Alumni Spotlight: Noran Elzarka C’15, Public Defender at Brooklyn Defender Services

Noran Elzarka graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in Political Science and Women’s Studies from Drew University in Madison, NJ. Her honors thesis examined the intersections between the prison-industrial complex and the military-industrial complex and the ways in which two racialized wars, the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Terror”, exacerbate one another and the implications of militarization for Black, Brown, and Muslim communities.

In 2018, Noran graduated from The City University of New York School of Law, where she participated in the Criminal Defense Clinic and served as a student attorney with CLEAR (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility). Through CLEAR, she worked to counter post- 9/11 policies and practices that have particularly affected Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and other communities in NYC and facilitated numerous Know Your Rights workshops. Noran was also active with the National Lawyers Guild’s Parole Preparation Project, collaborating with and advocating for people eligible for parole who are serving indeterminate sentences in NY State prisons.  During law school, Noran interned with BDS’s Immigration Practice, The Federal Defenders of New York, The Legal Aid Society, the International Refugee Assistance Project, and The New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. Noran is currently working at Brooklyn Defender Services in the Family Defense Practice as a public defender advocating on behalf of parents and families involved in the child-welfare system.

THE BENEFITS OF DREW

Noran, born in Brooklyn and raised in NJ, was attracted to Drew because it was a small liberal arts college with a beautiful campus, was close to home, and offered great study abroad opportunities and the NYC semester at the United Nations. She was planning to go to law school and knew she would either major in political science or journalism.  Fortunately, for Noran, a lot of the political science courses were intertwined with other majors including women’s studies and international relations and this helped her to pick her majors. She said, “The professors and these classes were amazing! While at Drew, I took an African American literature class and learned a lot about the black community and mass incarceration and that led to my interest in doing law that was about advocating for people who didn’t have access to the legal system.”

While at Drew she was part of the Muslim Student Association, Middle Eastern Student Association and started the Students for Justice in Palestine Club.

Her mentors included Professors Jinee Lokaneeta, Deb Liebowitz, Jennifer Omstead, and Caitlin Killian. Prof. Lokaneeta was her advisor on her thesis. Noran said, “I did the Inside-Out program with Prof. Killian that was part of the sociology department. This involved taking a class in a women’s prison alongside women who were incarcerated and this was eye opening for me and one of the reasons I am now a public defender.”

One of the challenges she had at Drew involved pushback on the organization she created, Students for Justice in Palestine. People often don’t want to talk about this issue.  To me it was more about raising awareness. I had a lot of support from my mentors even when I received backlash from other people on campus.

Her favorite memories were the study abroad trip she did to Morocco and Paris with Professors Jennifer Olmstead and Caitlin Killian, which she called, “amazing”, the Inside/Out class at the Women’s Prison in NJ, writing her thesis (“it was a lot of work but was very rewarding when I presented and defended it”), being part of the student body, and representing clubs.

NORAN AND THE LAW

You interned the summer of 2012 with The Council on American-Islamic Relations and the summer of 2014 with the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn.  How did you get those internships and can you talk a little bit about them?

For the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), I was interested in going to law school and working on Islamophobia, post 9/11, and I knew I wanted to intern with them and kept my eye on their website. I ended up interviewing with them and spent a summer working there. I enjoyed it and learned a lot about a different side of law. It was more policy, more direct services to people who called, and sending out referrals to organizations that could support them if CAIR could not.  As far as the Legal Aid Society, usually public defender’s offices don’t usually hire college interns, but I had met someone who was a criminal defense attorney there and I messaged him on Facebook and said, “I want to go to Law School and I am interested in being a public defender, can I shadow you?”  He said yes, and that turned into an internship that lasted longer than I expected.  I was able to observe court, trials, hearings and see the day to day work of a public offender.  That really helped me because I knew what to expect and what I was getting into.  If you know someone who is working somewhere that you’re interested in working, just message them and see what happens.  The worst that can happen is that they’ll say no.  I appreciated both of my experiences because I learned about two different fields of law and this really helped me understand how I wanted to practice law.

