career in the public interest, I’m not sure if it will be at a direct client service level or an impact litigation level,” he says. “My background is in direct client legal services and I loved its dynamism and interpersonal work. While doing this, however, I discovered unjust laws, procedures and regulations undermined my ability to provide quality services. I came to law school in part to learn how to do something about these systemic issues but am not sure if I want to spend my career doing research and briefing every day.”

The Phoenix native currently lives in Ann Arbor and contemplates staying in the Great Lakes State after graduation, possibly in Dearborn or Detroit. His hobbies include rock climbing, hiking and backpacking—covering 40 miles along the U.P.’s Pictured Rocks Trail last summer. He enjoys folk music and Arabic hip-hop, Arabic literature, and translation, international and Middle East politics, and learning to play the mandolin — rating himself as “campfire friendly and open-mic aspirational.”

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