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Yasmine Taeb Honored by Penn State Law, Delivers Keynote Address at Annual Diversity Banquet

By Yasmine Taeb, February 27, 2016

FCNL’s lobbyist on human rights and civil liberties, Yasmine Taeb, received the 2016 Diversity Award for Leadership in the Legal Profession at Penn State Law's 4th Annual Diversity Banquet. The banquet honors members of the law school community who have contributed to the development of the legal profession.

Thank you so much to the students, faculty, and friends for being here this evening. It’s truly an honor to be here with you.

When I decided to go to law school, I did so knowing that I was dedicated to a career in public interest. My interest and drive to attain a legal education was to equip myself with the tools, resources, and education necessary to serve as an effective advocate.

Human Rights and Civil Liberties Lobbyist Yasmine Taeb delivers the keynote address at Penn State Law's 4th Annual Diversity Banquet after receiving the 2016 Diversity Award for Leadership in the Legal Profession on February 27, 2016.

As a lifelong activist whose passion has been social justice and advancing the rights of all citizens, I’ve enjoyed working on advancing policy issues and serving as a voice for those most vulnerable in our communities.

As an immigrant, I was taught by my parents to never take for granted the freedoms and opportunities that our country embodies. My parents instilled in me an understanding of the principles that have made America great: equality, economic opportunity, and political rights for all.

Fleeing war and turmoil in our native Iran, my parents sacrificed much by bringing our family to the United States and giving my three siblings and me the opportunity to have a better future.

We fled Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, which ultimately left a million dead and millions of refugees. My brother was about to get drafted at just 14 years of age, and we knew he almost certainly would be killed in the war if we were to remain in the country. From Iran to Turkey to Cyprus and back to Turkey, my mom tried every avenue she knew of to get us to the U.S. legally, where my dad was residing. In utter desperation, my mom finally decided to hire a smuggler.

By the time I was seven years old, we eventually made our way from Turkey to Mexico. The night we crossed the southern border, I remember we were told to wear dark clothing so we wouldn’t be caught. I hid behind bushes while helicopters hovered overhead. We were terrified of being caught and then I realized that my 9-yr old sister along with the smuggler was caught by U.S. authorities. We then heard a loud voice coming from one of the choppers informing us that we must come out from hiding. The next thing I remember is seeing my sister in a van with tears running down her face.

I didn’t know then that this experience would shape the course of my life. Today, when I’m on Capitol Hill hearing our elected representatives demonize refugees, I think of my own family.

Now, when I walk the halls of Congress, I feel it is incumbent upon me to speak out in support of families like my own, who are fleeing violence and persecution.

I’m now a lobbyist for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby. I co-lead a coalition of more than 100 national organizations – representing more than 25 million people – to garner support for resettlement of Syrian refugees. I’m one of just a handful of registered lobbyists in Washington who has been working around the clock to ensure that our country doesn’t shut its doors to Syrian refugees. I worked alongside colleagues from various groups to ensure that the U.S. continues to fund our refugee resettlement program to welcome women, men, and children fleeing violence and terror.

After the Paris attacks, there was a real threat that Congress would shut down our refugee resettlement program for Syrians and Iraqis. We rapidly mobilized millions upon millions of people across the country to engage with their elected officials. It was truly a dark moment for our nation. Members of Congress took to the House floor to broadcast bigotry and to push increasingly dangerous policies. And all I can think of while this was happening is the image of 3yr old Aylan Kurdi, a young Syrian boy, washed up dead on a beach in Turkey in an attempt to escape the war in Syria. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could think of that image and not feel an ounce of pain or guilt.

If the most dangerous of these bills had passed—the so-called SAFE Act—our refugee resettlement program would have come to a screeching halt.

But the American people ultimately didn’t let that happen. During Thanksgiving recess, hundreds of thousands of people from across the country called, wrote, and rallied in support of refugees.

I saw firsthand how the discourse on Syrian refugees was transformed in just a matter of weeks. Through our efforts, dozens of Members of Congress who previously supported a measure to halt the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees reconsidered their positions.

I tell you all this to say that a handful of dedicated and passionate individuals can truly make a difference – I’ve seen it happen.

