When Halim Moris tells his story, he can still hardly believe it. One day he is a frightened and desperate 15-year-old with a backpack and $25 in his pocket on the streets of New York. The next he is a well-known and widely admired immigration lawyer wearing a nice suit and sitting in a comfortable office 20 floors above the streets of downtown Boston.
The transformation wasn’t easy. He worked hard once he got here. And he found a calling in the legal profession. “For me, immigration law is more than just a career; it’s a passion,” he says.
Growing up in a family that belonged to the Coptic Church, an indigenous Egyptian Christian church dating to Christianity’s earliest days, Moris regularly experienced discrimination. Relations between the church, by far the largest Christian denomination in Egypt, and the country’s dominant Muslim population had been tense for years. One day someone burned down his father’s grocery store. A friend was planning to travel with his own father to the United States, and they asked Moris to join them. He agreed, applied for a visa and received it just before someone murdered his friend’s father. His friend decided to stay in Egypt, but Moris wouldn’t be deterred. His mother opposed the emigration but his father supported it, feeling it would be his son’s only chance to escape persecution.
Arriving in Manhattan in 1980, Moris had a few phone numbers of expatriated Egyptians, but didn’t have luck contacting them. He learned that the largest concentration of Egyptians in the New York area was in Jersey City, so he took a train there and was directed by an Egyptian cab driver to a local Coptic Church.
“So I went there, went in, and talked to the priest. I was very emotional because it was getting dark and I had no place to sleep. He said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I told him I had the visa, that I wanted to go to school, that I couldn’t go back. He said, ‘Don’t worry.’”
The priest let him sleep on a cot in the church’s basement for a week. Moris found a job as a dishwasher in an Egyptian restaurant and moved in with a co-worker. He had a tiny foothold in America.
Several months later he moved to Norwalk for a job as a busboy and enrolled at Norwalk Community College, where he took ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. Unexpected fortune entered his life one night in 1985.
Hurricane Gloria had rolled up the eastern seaboard and a group had taken refuge in the Silver Star Diner, the restaurant where he worked. He struck up a conversation with a woman in the group who, to his surprise, knew a bit of Arabic. “I asked her how she knew Arabic,” he says. “She said she had three sisters — two had married Middle Eastern guys, one was dating a Middle Eastern guy, and she had always been interested in dating one. So she invited me over for dinner to meet her in-laws.”
They married a year later.
Moris graduated at the top of his class at the community college, where he was editor of the student newspaper. He loved journalism and received a scholarship to Boston University, where he majored in communications. He received his degree in 1994, right after the end of the first Gulf War. He was concerned about anti-Arab sentiment and how his accent might be an impediment in journalism. So he opted for Suffolk Law School.
He was immediately drawn to immigration law. During his first year he began volunteering at a housing clinic in Chelsea, where he found that almost every case he was assigned contained an immigration problem. He lobbied for the creation of a separate immigration legal clinic within the housing clinic, and his efforts were rewarded. It was his first taste of what an immigration law practice would be like.
After receiving his law degree in 1997, Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), a nonprofit, hired him as an immigration lawyer. For eight years, he was the lone Arabic-speaking lawyer, and his work among Boston’s Middle Eastern populations and other immigrant groups won him a reputation as one of the city’s best immigration lawyers. He focused his work on asylum cases. He also handled matters that he terms “special juvenile cases” — those involving kids under 18 who, like himself years earlier, entered the United States without parents. (Moris’ own parents now live near him in the Boston area.)
After the terrorist attacks of September 11 his job took on a new dimension. “Post-September 11, there was a lot of bad stuff going on,” Moris says. “Basically, every applicant became a suspect.”
He’d done work for the National Lawyers Guild’s Massachusetts chapter throughout his years at GBLS and is a member of its executive board. After 9/11, his involvement with Guild programs grew, recalls executive director Urszula Masny-Latos.
“He’s not only one of the best immigration lawyers that I’ve known here in Boston, he’s also one of the most sincere, decent human beings that I’ve known in my life,” Masny-Latos says. “Halim applies all his values and ethics not only to his personal life, but to his work.”
She’s noticed something else about him: “He’s someone who doesn’t put himself or his interests first. His happiness comes from the gratification that he gets from helping others. It doesn’t happen often that we see people like Halim around.”
In late 2005, Moris left GBLS to enter private practice with an old law school friend, James P. O’Shea, to form Moris & O’Shea. The decision, he says, was a difficult one because he knew he would miss the gratification he gets from helping people in desperate situations. But he was burning out. “The reason I made the switch was that I had difficulty saying no to clients and my caseload continued to rise. When I left, I had over 200 cases, and it was impacting my marriage. I would work weekends, nights, and it’s not like you’re getting compensated for it.”
