'None of Us Take It for Granted'

Eight lawyers recount their journey to America

Published in 2018 New York Metro Super Lawyers Magazine

It turns out that many of the tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free went on to law school. They specialized in practice areas such as corporate finance, personal injury and, naturally, immigration. Some learned about U.S. law by watching TV. 

“If I tell you, you’re going to laugh, but it’s true: Matlock and Perry Mason,” says Elsa Ayoub, owner of an eponymous firm. “I was fascinated by the arguments in court—and then the excitement at the end when they win. Because they always win.” 

The eight attorneys featured here came from places as diverse as Cuba, Serbia, China and the Philippines. Some arrived for college; others were escaping violence and oppression. Each fell in love with the United States in their own way. 

 

The Arrival

Carlos Méndez-Peñate, Akerman, International/Mergers & Acquisitions, Cuba, 1961: Castro had taken over on January 1, 1959. My father was a partner at the law firm of Lazo & Cubas, which was one of the largest law firms on the island. The bad news was most of their clientele were American corporations. When Castro started appropriating American properties in Cuba, all of a sudden there wasn’t much to represent. Those lawyers became gusanos, which is Spanish for worm—an assisting-the-enemy kind of thing. That made life difficult. The next thing that happened was the Bay of Pigs invasion. Our house was searched by the secret police. They had what was called a “vigilance committee” on every block. The families were there to snoop on everybody else. You knew you were marked at that point. So we took off. I was 9 years old. When we moved, we lost everything. We had to start all over again.

 

Kyce Siddiqi, The Law Firm of Kyce Siddiqi, Immigration, Afghanistan, early 1980s: We left Afghanistan in light of the Soviet invasion. My father being someone who was specifically targeted by the communists, we definitely needed to get out of the country. I was a toddler. I recall living in a very, very small apartment [in New York] until we were financially better off. My father had a very lucrative position in Afghanistan as a senior adviser. When we arrived here, he was selling shoes. 

 

Dario Anthony Chinigo, Hofmann & Schweitzer, Personal Injury–Plaintiff, Italy, 1982: I was 9 years old and we moved from Italy to Toronto. My parents were reading the tea leaves and saw that there was not a lot of opportunity in Italy.

 

Xiaomin Chen, DeHeng, Business/Corporate, China, 1988: I wanted to really try to study deeply the common-law tradition. When I was in law school [at Xiamen University in China], we had a common-law history and a continental-law history, but that was very briefly in the textbook. I came here in ’88, in December. 

 

Elsa Ayoub, Law Offices of Elsa Ayoub, Immigration, Lebanon, 2001: I was born in ’78 at one of the worst times. The Lebanese Civil War was the reason my father decided to enter the diplomatic corps—it was impossible to live there. We avoided all that horror. His first post was in Cuba for four years, and after that we moved to the Netherlands. I lived in Spain and then the Netherlands again. … I have memories of escapes. You have to have special people come take you from the [Beirut] airport because we’re Christian and the airport is in the Muslim part of the city. It was at the time they bombed the U.S. embassy, and we had to go through that area to get to where we lived. It’s almost out of a movie. We spent many years not being able to go. 

 

A. Jude Avelino, Avelino & Hartlaub, Estate Planning & Probate, Philippines, 1976: I was born in the Philippines to a single mother, which was frowned upon in a very Catholic country. My great-grandfather, Jose Avelino, was the first president of the senate, which is pretty much the No. 3 person in the government. My grandfather died young, and their economic situation was no longer viable. My uncle came over first, and saved money to get my aunt here. They saved to get my mother here, and the three of them saved money to get my other uncle here.

 

Samaa Haridi, Hogan Lovells, International, Egypt, 1999: My father was a diplomat working for the Egyptian government. As part of his responsibilities, he was sent abroad to serve in a number of countries, for four years at a time. That included Switzerland, the country in which I was born. I lived there for four years. [But we always] returned to Cairo for two years in between each country we lived in. In a nutshell, it was Switzerland for four, Egypt for two, Belgium for four, Egypt for two, Morocco for four, Egypt for two. I moved to Paris to study law at Sorbonne University on a merit scholarship, and then there was an opportunity to go to the University of San Diego to get an LL.M. degree—also on a merit scholarship from the Sorbonne.

 

Stefan Savic, Shipkevich, Business Litigation, Serbia, 2004: I grew up in Belgrade. Even though I lived in the same city my entire youth, I technically lived in four different countries, with what was going on down there. I moved to New York one day before my orientation week, a couple of days before freshman year at Columbia University. I made my school choices based on what I knew about the cities—mostly from movies. It doesn’t take much to know what New York is like.