It’s our responsibility to help those most vulnerable in our communities. We have a proud history as Americans of demonstrating leadership by welcoming those fleeing violence and persecution. It’s a tradition I benefitted from and I cannot remain silent while politicians threaten to deny safety to those seeking it. As Americans we have an ethical and moral obligation to live our values and be a light and home for those fleeing terror, without regard to their religious or ethnic background.

I am standing before you today because of Americans who believed in that ethic of welcoming the most vulnerable. I was given a chance. I wasn’t turned away at the border. I wasn’t kept out of school because I didn’t have documentation. At a time when immigration laws were more humane, I earned a full scholarship to a state university. I became a citizen in college. And went on to receive a full scholarship from the U.S. Department of State to pursue a graduate degree in Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations at Georgetown University.

Then I came to Penn State Law. Here, I gained the legal education that has equipped me to fight for those without a voice in our legal system. Not a day goes by in my work when I haven’t benefited from the education I received here.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with Professor Cole during my last semester in law school. We had set up a time to talk about my career trajectory, so I sent him my resume before we met. He told me he was impressed and glad that I wasn’t just a “vanilla law student.” I appreciated how he took such an interest in my work and took the time to figure out what my next steps should be.

We talked about what sort of work would best utilize my skill set and interests and he put me in touch with a Dickinson Law alumni working on Capitol Hill. And that’s how it really began. Working as a congressional aide, I saw how the lack of diversity on the Hill impacts our nation’s policies. Not only are members of Congress overwhelmingly wealthy, white and male, but their staff are also not representative of the diversity of this country. The issues of greatest importance to communities of color are simply not at the forefront of national discourse.

The reality of so many voices being systematically excluded made me realize the importance of being politically engaged. After working on the Hill and in advocacy, I decided to run for public office. I ran for a seat in the Virginia General Assembly in 2014. And in my campaign, I highlighted issues such as voting rights, racial profiling, immigration, and other issues that disproportionately impact communities of color. While I didn’t win that seat, by highlighting these issues that are so often forgotten, I was proud that my campaign helped change the discourse in my district.

I continued to work on countering discrimination as a Commissioner on the Arlington County Human Rights Commission in Virginia, and continue that work today on the federal level at FCNL.

Looking back over the course of my career, I attended grad school and law school during a time of great uncertainty, violence, and instability in the world. I witnessed the disastrous consequences of advancing policies and politics of fear – discriminating and infringing on the rights of those simply based of their religion, skin color, ethnicity, or national origin. I’m so grateful that my education gave me the tools to dedicate my career to counter the politics of fear, and to promote a pluralistic society that affirms the dignity of every human being.

As an Iranian-American Muslim, I’ve had friends and family members who have been unjustly detained, discriminated against, harassed and attacked, simply on the basis of their religious background. I felt it incumbent upon me to work on protecting the rights of all Americans and to defend the core values upon which our country was founded upon.

I feel blessed really to have the opportunity to get up in the morning to go to work - with a sense of determination and stamina and knowing that the issues and policies I lobby for represent who we truly are as a nation. Protecting our civil liberties and human rights. Whether that be lobbying for an end to indefinite detention and the final closure of the Guantanamo Bay Detention facility – which has served as a symbol of torture and injustice; or lobbying for greater transparency and oversight of the U.S. lethal drones program; to getting to advocate for refugees.

I’m proud to be able to work on these issues day in and day out and grateful for my legal education.

What I wanted to emphasize and hope you can take back with you as you’re completing your legal education – is know how important your role is in society. Knowing that it’s incumbent upon us to always speak out against an injustice we see occurring in our own neighborhood or across the globe. While there are powerful forces at work trying to exclude so many voices from our national discourse, a legal education equips us to fight to ensure those voices are brought back into the fold.

Thank you all for all that you’re doing to fight for a more just society where all voices can be heard.

Yasmine Taeb

  • Legislative Director for Human Rights and Civil Liberties

Yasmine directs FCNL’s work on a number of human rights and civil liberties issues, including lobbying for increased resettlement of refugees, more transparency and oversight of the U.S. lethal drones program, calling for the closure of Guantanamo, and for the repeal of the 2001 AUMF, among other issues.