An Attorney Flees the Taliban and Finds Support in New York’s J-COR Program

By Liz Benjamin

An Attorney Flees the Taliban and Finds Support in New York’s J-COR Program

12.23.2022

By Liz Benjamin

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When Somaia Sharif Zada came to the United States in August 2021, she had little more than the clothes she was wearing and her laptop computer.

But the 28-year-old Afghan native also brought with her something intangible – and she hopes, in the long term, far more valuable: More than eight years of experience as a practicing attorney, with a focus on assisting other women in domestic violence, divorce, and other cases.

“I sat on the U.S. Air Force plane, and I told myself, ‘You should start again from zero, because you have lost everything,’” Sharif Zada recalled. “But I brought my hopes with me.”

It was Sharif Zada’s work that forced her to flee Afghanistan when the Taliban re-took control of the country’s capital, Kabul. After two decades of being out of power, the Taliban quickly set about rolling back all the progress that had been made in its absence, including the law on Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW), decreed in 2009 and reconfirmed in 2018, which made acts of abuse against women – including rape and forced marriage, or prohibiting women and girls from going to school or work – criminal offenses.

The Taliban banished women from the judiciary, effectively denying all women legal protections and leaving them nowhere to turn as the country returned to a hardline Islamic approach to governing that forbade them most freedoms – including education, unaccompanied travel, and the ability to work in public.

“I think all the time of the Afghan women I left behind,” Sharif Zada said. “I saved my life, but they are still in danger.”

Sharif Zada came to the U.S. alone, leaving behind her immediate and extended family. Her husband was already in the states pursuing a master’s degree. Though she was a Fulbright Program finalist in 2015, Sharif Zada’s visa application took a long time to process,  so she stayed behind to focus on providing free legal services to underserved low-income women.

She arrived first in Virginia, and then requested a transfer to New York, in part due to the international reputation of its law schools, and was placed in the Capital Region. Once settled and reunited with her husband, Sharif Zada hoped to return to practicing law. But she was unsure where or how to make that happen. As she researched the process, it seemed daunting, time-consuming, and expensive.

Then she happened upon an announcement about the Unified Court System’s new program, Judges for Career Opportunities for Refugees (J-COR), which provided placement opportunities for Afghan refugees like herself with law-related experience or interest.

The J-COR program, funded by the Office of Court Administration, places eligible Afghan refugees in full-time, paid “analyst” positions for a 12-month period. To qualify, applicants need to be proficient in English, have relocated to the U.S. from Afghanistan in 2021 or 2022, have the appropriate immigration status to work here, and, most of all, have relevant experience in the legal profession.

Sharif Zada applied and was accepted. Since August, she has been working at the Albany County Supreme Court and other county courts in the Capital Region.

“This program gives me the opportunity to practice my language (skills), and get familiar with the procedures and the laws and how the courts are run in different counties in the U.S.,” Sharif Zada said. “It also gives me the opportunity to prove to the judges that I understand legal concepts, because that is my profession, no matter that I am from Afghanistan. It gives me the chance to advance many steps.”

The J-COR program was formally announced by then-Chief Judge Janet DiFiore this past March in response to an October 2021 resolution passed by the National Conference of Chief Justices that urged its members to identify employment opportunities for Afghan refugees who worked in their country’s justice system and were being persecuted – and even murdered – as a result of their work to defend and enforce the legal rights of women and girls.

“This is a truly worthy endeavor, and the least that we can do here in New York to support the courageous women judges and lawyers who have risked their lives over the last 20 years to uphold the rule of law and enforce the human rights of women and girls living in Afghanistan,” DiFiore said at the time.

News of the assassination in January 2021 of two women judges on their way to work at the Afghan Supreme Court, as well as more than 220 other female judges who were in hiding due to fear of retribution under Taliban rule, had spurred Court of Appeals Judge Madeline Singas to suggest to DiFiore that New York reach out to the National Conference of Chief Justices.