In 2013, when you were at Drew, you co-founded AMIRA: Aspiring Muslim Women in Acclaiming Ambitions.  What inspired you to create this organization and what are the ways that you helped Muslim women?

With another friend from my community, we received a fellowship and grant money through the Sadie Nash Leadership project, an organization that works to empower and uplift woman (with offices in NYC and Newark.)  We received a scholarship for a year-long project. We were hosting book club sessions, conversations at universities, and lectures about Muslim women’s issues and demanding that our voices be heard.  We addressed a lot of issues that people in our community were facing.

While at Drew as part of the Sadie Nash Leadership project you mentored female high school students on leadership, social justice, and community empowerment.  What were some of the workshops and discussions you facilitated? Which high schools participated in this program?

It’s the same organization that gave us the fellowship and the grant.  After I finished that year-long fellowship, they had a position open as a dean.  Once or twice a week after school I would facilitate weekly classes. They have a partnership with NYC high schools where young girls would apply to be part of the Sadie Nash program and would get a stipend for attending the leadership, social justice,empowerment classes.  It was us trying to pass on the tools to help them exact change in their schools.  They would discuss things they wanted to change, like sexist or racial justice policies that impacted them and it was an opportunity to work closely with people who were interested in creating change and were so passionate.  It was a place where young girls could come together and talk about issues that were important to them and I facilitated these conversations.  I also had a position as a college prep assistant and helped the guidance counselor on staff with helping the students find the best college for them, apply for financial aid, submit FAFSA applications, etc.  Some of the participants were the first in their families to go to college in the U.S., so I wanted to serve as a resource. I helped them navigate the system, including how to send in their SAT scores, how many colleges  they should apply to, options other than college, two year college vs. four year college, etc.  We had honest conversations about what worked best for them.

Tell me about your experiences as a Student Attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project and as a Fellow with the NY Lawyers for the Public Interest?

When I was a student attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project we would represent people who were seeking refugee status.  A lot of them had formerly worked for the American military abroad or were seeking asylum with refugee status in the U.S. I worked with them briefly when I was in law school. A lot of direction was from a supervising attorney and a lot of it was building a relationship with our client, figuring out what immigration relief they needed, compiling the necessary documents, finding out what they qualified for, and following up with USCIS about updates regarding their applications, if additional information was needed, etc.  I didn’t represent anyone through this organization through a court hearing, it was mainly through applications.   With NY Lawyers for the Public Interest, I was a fellow for a year.  I was doing a lot of “Know your rights” workshops for immigrants and undocumented people with health issues, particularly people on dialysis.  This was around the time ICE was doing raids and so I talked about how they could protect themselves and their community, and knowing their rights.

As a Student Attorney at CUNY Clear for almost 2 years you worked closely with Muslim, Arab, South Asian communities affected by National security and counter terrorism policies and practices, facilitating “Know your Rights” workshops at mosques and a community center.  Please tell me about this work.  Are things worse or better today for these communities and was there any personal experience that inspired you to work for this organization?

Working with CUNY CLEAR was definitely my most memorable experience of law school. CUNY Clear is a student group based out of the law school. I learned so much from them.  What lead to me to want me to be a student attorney with them and work on these issues was seeing how my community suffered post 9/11 and what it meant for Muslims in the U.S. who were targeted because of their race, religion, and identity. Post 9/11, the immigration and criminal justice system were especially entangled. I saw the connection between what many Muslims were experiencing in the context of post 9/11 policies and the ways in which prison and mass incarceration kind of exasperate one another.  I wanted to bridge the ways in which they are connected.

There were definitely circumstances where we had clients whose immigration visas were unnecessarily delayed for years and other circumstances where our clients were on blacklists that delayed their applications.  I’ve also seen the FBI terrorize and interrogate people with no concrete proof, just because they know someone who they suspect is a “threat.”.  I’ve worked with people who had the FBI follow them, come to their home at random hours, and manipulate them and their families to get information, and try to pressure them to speak about themselves and their communities.  Law enforcement agencies were criminalizing communities based on where they come from and what they look like.

