As I listened to Chaldean Community Foundation CEO Martin Manna lay out the various needs of Chaldean refugees, my eyes circled the room filled with Chaldean American attorneys. I tried to recall how many attorneys were in the community when I graduated from Wayne State Law School in 1997. Not very many. I began to think about the relatively brief but beautiful history of our attorney community.
On one book-end is Jewel Haji, a third year Detroit Mercy law student and Editor and Chief of the Law Review who has already secured a job at the prestigious Detroit law firm, Honigman Law. At the other end is the late Salman Sesi who initially could not practice after law school in 1954 because he was not a citizen. Ultimately, he was sworn into the state bar in 1966 and became the first Chaldean lawyer in the United States. In between are three generations of Chaldean lawyers—represented by Mr. Sesi’s grandson, Julian and Julian’s father, Ramy—the only family in the community with lawyers from three generations.
On Friday, March 22, a gathering of about 40 of the best and brightest in the community, Including Haji, came together for a luncheon meeting at the Chaldean Community Foundation to learn more about the legal needs of Chaldean refugees and indigent. The gathering included at least three lawyer-employees of the Foundation led by Foundation COO, Paul Jonna. But it also included Foundation immigration attorneys Athir Maroki and Carleen Jarbo, both more recent Detroit Mercy law graduates. On the other end of the spectrum were more senior attorneys including Shamel Halibu and Burt Kassab, who began their legal profession in the 1980s.
Over lunch, I asked Attorney Halibu how many Chaldean attorneys existed when he graduated from law school. It was such a short list, he began to name them. (Note: I’m sure this list is not exhaustive, and I apologize to those I may miss).
Salmon Sesi, Jalal Arabo, Pete Abbo, Paul Vincent, Karim Sarafa, Frank Yono he listed off the top of his head. Largely unknown is that the first woman Chaldean attorney was Mary Ann Binno (not my wife) who battled blindness onset by diabetes but nonetheless went on to work for the Securities Exchange Commission after graduating from Wayne State Law school in 1978. Jane Shallal, who was sworn into the State Bar after Binno, told me Binno was an inspiration for her bravery and accomplishment of being the first Chaldean female attorney.
Among the first generation of attorneys are several from my own family including Melinda Sarafa who practiced white collar criminal defense in New York and is now General Counsel to a private equity firm and at least six other Sarafa’s including my late uncle and my late cousin, Derek Sarafa. There must be dozens of other Chaldean attorneys in California and Chicago and at least one in Texas that we know about (Steve Kherker). In Boston, Remi Kathawa works for a silk-stocking law firm.
Also present at the luncheon was Justin Hanna, an attorney at Jaffe Law whose spouse is also an attorney. At Justin’s wedding to Nora Youkhanna last year, Bishop Ibrahim who was presiding over a rare attorney to attorney wedding told the newlyweds that they had a special obligation to work for justice and to serve the community.
This was consistent with the message to the attorneys that afternoon delivered first by veteran Judge, Diane Dickow D’Agostini who reminded the mostly under 40-year-old crowd of lawyers that pro bono work was not only a moral imperative but encouraged within the rules of the State Bar. This theme was reinforced by Oakland Circuit Court Judge Hala Jarbou who reminded lawyers that the significance of the hurdles they overcame to become lawyers was even more reason to give back.
Also attending were Oakland Circuit Court Judge, Lisa Gorcyka and Supreme Court Justice David Viviano. Justice Viviano, who is married to a Chaldean and had his toddler daughter in tow, put forth a path for pro bono work based on his significant experience doing pro bono work when he was in private practice.
Attorney Burt Kassab, whose daughter is also an attorney, estimates that there are 300-400 attorneys from the community—with over 80% graduating after the turn of the century-- and 30 or 40 more graduating each year from Michigan based law schools and other law schools around the country. Kassab told me that the growth of the legal profession in the community is remarkable for its speed and depth with lawyers specializing in almost every possible area of law.
In a collective and moving gesture, each lawyer present agreed to handle at least one pro bono case per year referred to them by the Chaldean Community Foundation. These cases typically involve landlord-tenant issues, family law matters, traffic misdemeanors and motions to set aside judgements.
Judge Jarbou reminded those present that the disposition of these kinds of matters for the people that otherwise would not be well represented could be life changing events for them.
The volunteer gesture is big, but just a handful of hours is a little thing. Yet to the beneficiaries of those donated hours, it could mean the world. We’ve come a long way and because of that, many people who need legal help are going to get it.
Michael Sarafa is Co-publisher of the Chaldean News.