 

The Culture Shock 

Chinigo, Italy, 1980: The first time you see snow, coming from a climate like Rome, it’s magical. I remember my first Halloween, knocking on my first door—realizing “if you knock on the door, they give you candy!”

 

Siddiqi, Afghanistan, 1980s: There was a community of other Afghans who were similarly situated in the Queens area. Growing up, I found it a little bit difficult to assimilate. I had an unusual name, and it was difficult to pronounce. I kind of grappled with the holidays. I struggled with making friends. We did not speak English at home; they only conversed in the native tongue, which is Farsi. I gradually learned English watching cartoons. It was a struggle to relate to a lot of things that other students were easily relating to and doing.

 

Chen, China, 1988: I went to Penn State. I came from a country with a huge, huge population. Even in the countryside, it’s crowded. New York City is similar to Shanghai. But Pennsylvania, less than 100 miles away, it’s so quiet and so few people are over there. That was kind of a shock to me. I spent one year there and three years at Brigham Young University. The Mormon people are so nice and that place is so safe—you don’t need to lock your apartment or your car door. 

 

Haridi, Egypt, 1999: Because I had mostly lived or traveled in Europe, I didn’t know anything about U.S. culture, let alone the California surf culture, which I discovered in San Diego. I came from a conservative university in France where students dress in a fairly classical manner, [and in the U.S.] they’re walking around in shorts and flip-flops and sometimes barely wearing a shirt. In France, after you go to class, you’re basically done. There is no such thing as a place to hang out, at least within the school itself. I was struggling to understand everything—the slang, the culture, the humor.

 

Ayoub, Lebanon, 2001: Even though I spoke English fluently, I was used to the British accent. The worst were bus drivers in D.C. I could never understand a word they said.

 

Savic, Serbia, 2004: I was at the top of my [Belgrade] high school class. Then you come to a place where all your peers have done at least as well, but you have this disadvantage. There were a number of times, I think, I wasn’t taken that seriously because I couldn’t express my understanding of these fairly complicated concepts—medieval philosophy or literature and humanities. [Columbia] is a competitive place and I felt I couldn’t even show my potential because of the language barrier.

 

Avelino, Philippines, 1976: The Philippines happens to be very connected to America. Everyone speaks English there, so I’m not going to suggest that it was hard to assimilate. My father is white, so sometimes what was harder was people assuming I was white, and making racial comments, not knowing I was mixed race. 

 

Chinigo, Italy, 1980: We lived in Toronto until 1982, at which time my dad, who was a concierge at the King Edward Hotel, was sought after by the Remington Hotel in Houston. I found it harder to make friends when we moved to Texas. I felt very closed out of all groups. I was obviously a foreigner—I still had an accent. I would call my mom every day at lunch, just for somebody to talk to me. There was some silliness in gym class, and I must have called a kid a bad word. The gym teacher took me aside, took down a paddle from his wall and paddled me 10 or 12 times. I remember feeling embarrassed by it more than anything. We only stayed in Texas for about a year before my dad was offered a job at the Plaza Athénée in New York. It was magical. I remember the car trip into the city—for the very first time in my life going through the Lincoln Tunnel. I remember the sun shining. I became alive that day.

 

The Law

Méndez-Peñate, Cuba, 1961: We lived at 86th and First Avenue, on the Upper East Side. I went to parochial school for a few years. My mother was very vigilant about our education and integrating into American culture. She wanted me to go away to a good boarding school. I got a scholarship and went to Phillips Exeter Academy at the tender age of 13. It was one of the great experiences of my life. Then I was admitted [on scholarship] at Yale. I was in New Haven for seven years. I went to Yale Law School. I wanted to be a litigator. 

 

Chinigo, Italy, 1980: My mom said, “You’re going to be a lawyer because you argue so much.” At some point, the idea stuck.

 

Siddiqi, Afghanistan, 1980s: It was after I became a police officer. I had a temporary break from the New York City Police Department and [in 2005] I was in Afghanistan serving as a police instructor. A lot of individuals who were attending school were sharing their personal lives with me. I observed how much people would do to further their education despite the Taliban. There were a lot of remnants of al-Qaida. It was a very dangerous situation. It triggered the thirst for me to continue my education. When I returned, I went to law school at night while serving as a police officer.

 

Avelino, Philippines, 1976: My great-grandfather was an attorney in the Philippines. The attorney was always somebody who was in charge, and I wanted to be in charge. My only parent died when I was 17, so I had to find a way to fund college and law school through a combination of loans, scholarships and working. I was a bank teller in college. I worked at clothing stores. I worked as a waiter. 

