Refugee advocate: Syrian crisis drives student towards a career in law

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

The Syrian conflict created a flood of refugees—including members of Zanah Ghalawanji’s family. “Some sought refuge in neighboring countries and others risked their lives and crossed treacherous waters, seeking safety in Europe,” she says. “The Syrian government detained and tortured friends who demanded freedom, and Syrian soldiers shot and killed one of my relatives for speaking out against the government. 

“I’m truly blessed to have been born in the United States, and so I feel I have an obligation to advocate on behalf of immigrants and refugees. I decided to study so I could provide relief to victims of human rights abuses and Syrians fleeing the conflict.”

Now in her 3L year at Wayne State University College of Law, Ghalawanji is a student attorney at the Asylum & Immigration Law Clinic.  “While I would love an opportunity to continue working with refugees, or to help with prosecuting war crimes in Syria, I remain open to all paths which allow me to act as an advocate on behalf of vulnerable individuals or to give back to society,” she says.     

She interned this past summer with the International Refugee Assistance Project in Amman.

“It was an absolutely amazing and unforgettable experience,” she says. “IRAP staff and volunteers are among the kindest individuals I’ve had the opportunity to work with and I enjoyed interning in such a positive environment.

“Meeting with refugees and listening to their stories was a deeply humbling experience. It was exciting to use my Arabic language skills and knowledge of the resettlement process to assist vulnerable refugees and provide them with potentially life-changing legal services.”

She also had the opportunity to visit Al Balad, the Old City of Amman, where ancient attractions such as the Roman Theater and Citadel are located. The city houses many souks (markets) and vendors, including sugarcane water vendors. “I explored Rainbow Street, frequented by students and tourists, and lined with cafes, restaurants, and boutiques,” she says. “A special market, Souk Jara, opens up after Friday prayer, where many vendors sell handmade products, food, and art.”

An alumna of the University of Michigan – Dearborn, with a bachelor’s degree in political science and psychology, Ghalawanji is enjoying her experience of law school, where she is a President’s Scholar. “I love that Wayne Law is such a small and tight-knit community,” she says. “It makes it easy to form connections and friendships with fellow law students and staff.” 

Clerking last year for Masri Law Office PLLC in Dearborn, she broadened her knowledge by working on a diverse range of immigration cases. Previously she spent two years as an intern for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Farmington Hills, where she worked on the Syrian Asylum Project that provides pro-bono legal services to Syrians seeking asylum in the United States.

“I gained a vast amount of knowledge related to human rights and asylum law,” she says. “I also had the opportunity to explore other areas of the law by learning about civil rights issues concerning the Muslim community in the United States and working on related litigation.”

During undergrad, Ghalawanji interned for the Syrian National Coalition in Washington, D.C., where she represented the organization at think tank events; and while interning in Turkey with the Teach and Travel program of the Federation of Balkan American Association, she learned about diverse career pathways and about Turkish issues, with seminars at the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the Turkish National Police, and various corporations. “The highlight was the week I spent in Istanbul, which is by far, one of the most breathtaking cities I have ever seen,” she says.

A native of Appleton, Wis., Ghalawanji grew up in Troy, where she still makes her home. She has volunteered with the Syrian American Rescue Network, translating documents from Arabic to English to help refugees register for schools and universities. She also previously was involved with her local Muslim community center and mosque where she worked as a co-director for the girls’ summer camp program, and was a counselor for the Kids Club program.

“Prior to attending college, I dreamed of pursuing a career in fashion and it still remains one of my passions,” she says. “I also practice yoga and enjoy interior decor with a focus on promoting wellness and decreasing stress.”

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