Foreign Affairs

Esther Agbaje’s path to the law included managing rule-of-law projects in the Middle East

Published in 2020 Minnesota Super Lawyers Magazine

Lebanon, Tunisia and Jordan. Kuwait, Egypt, Bahrain and Qatar. By the time Esther Agbaje was five years out of grad school, she’d already worked in or visited these countries. Not bad, even for a Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs fellow who was primed for a career in either the foreign service or as a civil service officer for the U.S. State Department.

She started with the State Department’s U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative in 2009. No matter which country’s soil she stood on, it didn’t take long for her to see common ground. “They’re all different and all really fascinating in their own way,” Agbaje says. “All varied cultures, different styles and approaches. But the more common theme is everyone wanted to see something better for their communities.”

That’s where she came in. “We have these ideas people have said that they want to see, [such as] more youth access to the capital, right? So how do we build that up? [We would] write that out, see the proposals that come back, pick the one that best suits our needs, and then support them as they start to build their project.”

In Kuwait and Jordan, she worked on a legal clinic that educated students about the issues faced by migrant domestic workers. “A lot of the students there said it was really eye-opening,” Agbaje says. “Many of [the students] are more privileged, more upper class, and they had domestic workers in their homes, and they had not really considered what those people go through in order to get to their countries.”

In Egypt, she helped lawyers and activists who were pushing for more freedoms during the Arab Spring. The political climate gave the activists a short window of opportunity to get some laws changed. “Working with them, talking with them, understanding the risks and opportunities and developing that, that was a really interesting space to be in as well,” Agbaje says. “There was a great sense of hopefulness—of ‘we can actually try to get something done that better helps the people, better moves us towards greater democratic freedoms.’”

For a month, she stayed in Tunisia. She got to see the nation get ready for Ramadan, hear directly from students who benefitted from her work and learn about the lives and careers of journalists and lawyers as the country moved toward democracy. 

The goal was always about strengthening communities so they could realize their own goals. “We were focused less so on, ‘This many people came through our training program,’” Agbaje says. “Really, we wanted to be able to promote this lasting change in the community.”

After those five years, she was ready to pivot. Having been exposed to several legal systems in the Middle East, Agbaje wanted to know more about how law and policy intersected in the U.S. “A lot of the programs that we were doing dealt with women’s rights issues, the rights of marginalized populations, [and] greater access to society for groups that are often left out,” she says. “And a lot of those same things still hadn’t been dealt with in this country.”

Now a medical malpractice attorney at Ciresi Conlin in Minneapolis, Agbaje says her experiences at the State Department “working with people, working in community, being in a creative space and trying to think a little bit more about what will actually support the needs that we need to achieve,” have continued to help her. 

Every so often, she sees stories about a community where she once worked. “It’s such a fluid situation in many of those countries,” she says. “Unfortunately, there are only a few countries that are still on that democratic process after the Arab Spring opening; others are no longer doing that anymore. But there are still people who are seeking to make change in their countries, in their communities. When I see stories of things like that happening, I’m glad to know that I was in that space for a little bit of time.”

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