This interview was conducted over email with Aayah El-Naggar, an attorney practicing Immigration and Human Rights Law, by Gargi Mahadeshwar, a first-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. El-Naggar earned a B.A. in International Comparative Studies with a concentration in the Middle East and North Africa and a Minor in Arabic from Duke in 2010.

Gargi Mahadeshwar (GM):  What has been your path to your current position? 

Aayah El-Naggar (AE): During Law School, I completed several internships at non-profits and international organizations and took several classes in Human Rights Law and International Law. After law school, I spent a year working at an International Law firm before deciding to branch out and start my own practice in Immigration and Human Rights. This was right before the Trump administration and the need for compassionate and zealous Immigration Attorneys skyrocketed.

GM: Which human rights issues do you engage with most directly and how? 

AEBecause my law practice is centered around Immigration Law, the human rights issues I deal with are centered around that. Many of my pro bono clients are facing abusive relationships and need help understanding their Immigration options if they want to leave their partner. I also take on clients who are detained and seeking parole or bond so that they may remain with their families are friends while their underlying applications are being adjudicated.

GM: How has your study of/passion for human rights influenced your life personally and professionally?

AE: Because of my human rights education at Duke, it was hard to turn a blind eye to many of the issues I saw at larger, reputable organizations, such as lack of diverse representation across all levels and a disconnect between those in charge and those being helped. The racist remarks my colleagues and I would hear from those purporting to be human rights advocates were alarming. Of course not all organizations are like this, but this was one of the reasons I decided to start my own practice.

GM: Do you see room for improvement in your professional field’s engagement with human rights issues? 

AE: With so much adversity in the Immigration field over the last few years, it’s hard to fault Immigration Attorneys for not doing more. Many of us were working overtime to keep up with ever changing policies. That being said, there are many improvements our field could make- both big and small: taking more time to understand our clients’ backgrounds and situations, taking on more pro bono cases, educating our friends and families about misconceptions, and pushing back harder on a larger scale against harmful policies that are still in effect.

GM: How has COVID impacted your work? 

AE: COVID had mostly negative but some positive side effects. For example, because of COVID, I was given an opportunity to advocate for release of certain vulnerable clients from detention centers. But mostly, COVID caused massive processing delays at USCIS that affected many of my clients negatively, and stranded others away from their friends and families because of Presidential Proclamations banning certain Immigrant and Non-Immigrant Visas. Having to provide sound legal advice amidst so much uncertainty was a big challenge.

GM: What would you recommend to undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in human rights? 

AE: I would suggest those interested in working in the non-profit sector stay open-minded and pick their internships carefully. Often times non-profits don’t hire as often as the private sector, so be sure to make the most of your internships, network, and make a good impression. Also- don’t assume all human rights work is done in the non-profit field! There are plenty of ways to make a difference in the private sphere. Set up informational interviews with alumni in professions that interest you.

El-Naggar was a speaker at Global Ideas, Local Impact, the Duke Human Rights Center’s annual celebration of human rights, in 2017.