By Nyla Moujaes, Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Social Impact at HAC
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
― Alice Walker
At seven years old, I experienced two traumas that affected me forever. The first was an allergic reaction that I had to a Brazil nut. I remember my tongue and lips swelling and my parents rushing me to the emergency room for treatment. Even at that young age, I remember my life flashing in front of me and saying goodbye to family from the hospital bed, thinking I was a goner before the epinephrine did its thing.
The second trauma was losing my grandmother in Aleppo, Syria while we were in Las Vegas, NV. She had been sick and bed-ridden with physical and mental illnesses. I took care of her during summer visits, feeding her fruits and vegetables, and we developed a bond until she passed at age 59. I loved and missed her deeply. This grief cultivated a renewed love for life, realizing it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
As I grew older, I learned more about my family history. I knew that my parents fled the civil war in Lebanon and immigrated to Pittsburgh, PA in 1975. I was born there and we moved to Las Vegas in 1984 when my Dad was offered a job at UNLV. What seemed more elusive to grasp was the migration pattern and cultural evolution of my Syrian-Armenian side. I learned they were forcibly displaced from Constantinople ― current-day Istanbul and former capital of the Ottoman Empire ― and ended up taking refuge in Aleppo. There is still plenty I do not know about my family and what they went through during the Armenian Genocide of World War I. Nobody talks about it and I have yet to travel back to my ancestral lands and excavate our story. One thing remains clear, however: I come from a long line of survivors.
A Long Line of Survivors
In Syria, as you can imagine, one cannot speak against the government. Anyone who challenges the dictator’s authority will be arrested, tortured, and/or killed. Sadly, I know activists who met this fate and are now living in exile. Since my mother was born and raised in Syria, I have long understood and been fascinated by both the concept and value of democracy. Perhaps it was no surprise, then, when I decided to pursue an education in law. During law school, I quickly realized that poor people in the United States needed a fierce, preferably free, advocate in their corner to achieve any semblance of justice. I dedicated my life to advocating for the underdogs in the country where I was born and raised.
Being a gender non-conforming queer Arab-Armenian-American lawyer is no easy feat! My parents were both teachers, but I was the first lawyer in my family. Much of the legal profession is cisgender, heteropatriarchal, and biased against my identities and cultures. Nonetheless, studying in the San Francisco Bay Area afforded me the privileges of both being myself and vigorously pursuing my passion for social justice. Before joining HAC, I advocated for Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian immigrants post-9/11 and women in prison via a prison abolitionist framework. HAC’s appellate attorney David Waggoner, also a mentor, friend, and my former law school classmate, recruited me to the organization with the assurance that I could do impactful work with amazing people. I believed him, applied, and the rest is history!
“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”
― James Baldwin
“Intersectionality draws attention to invisibilities that exist in feminism, in anti-racism, in class politics, so, obviously, it takes a lot of work to consistently challenge ourselves to be attentive to aspects of power that we don’t ourselves experience.”
― Kimberle Williams Crenshaw
In my time at HAC so far, one of my favorite clients is an immigrant from the same city as my mom in Syria. Another Arab-American lawyer and I won his SSI case a few years ago but he and I still keep in touch. I’ll never forget learning the full breadth of his story. A soft-spoken gentleman, it was clear he had been all the way to hell and back a few times. While he was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated in California, his family in Syria went missing during the civil war. Upon release, he was understandably living with mental and physical disabilities from what he had endured, was jobless, and became homeless. He now has a stable income, health insurance, and housing, and his life has significantly improved. He brings me beautiful paintings and tasty dessert. I wonder what would have happened to him or his case if I wasn’t at HAC to represent him to the fullest.
In fact, I am positive that every advocate at HAC has similar stories of connections with clients for whom they have had both compassion on a professional level and a personal motivation to win their case. This is why equity and inclusion is so incredibly important in our work; so that we can truly relate to our clients on a human level and earn their trust.
Every advocate at HAC has similar stories of connections with clients for whom they have had both compassion on a professional level and a personal motivation to win their case.
One of my favorite projects at HAC is our jail project where advocates and attorneys drive to Santa Rita jail in Dublin to conduct SSI intakes. These clients are often the hardest to connect and follow up with, as they are sometimes in jail for only a few days and then often released back to the streets where they may not have a cell phone or a reliable mailing address. So many of our clients have interactions with the “justice” system and police that involve the intersections of classism, ableism, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia.
On a personal level, I have also experienced injustice and oppression by state actors. A couple years after joining HAC as a staff attorney, I survived an act of racial profiling and excessive force during a traffic stop for an illegal left turn in San Francisco’s Mission district. The police did not ask for my insurance or registration before approaching my car with guns drawn, pulling me out of my car and slamming me to the ground with knees in my back. They falsely arrested me for resisting arrest and DUI after dislocating my shoulder and leaving me in pain in the middle of the street. Two hours later, an ambulance took me to the emergency room. All charges were subsequently dropped and I proceeded to file a Section 1983 civil rights lawsuit for the willful violation of my constitutional rights. We went to a federal jury trial with 12 jurors, none of whom were from Oakland or Berkeley, where I lived and worked. We barely lost the trial due to a mistake in cultivating expert testimony. My competent, diverse legal team was strong and mighty but also weary and tired after preparing for a one-week trial against a very well-oiled machine and functioning-by-design system.
“Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.”
― Khalil Gibran, The Prophet
With each of my 11 years at HAC, I become prouder of the work we do and the ways we unequivocally convey our love to our clients and each other through action. As the Director of DEI and Social Impact, I certainly recognize that our work is never done. However, it is so very important to celebrate the victories, big and small, and to slow down enough to be mindful and remember our reasons for doing this transformative, life-sustaining work.
What ensures case success time and time again is our ability to connect with and advocate for the whole client. We must see the bigger picture and have empathy for the vulnerability of walking through our doors. We must understand that our clients are whole people with entire life stories that brought them to this moment of seeking public benefits advocacy from culturally humble, compassionate, and excellent advocates and lawyers at the Alameda County Homeless Action Center. Whereas healthy boundaries are indeed important while representing clients, I am blessed to call many former clients friends today. The work we do truly is love made visible!