Sumayya Saleh: Advocate on Behalf of Victims of Injustice
Sumayya Saleh’s Syrian parents, Bilal and Abida Saleh, immigrated to the United States in the mid-1980s, seeking opportunity after their families had been forced to flee oppression in Syria. When her parents arrived in the United States, they married in Tennessee, had two daughters, Layla and Aamena, then moved to Florida and had twin girls, Maryam and Sumayya. The children learned their parents’ heritage and their story of oppression and immigration, and experienced firsthand what injustice looked like in this country. It would certainly inform their lives growing up, but it turned into a passion when it became personal.
A legal career was not a part of Sumayya’s career plans for most of her life. It hadn’t occurred to her until everything changed when the Arab Spring broke out toward the end of her college experience. The wave of
pro-democracy protests occurring in much of the Arab world in 2010-2011 shook her to the core, and she felt she needed to do something about it.
“Syria was a country I never knew,” explained Sumayya. “I was born in the United States, but never thought too
much about why my family moved away. I intellectually understood that Syria was a country that, based on my family’s experience, had a very oppressive regime where political dissidence was not tolerated. But never did
we imagine that Syrians would take to the streets and protest their brutal government.”
Suddenly her goal of becoming a social worker didn’t satisfy her. She needed to do more. The Arab Spring and the injustices to her community generated in her a profound purpose.
“I immediately got sucked into it. It was such a momentous thing to be happening and I wanted desperately to get involved; first to understand better what was happening in Syria, but more importantly to volunteer in any way to help the revolution in Syria. I also realized that I now knew what I wanted to do in my life. I wanted to help people. I needed to advocate on behalf of victims of injustice.”
Energized by the revelation of her role in life, Sumayya questioned her career path as a social worker. Would she be able to make sweeping changes to the injustices in the world? Although still young and unsure, she
absolutely knew in her heart that this vague notion of what a legal career could do was the right career for her.
In 2012, Sumayya was finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of South Florida, and began the unfamiliar process of applying for law school.
“I had no lawyers in my family, no lawyers as friends, and I didn’t have a road map for how this works,” recalled Sumayya. “I think my mom heard something on the local NPR station about Cooley Law School coming to Tampa.” Sumayya not only saw this as a sign from above, but the best way to start her journey close to family.
“I was 20 when I finished my undergrad and I was in an extreme rush to get started with the rest of my life,” Sumayya recalls with a smile. “It was very important for me to start law school right away. I didn’t want to take a break! Maybe naïve, but at the time, that’s how I felt. So, I sat for the June LSAT and was able to start that fall at Cooley Law School. I just firmly believed that this was part of God’s plan for me. It was like the stars aligned and it all worked out in the end.”
PASSION FOR CRIMINAL DEFENSE
After diving headfirst into her law school studies, Sumayya continued on the fast track to a legal career. In her first summer of law school, she interned at the local courthouse working for a family law judge. The experience also connected her to other staff attorneys who worked for criminal division judges, which led her to a part-time law clerk position, where she worked primarily on criminal post-conviction matters.
“Getting to work on post-conviction work (motions, files) by people who had been convicted of crimes and sentenced to very lengthy prison sentences was, I would say, my first introduction to some of the tangible injustices in the criminal justice system. But it was in my third year of law school when I took a death penalty seminar taught by Professor Adam Tebrugge that my interest, and now my career, in criminal defense work was cemented.”
The stars aligned again for Sumayya when she was studying for the bar exam and someone from the legal department at the courthouse reached out to her about a staff attorney position with the court.
“At that time, I think I knew that I wanted to be a public defender, but I didn’t feel quite ready. I thought that it would be best to keep working with judges, doing research, and writing in criminal cases to get an appreciation for the ins-and-outs, and the operation of the court system before I made my move to public defense work. So, I did that for two years, then became a public defender in Tampa.”
Not one to sit idle, Sumayya developed a mentoring relationship with an attorney at the public defender’s office. He was the chief of a homicide unit. It wasn’t long before he asked Sumayya to join his team.
“I was this young associate working in a homicide unit,” stated Sumayya. “As much as the work was truly heartbreaking, hard, and draining, it was an exceptional experience. I found it incredibly fulfilling to be one of the people who advocates for people facing the most severe consequences in the criminal legal system.”
STARS ALIGN - AGAIN
Sumayya learned early on that opportunities can present themselves in many ways. Even if they seem accidental. That was how she discovered a job opportunity with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“I didn’t even know that they had an office in Florida,” recalled Sumayya. “It’s an organization that I had long heard of, and they were hiring a Criminal Justice Reform staff attorney. It spoke to me because I was beginning to look at long-term, big picture, systemic reform work as my calling. I thought I would at least apply for the job. I did, and I ended up getting the job!”
She moved to Tallahassee to do civil rights impact litigation and to represent people who were incarcerated in the Florida prison system. She spent most of her time with people serving very long prison sentences, under conditions that were also exacerbated by persistent mental health issues. The challenge of the work and the atrocious conditions of confinement, with a particular focus on solitary confinement, was difficult for Sumayya.
“I remember thinking to myself when I was in law school taking civil procedure and studying class actions that there was no way I was ever going to do this kind of work,” laughed Sumayya. “And now I find myself knee-deep doing class action work. I had to email to my Civil Procedure instructor, Professor (Gerald) McDonald, to let him know what I was doing for work and how much I appreciated all the things that I learned in law school that prepared me for this kind of work.”
