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Two Immigration Lawyers - 2003-09-03


Two young lawyers who grew up in America as the children of immigrant parents remain deeply connected to their ethnic roots. Here is their story today on New American Voices.

The law firm of Karim Hanafy and Tariq Syed deals mostly with immigration cases, and serves a mostly Muslim clientele. Both young partners in the firm say their decision to specialize in immigration law was a direct outgrowth of their upbringing and background.

Karim Hanafy’s parents are immigrants from Egypt. Mr. Hanafy grew up in a small town in the mid-western state of Illinois, where at the time there were few immigrants, and still fewer Muslims.

“In fact, I was the only Muslim in school, the only person who was fasting during Ramadan in school. So it was difficult. You certainly find strength in numbers, it’s kind of good to have friends around you who are also Muslim. But I didn’t have that, really. There were only two other minorities in our school. One was Egyptian, one was Indian, and then a few African-Americans.”

Mr. Hanafy says that although his schoolmates generally accepted him, he can’t say that there was NO discrimination.

“There was a combination, I guess. I mean, I did have a lot of friends, but there were some people who would make some comments, you know, some racial comments, because of my background. That’s to be expected, I guess, anywhere you go. But being in a small town, I thought it would be worse, because of the stereotypes, you know – but it really wasn’t like that, at all.”

With his small-town midwestern upbringing, Karim Hanafy grew up an all-American kid – but with a difference: with an abiding interest in his ethnic heritage. To improve his Arabic, Mr. Hanafy spent three semesters at the American University in Cairo learning the language. And he says there is a large part of his life in America that is Arabic.

“Definitely. And I would sort of categorize it as well as being with my religious background. It’s much more conservative over there, in Egypt, than it is here, and I’ve certainly incorporated an aspect of that. Also in terms of the culture, as well. There’s no question that being Arab, and you’re surrounded by it there, you sort of want to integrate that into your lifestyle here, whether it’s the food, whether it’s the music, whether it’s communications, or even reading, for that matter.”

Mr. Hanafy’s partner Tariq Syed grew up in the ethnically diverse city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His parents came to the United States from Hyderabad in India to study medicine. Mr. Tariq says his sense of identity developed along a somewhat different trajectory than that of his law partner.

“If I were to define sort of how I identify myself I would say first as a Muslim, second as an American, and third as an Indian. Because unlike Karim I haven’t been exposed to my culture, the Indian culture, quite as much as other people have. My parents do speak Urdu, which is their native language, however they never taught it to us. Not to say I’m totally away from the culture – I mean, I love the food…”

Mr. Syed says that he became more interested in his family’s background only when he was in college. It was there that he took up in a serious way the study and practice of Islam.

“Not to sit here and say that I’m the most righteous person, but definitely my life revolves around it. I mean, I pray five times, I fast, I try to make decisions in any aspect of my life which are based on the religion.”

Both men chose to marry women who are of their own ethnic background -- in Karim Hanafy’s case, an Egyptian.

“One of the reasons why was first and foremost for religion. When we have children, we want them to grow up as practicing Muslims. And then second, it’s just so much easier if you’re involved with the culture, if you have someone who’s interested in the culture as well. Certainly, my wife and I have so much in common, in terms of our culture, we have paractically identical interests. We have interest in the music, in the movies, in people, in the foods, in our families. We just wanted to be a part of that.”

Tariq Syed’s wife is, like him, from India, and Muslim. He says she may be more into the Indian-Pakistani culture than he is, but they, too, have many similarities that make for a more harmonious life.

“It’s good for the families. It’s really a marriage of the families, so when you have people of the same background, it’s good for the parents, and that translates into being good for us. You know, you don’t have conflict, everybody gets along, they have everything in common.”

Active as they are in their ethnic and Muslim communities, both men say they suffered no unpleasant experiences or discrimination in the post-September 11th climate in this country. Tariq Syed adds that it is important to put this climate into perspective.

“There’s two ways of looking at it. There are many people who when they see someone – even myself, with a thin beard, or Karim, who’s skin is not lily-white – there are people who are going to look down on us, there are employers who will discriminate. That’s a fact. But one thing I’ve also noticed, that for every story of someone discriminating there are many people who are more understanding and more welcoming to Muslims. There are people who now that you hear about Islam in the news, they actually want to learn about it. I think the Koran was actually a best seller for some time in the last year. So that’s sort of the positive to balance out the negative.”

Two young American professionals who choose to embody the values of their immigrant parents.

English Feature #7-37838 Broadcast September 8, 2003

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