'Someone Should Just Go Get Her'

Shaimaa Hussein goes the extra mile for refugees and asylum seekers

Published in 2019 New York Metro Super Lawyers Magazine

Shortly after Donald Trump implemented his Jan. 27, 2017, travel ban of seven Muslim-majority countries, Shaimaa Hussein and her colleagues at Willkie Farr & Gallagher heard—via a faculty member of the Fordham University law school—the story of Alma Kashkooli, a 12-year-old Iranian girl who desperately needed timesensitive eye surgery. Alma’s mother, Farimah, was studying law at Fordham on a student visa. She and her husband had already scheduled their daughter’s surgery at a Pittsburgh hospital, and Alma had obtained a U.S. visa. But the travel ban invalidated it.

Hussein took the case and hashed out every possible scenario. “There was no guidance as to how, legally, to figure this out,” Hussein says. “We worked on it nonstop.”

Then they received what she calls a gift: A judge in Seattle issued an injunction challenging the constitutionality of the travel ban.

“It was issued on a Friday night, and I was out with friends, and I was frantically emailing and texting with my colleagues,” she remembers. “We devised this plan late Friday night into early Saturday morning where we figured, ‘Maybe this isn’t a legal solution. Maybe we just need a practical solution. We have a little window here while the injunction is in place, while the daughter’s visa is valid again. Someone should just go and get her.’”

But who? The mother wasn’t a U.S. citizen, so there was concern both mother and daughter might be detained and prevented from entering the U.S. “That’s what we were hearing,” Hussein says. “Even with the injunction in place, there was so much confusion, and everything was moving so quickly, that people were being detained nonetheless, and even at their country of origin people weren’t even being allowed to board.

“So I just said, ‘All right, I’ll get on a plane then. I’m not really doing anything this weekend.’” She had confidence the Willkie team would ensure her safety. Plus the situation hit home with her. Hussein, 32, came to the U.S. from Egypt with her family when she was 4 years old.

“I’m sort of the typical immigrant story,” she says. “When we came here, my parents already had two children—me and one of my younger sisters—and really, it was motivated by the desire to give their children more opportunities. My mother always had a very strong emphasis on education and equality for women, and she wanted to make sure that she raised daughters in a country that would provide them all the same opportunities.”

Hussein graduated from SUNY Stony Brook in 2007 and from Georgetown University Law Center in 2010. At Willkie, which she joined in 2011, she represents multinational corporations and financial institutions in complex commercial litigation. She’s worked as an anti-bribery group secondment attorney for Goldman Sachs and as a housing extern with the Neighborhood Preservation Project for MFY Legal Services. She was drawn to the firm by its pro bono commitment.

“I think growing up as an immigrant in a new country makes you very aware of the circumstances that cause people to leave their home,” she says. “It’s certainly not an easy decision. Growing up and looking at my parents and realizing all the sacrifices they made, it was never lost on me that, in order for people to do that, there must be a very, very strong motivation.”

Her parents eventually had four daughters and spoke Arabic at home to make sure the kids knew the language and didn’t forget their roots. “Very typical immigrant stuff,” she says.

It worked the other way, too. “Our parents would come to us kids and they would ask us questions and ask us to sort of advocate on their behalf. I found it really interesting, because my parents are both very educated, very intelligent and hardworking people, but they felt as though their accent limited them, and that people would not take them seriously. So as young as 10 and 11 years old, I enjoyed the experience of advocating for, especially, my mom.”

Eventually, she helped friends in the community navigate the system, too. “I just remember thinking, ‘My gosh, for people who come here, you do this big, brave, terrifying thing: You come to a new country and then everything is so new, and if you don’t have someone here to help you navigate that, it’s a really scary process.’”

That thought stayed with her, and while she liked the idea of following in the footsteps of her mother, a biologist and teacher, working in a laboratory seemed too stifling. “I like direct representation,” she says. “I like working with people, and I thought that studying science for so long gave me a formulaic, structured, organized approach to my thinking, which I thought would be quite useful for law school. … It makes complete sense now, but I was just trying to help my family.”

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