Sumayya formed many deep, powerful connections with people behind bars and it was a transformational and clarifying moment in her work and life journey. Everything was going great, until the pandemic happened. Like many people, this life-altering event pushed her to re-evaluate and re-think what she was doing.
“Right after I sat for the Florida bar, I sat for the Illinois bar because I had grown up in Chicago and thought that I might end up there, but that location wasn’t calling me right now. My twin sister, Maryam, who also got her law degree from Cooley Law School, was working as an editor at The Intercept in D.C. I knew that I wanted to be near her. I made the decision to start looking for positions in the D.C. area.”
Of course, the stars aligned again for Sumayya. She had recently worked on an amicus brief for Civil Rights Corps in the early months of the pandemic, and now they were hiring.
MANY THREADS WEAVE A TAPESTRY
“As much as everything felt like the stars aligned and it was God’s plan for me, I can see that, really, one piece was building on another and leading me to where I am today.”
Things like seeing the atrocities in Syria, witnessing how people who are on the receiving end of government violence and oppression could use support in their quest to seek justice.
Another poignant thread in Sumayya’s journey was the 9/11 tragedy. She was in the fourth grade. As a practicing Muslim, Sumayya remembers clearly how post-9/11 America treated Muslim communities. Literally overnight, her community was living under suspicion.
“Government surveillance was a huge thing against Muslim communities after 9/11,” shared Sumayya. “It was an unfortunate part of my childhood and upbringing to belong to a community that was surveilled and targeted by the government. I remember as a teenage girl being harassed by TSA agents
because I wore the hijab.”
These pivotal experiences defined who she was and shaped her future.
“My advocacy stems from my collective experiences,” explained Sumayya. “Everything ended up being personal for me. Even though I had never experienced severe forms of government oppression like others, it was a part of my upbringing and my story and my need to hold space for people who are traumatized, who experience oppression, who experience hardships.
The people I represent, who have been through some very traumatic experiences, need someone who can see their humanity, and as whole people.”
CIVIL RIGHTS CORPS
Sumayya sees her work at Civil Rights Corps as critically important in her role to impact change. The national, civil rights, nonprofit, legal organization’s mission challenges the status quo, White supremacy cultures, and is a strong advocate for people who are on the receiving end of systemic oppression, particularly those in the Black and Brown communities.
“Much of our work at Civil Rights Corps is class-action litigation challenging the sorts of things that ensnare people in the legal system, including the criminalization of poverty,” explained Sumayya.“I have worked on class-action cases challenging money bail systems and predatory pretrial diversion programs. These private probation schemes are designed to extract wealth from the poorest communities, then penalize them due to their poverty.”
Sumayya says the result generates cyclical patterns of oppression. People get arrested, then they can’t afford to pay for services, then they lose their job and house. Then the oppression just starts all over again. She said Civil Rights Corps is fighting to ensure that these basic systems in place allow people to obtain liberty rather than suffer the harmful effects of incarceration.
For example, she also recently filed a lawsuit challenging the pervasive use of probation detainers. “If someone on probation gets accused of violating their probation, a detainer is issued against them that prohibits their release from jail. Frequently those individuals will have bonds set on a new charge if the new charge is the reason they are accused of violating their probation. This means that a judge has decided there is no public safety risk of them being out on the streets. This bureaucratic process prevents them from getting out of jail for months and months and months until that process resolves, rather than with their family and communities and able to work.”
Civil Rights Corps supports communities whose fundamental rights have been violated, no matter how extreme.
“Civil Rights Corps takes the approach that we don’t just care about worst case scenarios, we care about the everyday indignities, the everyday violations people are subjected to” in the criminal legal system, the things that most people are desensitized to because it’s “just how things are done.”
STRENGTH AND GUIDANCE
Sumayya says her strength and guidance has always been her faith. She views her work as a civil rights litigator as a blessing, and an extension of her religious practice.
“A core part of my beliefs as a Muslim is that God called us to do good on this earth, to seek justice, to stand up to power, to lend a hand to people in ways big and small whenever we can. So, I really view the work that I do as part of that and not separate from my religious identity or my religious practice. I am blessed to wake up every day and feel that the work I am doing is nourishing me spiritually and making me feel fulfilled. It sustains me in this work. Even though it is tiring and draining and can be very aggravating and frustrating when you feel a system may be designed to shut you down. Being able to connect to a higher calling and a higher power is part of what helps keep me moving forward.”
As much as Sumayya is clear about her commitment to right the wrongs in our justice system, she says she doesn’t really have a five-year plan or a 10-year career plan. But she is enjoying what she is doing and loves
litigating, and is passionate about writing creeds and briefs, then getting to argue them and to take up positions.
“I’m fortunate to be doing this work at a place that is mindful of the communities that we serve and is intentional about allowing communities who are impacted to lead the way. We (at Civil Rights Corps) view ourselves as partners in their quests to better their own conditions and to imagine a better future for themselves. Looking to the future though, I feel like if opportunities presented themselves, you would step back and ask if God was calling you to this.”
KEEPING GROUNDED AND CENTERED
Sumayya’s life is ever busy, but enjoys time with her husband Abdel-Rahman Hamed, who is also a civil rights and immigration litigator, and being out in nature.
“D.C. is a really beautiful place to be and to live,” states Sumayya. “Being out in nature is where I’m able to center myself and find calm. Being outdoors is important to me, whether it’s going for a run after work, going for hikes over the weekend, or taking long bike rides. That’s a very high priority for me. I recognize that if I’m not making time for me and if my soul isn’t full, then I can’t apply myself fully to the work that I do. I also prioritize doing these things with my family, because spending time with them helps keep me grounded and centered.”