Sara Khaki’s journey from Iran to America included a 10-year layover in Sweden
Published in 2018 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine on February 22, 2018
“I think of myself as an expert of transition,” Sara Khaki says. “My life has constantly been about having to reidentify myself.”
Khaki was born in Tehran in 1983. Some of her earliest memories involve descending stairs into a bomb shelter during the Iran-Iraq War. “It became part of life,” she says. “I was a kid, so I started to think it was fun. Our parents are together, we’re eating yummy snacks and all the kids get to play.”
When she was 3, her parents, concerned about the war as well as the religious restrictions taking hold in the Islamic Republic, decided to leave. Her father, an architect, sold all their possessions and flew the family to Zurich, where he wired $10,000 to a smuggler, who got them on a flight to Stockholm.
“The whole goal was to come in, and for them to place us under arrest so they could turn us into refugees—and it worked,” Khaki says. “I don’t remember it being scary. I thought: ‘OK, this is just what we do.’”
The family wound up in a refugee camp in Kiruna, one of Sweden’s northernmost towns. It’s a place where winters are long, the snow is deep and elk wander the streets. “The refugee camp had all these amazing amenities,” Khaki remembers, including an elaborate dollhouse. “And they took us on ski lessons.”
After being granted a residency permit, the Khakis moved to a village in southern Sweden. Sara liked it, but she always stood out. “I remember looking around and thinking, ‘When I get older, my hair’s going to turn blond,’” she says.
When Khaki was a teenager, her mother survived breast cancer, her father was laid off from a blue-collar factory job, and the family was eager to change its situation. When they took a trip to Atlanta, where many of Khaki’s relatives had immigrated, it soon became apparent they weren’t simply sightseeing. Sara’s uncles persuaded them to stay; friends in Sweden sold their belongings.
High school in Alpharetta was where Khaki first considered studying law. “I found out I was really good at arguing,” she says with a laugh. A class at Georgia State University confirmed the choice. “I absolutely fell in love with constitutional law,” she says. “As an immigrant, you value it on a whole different level.”
Once she got her J.D. from the University of Georgia and went to work for a firm in Chattanooga, she fell in love with Social Security disability law as well. She recalled the times she’d cared for her mother when she had cancer—reading her inspirational books and helping her fill out insurance paperwork—and thought, “I can relate.”
Soon she was doing 14 or 15 hearings a week all over the Southeast. “One day I was in Franklin, Tennessee, and the next day I’d be in Montgomery, Alabama,” she says. When she burned out, she returned to Alpharetta, determined to practice law in a better way.
Many firms, she believes, treat their clients the way the Social Security office does: as a number. “Often, these firms won’t take a case unless they’ve been denied [disability status] already,” she says. A lot of the clients, she adds, “feel intimidated by the process, filling out the forms. They feel guilty about asking the government for help—especially veterans.”
Having experienced so much upheaval in her own life, she says, “I get how lost and confused they feel.”
In 2013, Khaki received her U.S. citizenship; last year, she helped her father do the same. Despite the current, divisive political climate, Khaki remains optimistic about America and its attitude toward immigrants. “Even with the worst of presidents,” she says, “we are a much more people-loving, diversity-loving community than anywhere else in the world I’ve ever experienced. Anywhere.”