BROOKLYN DEFENDER SERVICES

Can you talk about your current job as Staff Attorney and Public Defender with the Brooklyn Defender Services?

Yes, I am a public defender and this was my first job after law school.  I started in September of 2018 so it will be two years soon.  I work in the family defense practice. I never thought I would do family defense when I was in college. I thought I would do criminal defense work, but I learned about family defense and became interested  Basically in my practice, I represent parents who are accused of abusing or neglecting their children and have involvement in the child welfare system. In doing this work, my clients are primarily black and brown and there are severe racial disparities against which government agencies will target, and they often target this community.  I represent people with limited resources because they can’t afford a lawyer. I’ve seen how punitive and criminalizing it is of government agencies when families don’t have the resources they need.  A lot of my clients want to be the best parents they can be but don’t have the resources and need additional support, but government involvement is not the answer. They are survivors of their own trauma and abuse. They might be survivors of assault or racism or generations of systemic racism which has left them without resources.  I love this work, but it is definitely very difficult and people often look at us as if we are monsters, representing people who abuse children, but really we are representing people who are just trying to be good parents. If we had systems in place that supported families, we wouldn’t be in this position. Often it’s because of racism and sexism and the way black and brown families are seen as inherently bad.  Society pushes the idea that the only way to parent is the “white way”, and these parents are often told they are “not good enough” when they are just trying their best.

What are some of the rewards of your work?

It’s very rewarding to see families back together.  Some of the rewards are also little rewards like a parent telling me “thank you for listening to me.” The child “protective” agencies don’t want to hear their stories, or the trauma they experienced, or what they think they need.  They tell the parent, that if they are not compliant they will not get their child back, instead of trying to understand the nuances and their stories. Often, they use their own histories and traumas against them.

What do you think has been the key to your success in this field?

Interning and participating in student groups in law school.  Those things mattered a lot when I was applying to jobs.  Everyone cares about your education and grades but that doesn’t necessarily make you a good lawyer.  In my opinion, what makes you a good lawyer is being empathetic, listening to clients, working well under pressure, and staying organized. Those are the skills you will gain with experience and those are the things that really helped me. Also just being passionate about the work leads to success.  Having the knowledge and having the fire in you.  It’s hard.  Some days, it’s difficult.  But I step back and think about why I’m doing it.  I want to see a world where I don’t have to do this work, where I don’t see families criminalized by the government, or prisons existing and continuing to destroy communities. I think empathy and courage are the strongest characteristics of success.

ADVICE FOR STUDENTS

What advice would you give a student interested in pursuing a career in law?

Be open to learning about the many different areas of law. Observe people in court and those in legislative work.  See if you’re interested in criminal, family, real estate, tax, or corporate law.  Don’t rely on what the media presents about law.  In corporate law you will make a lot of money but you will also work long hours. If that’s not something you’re interested in, don’t feel pressure to get into it just because it’s high paying.  Public defenders and trial lawyers are constantly seen in TV in court all the time litigating 24/7.  It’s not always like that.  Sometimes you’re in court for 2 minutes and nothing happens.  Have realistic expectations.  Reach out to people who you might know who are in this field.  If you don’t know anyone in this field, figure out what law organizations are in your community and see if you can observe them doing the work.  I know it’s definitely a privilege to do unpaid internship work and we don’t all have that privilege, but try to be exposed to all what’s out there.  Do what feels true to yourself.

FUN QUESTIONS

If you could pursue another career other than your own, what would it be?

Growing up I really wanted to be a vet or in the medical field.  Maybe an Ob/Gyn or doula.  I am very interested in parenting and children.

If you could travel anywhere in the world tomorrow where would you go?

I would go to Alexandria, Egypt to see my family.

Fun fact (s) about you?

I love to travel. One of my favorite places is Morocco. In November I also went to South Africa to Johannesburg and Cape Town and went on a Safari. It was amazing!

Posted by Yasmin Acosta
Yasmin Acosta Launch Catalyst Yasmin Acosta