“I couldn’t believe that these women were in such danger just for doing their jobs,” Singas recalled. “They had been acting in their official capacity as judges, and defense attorneys, and prosecutors, and now they were in hiding and their families were threatened. I couldn’t just sit back. These women are our sisters. They’re professionals. I can’t imagine what they’ve been through.”

Singas said she was saddened to learn that some of the women who had managed to escape from Afghanistan to the U.S. were unable to put their professional skills to use in this country and instead were cleaning houses or working as cashiers.

“They were grateful to have any employment, but these are remarkably educated, brilliant people who need dignity in work,” Singas said. “This program can really be life altering for them.”

Acting Chief Judge Anthony Cannataro praised Singas for recognizing both the need to help legal professionals from Afghanistan after the Taliban’s return to power and the opportunity for the New York courts to help. He said it was “no surprise” that she swung into action, given her long-standing dedication to public service and commitment to protecting vulnerable individuals.

“The court system is very proud of Judge Singas’s truly inspiring efforts, and we are so pleased to do our part in offering assistance and hope to Afghan refugees in their time of need,” Judge Cannataro added.

To date, 10 refugees have been placed in the program, and eight are currently active. One left early to attend law school “which is great,” Singas said. The program is also now accepting men as well as women.

One male J-COR participant, who lives in the Buffalo area but asked to remain anonymous to protect his family still in Afghanistan, said he worked as a defense attorney for 10 years before he was forced to flee the country. His work included a stint with USAID, assisting women and girls in getting access to legal representation and running information sessions to inform them of their rights.

“I am so happy to have this opportunity,” the J-COR participant said. “My main goal is to get back to my professional career, and I thank the program and its staff for initiating this golden opportunity. Even my children will remember this historic moment that happened in their dad’s life and what these people did for him.”

Attorneys in other states are also stepping up to assist Afghan refugees with legal experience. Singas said she hopes to be able to expand J-COR here in New York in the coming years, and also encourage other associations and organizations to use it as a model for similar undertakings. As a descendant of immigrants herself, Singas said, she feels particularly motivated to assist those who come to the country determined to improve their circumstances.

“My entire extended family came from Greece and settled here, starting at the bottom,” Singas explained. “They were grateful for the opportunity. I saw my own family struggle, not speaking the language and trying to make their way. But these women, they came here under the threat of death, which added a whole level of urgency to their situation. I cannot imagine what they’re going through, and to be able to just help them professionally and give them their dignity back, that’s worth it.”

Sharif Zada said her experience with the J-COR program has given her an appreciation for the U.S. legal system, as she regularly sees judges who are “searching for solutions, not punishments” and “thinking about humanity, not just enforcing laws.”

This is a stark difference from her experience in Afghanistan, where she worked mostly on divorce cases. Many judges were predisposed against women, Sharif Zada said, even if their husbands were abusive and violent. And in many cases, even if she was successful in securing a legal victory for her clients, their families might then seek revenge in a so-called “honor killing.”

“It’s more difficult in Afghanistan for a woman to be an attorney; we had to fight for basic rights, like education,” Sharif Zada said. “First, you face cultural restrictions and society roles, and then you face the real law and the real problems. Mostly for women, being a lawyer wasn’t safe, but it’s also not safe even for men in some districts.”

Sharif Zada remains hopeful she will one day be able to practice law here in the U.S. While studying for the bar and preparing for the birth of her first child this spring, Sharif Zada keeps in touch with her extended family when it’s safe to do so, as well as her colleagues who are still practicing law in Afghanistan. She often thinks about the future – including the possibility of someday returning home.

“Imagine you are sitting by the stove with a mug of tea or coffee, and you look outside, and see children are freezing; how can you be happy? These women need us, they need to be informed about their rights,” she said. “I will not go back while the Taliban is still in Afghanistan. But if the region changes, and something good happens, then yes.”

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