Then he got sick. He felt numbness in his arms and legs, and doctors concluded it was the result of overwork. He knew it was time to leave, but the idea of abandoning clients, many of them in frantic spirits, was unbearable. So he compromised. He left, but he took the tough cases with him.
“When you do this kind of work, especially asylum cases, people have to spill their guts out and tell you the most intimate details of their lives,” he says. “I’ve had clients who have told me they’d been raped; I’ve had clients who have taken off their shirts and showed me the scars from beatings or burnings. It’s not easy to get to that point where people open up, but once you reach it, you develop a very strong relationship — and it’s not necessarily client/attorney. So when the time came for me to leave, I didn’t want my clients to have to go through that with another attorney. So I said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll work on your case on the weekends.’”
These days, Moris feels better. He’s trying to focus more on the business aspects of a private immigration practice — matters like representing companies that petition for foreign nationals to come to the United States. “They’re less work; you don’t have to go to court, you make more money.”
Masny-Latos, for one, doesn’t buy that he’s being more selective about his clients. “He takes anyone who needs help regardless of whether they can pay or not,” she says. “Because of that, he’s not very wealthy, and I don’t think he ever will be.”
Sure enough, ask Moris about his career and he doesn’t choose to discuss his work with businesses. He prefers to talk about poor, needy immigrants.
One is a Syrian Kurd, Mohammed Kablan, who was placed in detention in a Rhode Island jail for five months after INS officials arrested him. Kablan had been tortured in Syria for promoting Kurdish rights and believed his days there were numbered. So he fled to America, where he got picked up. A cellmate of Kablan’s wrote a letter to GBLS on his behalf. Because Syria is listed as a sponsor of terrorism, Moris knew that the case would be a difficult one to win. Nevertheless, he drove to Rhode Island.
“It was one of the most amazing things and I’ll remember it for the rest of my life,” Moris recalls. “When I went in and he saw me, he had the biggest smile on his face. His face just lit up. He said, ‘Just for you to come here, even if you don’t take my case, means so much to me.’”
Moris reviewed Kablan’s case, learned they had little time before he was to be deported, and filed a motion for release. The judge agreed, and Moris and Kablan had two weeks to prepare their case. Moris worked around the clock to procure the necessary information from abroad. A Kurdish-rights organization in England proved critical because it knew of Kablan’s family and sent a letter verifying that the family had been persecuted.
The judge granted asylum and today Kablan is a gas station manager in New Bedford who enjoys playing soccer on the weekends in a local league.
Another story involves a 21-year-old Somali named Abdirahman Gulled Hassan. In 1991, when he was 6, civil war broke out in Somalia and his family tried to escape. A clan called the Hawiya stopped them and killed Hassan’s parents and took his older sister, whom he hasn’t heard from since. Hassan and his younger sister were able to continue on to Kenya, but life there was brutal as well. Neighborhood gangs and the police harassed him and beat him up. One day, he was walking with a Somali friend when the police set upon them with unusual fury, kicking them, hitting them with the stocks of their machine guns and releasing dogs on them. When his friend protested, they focused their violence upon him. Hassan escaped, but learned the next day that his friend was dead. Assuming his own life was at risk, he got a fake passport and flew to Boston with a one-way ticket.
One-way tickets are red flags for immigration officials; when they questioned him he admitted that his passport was fraudulent. The officials packed him off to the Suffolk County Jail and after a couple of weeks gave him a list of lawyers’ phone numbers. He called several but nobody would touch his case because the fake passport made it a criminal matter and therefore tough to win. He finally got to Moris, who had the same initial reaction. But Moris agreed to come to the jail and talk. When he did, he became convinced that Hassan’s case was substantive. Moris managed to convince the judge and the district attorney that Hassan did not pose a criminal threat to American society and should be released so they could work on his case. They agreed, and Moris started making phone calls to Africa to verify Hassan’s tale. His work paid off. In March 2005, the court granted Hassan political asylum. He has just begun studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Ask Hassan about Moris today and he becomes emotional. “When you meet Halim you might think he’s not an attorney at all. He talks to you about everything. You don’t feel like a client. You feel like a friend.”
Indeed, their relationship did not end with the successful outcome of the asylum case. Moris helped him get into college by writing recommendation letters. His excellent reference helped Hassan get a job at a downtown pharmacy.
“When people ask me how he helped me out, I can’t just say he helped me get asylum,” Hassan says. “He helped me with everything I have in America.”
Hassan is now learning American ways, starting a new life for himself and thinking about a brighter future. There are still many uncertainties about how life in America will play out for him, but he’s absolutely positive about one thing: One day he’s going to be an immigration lawyer.