Harper's Bazaar (Arabia)
Palestinian-American immigration lawyer and activist
In January 2017, some 20 Chicago lawyers converged on Terminal 5 at O’Hare International Airport. Each held up a sign offering free legal services to anyone needing assistance, following President Trump’s executive order suspending immigration from six predominantly Muslim countries. Together with Los Angeles, New York and Boston, Chicago’s mayor issued a statement that the city would fight to remain a welcoming sanctuary for those fleeing wars and oppression. Among the lawyers and activists who were there to appose the ban was Vivian Khalaf. Since opening her practice in 1993, the immigration lawyer has spent the past 25 years assisting immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
Born in Jerusalem, Vivian came with her parents to the United States as immigrants in 1967. Only six months old at the time, she settled with her family in Denver, Colorado. It was 49 miles away from the city of Greeley, which her father commuted to every day to pursue his doctoral degree at the University of Northern Colorado. With money from her maternal grandfather, her parents were able to purchase a small grocery store and they lived in the apartment above it. “I didn’t experience culture shock, but I always felt we were different because there wasn’t much of a Middle Eastern community in Denver, while growing up there in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” recalls Vivian, whose mother would open and run the grocery store throughout the day.
“When I came home from school she’d have me stand on a milk crate behind the register and ring up customers while she cooked dinner upstairs. I was only ten or eleven at the time and she installed a button I could push, that rang a bell if I needed her,” says the attorney, whose responsibilities grew with the birth of her two younger sisters and brother. “My family owes a lot to my mum because she carried the financial burden of running a household and raising children, so that my dad could complete his degree,” she says of her mother, who also helped Vivian raise her own children while she was a young attorney launching her career. “I realised early on that my mum was different from other Palestinian Muslim women of her generation. She managed to convince her family to allow her to leave her small village of Al-Bireh at 19 to study in Cairo in the 1950s,” says Vivian, whose mother pursued a degree in political science at the University of Cairo.
When Vivian was 12, her father got a job at Abu Dhabi’s National Oil Company and she moved with her mother and siblings to Ramallah,
where she attended a Quaker school established by American missionaries in 1889. “My parents wanted us to be closer to family and not loose touch with our heritage, so we either visited my dad in the UAE during holidays or he came to see us in Ramallah,” says the attorney, who has fond memories of attending an all-girls school run by the American Friends Service Committee. “I thrived in that environment because I had friends from different nationalities and joined the school’s theatre group,” adds Vivian, who took part in a number of plays including performing the role of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.
During her senior year of high school, Vivian’s family decided to move back to the United States, this time settling in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Preferring to complete her final year of school with her friends, she stayed behind in Ramallah with her grandparents before moving to Chicago to attend the University of Illinois. While there, she majored in political science with a minor in history, to better understand the colonial and geopolitical forces that shaped the map of the Middle East. Shortly before graduating in 1987, she landed a part-time job at an immigration law firm run by IrishAmerican attorney James Fennerty. “He became my mentor and was well known in Chicago’s Palestinian community for providing free legal services to those who couldn’t afford them,” says Vivian, who was encouraged to pursue a law degree in order to give back to her community as well.
While attending the Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology, she was one of only two Arab Muslim women studying there. By the time she graduated in 1991, she was already married and pregnant with her second child. “At the time I was working long hours at a law firm and went into labour at the photocopy machine. I knew then that I needed to take my career into my own hands,” says the attorney who went on to open her own firm in Chicago’s Middle Eastern community, specialising in immigration law for Arabic speakers. “At the time there wasn’t anyone providing those services at a rate people could afford. But I still had to prove myself early on, because a lot of people hadn’t seen a Muslim Arab female lawyer before,” recalls Vivian, whose practice quickly grew and eventually merged with a larger firm in downtown Chicago.
Since then, her firm Khalaf & Abuzir has opened offices in Ramallah and Beirut, where she frequently travels to meet clients in addition to other parts of the Middle East. A member of the Arab American Bar Association of Illinois, Vivian’s also actively involved in a number of organisations such as the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. “It’s a charity that’s dear to my heart because they’ve saved thousands of children by providing them with urgent medical treatment either at hospitals in the region or by flying them to the United States,” says the attorney, who’s also on the advisory board of the American Middle East Voters Alliance. “Being involved in political organising and civic engagement is part of who I am, because if you don’t have a seat at the table then you’re most likely on the menu,” adds Vivian, noting that each vote can make an impact in Arab and Muslim American communities.
“We’ve always been led to believe that our vote wouldn’t make a difference, but with the election of the first generation of Muslim female representatives to Congress, we now feel empowered to speak up,” says the attorney, noting that Arab and Muslim Americans are no different than other communities, whether advocating for better schools or safer neighbourhoods. “I always say I’m going to die with my boots on. I’m passionate about my job and I’ll continue to advocate for fairer immigration laws, to ensure this country remains a welcoming and safe haven for future generations.”
“IF YOU DON’ T HAVE A SEAT AT THE TABLE THEN YOU’ RE MOST LIKELY ON THE MENU”