 

The Traditions

Haridi, Egypt, 1999: I have made a very serious effort to teach both of my children the Arabic language and the French language. We’re not an extensively religious family but we like to observe the Muslim traditions. We all like to fast at least one day during Ramadan so we can remember and appreciate what it’s about.

 

Siddiqi, Afghanistan, 1980s: We didn’t necessarily embrace the barbecue chicken or hot dogs. We did continue cooking traditional Afghan food. We did continue to commemorate Eid.

 

Avelino, Philippines, 1976: I still use Tagalog, the language of the Philippines. I call all my aunts and uncles tito and tita and my grandmother lola and now my kids use those words as well for our Filipino family. I still make a point, even now on Christmas Eve, to have some Filipino food, just to keep the culture alive for our family.

 

Méndez-Peñate, Cuba, 1961: We obviously saw a lot of Cubans and there were tons of them in New York. I remember every Sunday there would be mass at St. Patrick’s and a lot of Cubans would go and get together on the steps and gossip and talk. It was a real ritual. Everybody knew each other in Cuba.

 

The Paperwork

Haridi, Egypt, 1999: When I moved to the U.S., I only had an Egyptian passport and I did not become a U.S. citizen until 2008, which was eight years after I started practicing as a lawyer. As an international disputes lawyer, I can’t even tell you how difficult it was for me to be effective in my role as counsel on some of the cases I was on because of the difficulties associated with traveling with a non-U.S. passport. When we had team meetings in London or Paris, it took a minimum of two weeks for me to get a visa. I had to miss numerous opportunities as an associate, trying to prove myself in the firm, to go to client meetings or witness interviews because I could not get my visas on time. I can’t even begin to explain to you the joy or the liberation I felt the day I became a U.S. citizen.

 

Chen, China, 1988: I applied for U.S. citizenship very late, [not] until 2008. All my children were born here. They are all U.S. citizens. I tried to keep my green card and my Chinese passport. But the problem is, when we travel through Europe or South America or the Caribbean, as a Chinese citizen, you have to get a visa. Sometimes there is a visa delay or they have to change the schedule. That’s why I decided I wanted to be a U.S. citizen. I didn’t apply [earlier], because at that time, I still kept my Chinese lawyer’s license. In Chinese law, once you become a foreign-country citizen, you automatically lose your license. 

 

The State Of The Union

Siddiqi, Afghanistan, 1980s: The current administration, and the spotlight on immigration, has certainly made things more difficult. I’ve obviously discerned a greater waiting time, a longer processing time. Although there were certain avenues of relief available for children before, initial DACA applications are gone, prosecutorial discretion is gone. So it certainly has made immigration law more difficult to practice. But as an immigrant who married a first-generation immigrant, it pushes me further and gives me that drive to help out a client who is seeking a green card or is petitioning for a spouse or is fleeing persecution. Because I went through the same thing.

 

Ayoub, Lebanon, 2001: I honestly haven’t felt that much of a difference in the day-to-day practice. Yesterday I had a consultation with a new client from the Middle East. Her application was delayed and she’s convinced it’s because she’s from the Middle East. I told her, “No, that’s not true; people are delayed. French people are delayed, English people are delayed, Spaniards are delayed. This is taking a little bit longer, but there’s no conspiracy.”

 

Chinigo, Italy, 1980: I had a happy upbringing and my parents gave me all the support in the world. I won’t pretend to step into the shoes of an immigrant who has nothing and works three jobs. But I understand the difficulties and challenges of being in a new place with new customs and new social norms. Sometimes a friendly face who understands this makes all the difference in the world.

 

Avelino, Philippines, 1976: Our country is made of almost exclusively immigrants. As an immigrant, I am so proud and grateful to be here that I’ve tried to do whatever I can to make this country a better place. That’s the mindset of a lot of immigrants I’ve met. None of us take it for granted. Many have come from greater hardships than me. Shutting the door to immigration is going to do a long-term disservice to this country. It makes me sad this administration is trying to do that. 

It turns out that many of the tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free went on to law school. They specialized in practice areas such as corporate finance, personal injury and, naturally, immigration. Some learned about U.S. law by watching TV. 

“If I tell you, you’re going to laugh, but it’s true: Matlock and Perry Mason,” says Elsa Ayoub, owner of an eponymous firm. “I was fascinated by the arguments in court—and then the excitement at the end when they win. Because they always win.” 

The eight attorneys featured here came from places as diverse as Cuba, Serbia, China and the Philippines. Some arrived for college; others were escaping violence and oppression. Each fell in love with the United States in their own way.

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