For Homaira Noorestani, LL.M. '13, living an international life was a birthright. Born in the United States, a daughter of the Afghan diaspora, she knew from early on that her interests lay in the direction of her family’s heritage.
“Although I was born and raised in the United States, I knew that my heart and soul were of the East,” said Noorestani. “I would read Afghan, Persian and Urdu literature from a young age. I pined for the part of the world my parents came from, but was only able to visit for short periods of time.”
Growing up, Noorestani’s family lived in Northern Virginia. Her parents moved there after her father was released from prison in Afghanistan following a two year sentence for staging a coup against the country’s communist regime in the late 1970s. They saved up each year for the family to travel abroad, though never to Afghanistan. In childhood, her explorations were focused on North America, with travel further abroad coming in her adolescent years.
“My father always thought it was important for us to be well-rounded, and to be well-rounded he thought that we had to visit different lands, try different foods, and spread our wings – within certain boundaries, of course,” Noorestani explained. “His idea of being open-minded and giving his daughter freedom was through education, traveling, and talking politics with me from a young age.”
After high school Noorestani continued to live with her family, a norm within the Afghan heritage community, and commuted to American University in Washington, D.C. where she started the first Afghan Club following 9/11. She graduated in 2004 with a degree in international studies and a concentration in the Middle East and economic development, then spent several years building a corporate career.
In 2004, Noorestani also took her first trip to Afghanistan, spending three weeks visiting Kabul and sites important to her family’s history.
“To actually enter Afghanistan was something every Afghan American dreamed of doing one day,” said Noorestani. “I got off the airplane and I had a rush of blood. My eyes watered and I couldn’t believe my feet were touching Afghan land.”
The Kabul Noorestani visited was a city much different than that in which her parents were raised.
“I could see what the war did to a whole population of people, and many generations to come,” related Noorestani. “So many people had missing limbs because they were either a victim of a rocket hitting their home while the fighting was going on, or they stepped on a Russian mine or they were one of the fighters… I knew I needed to do something, and quick.”
Upon returning to the United States, Noorestani founded Ariana Outreach, an NGO dedicated to building bridges between the United States and Afghanistan with a focus on women’s issues. It was the first Aghan-run advocacy organization on Capitol Hill.
Still, she felt she could do more. After visiting her father in Kazakhstan, where he was posted as a diplomat for the Afghan government following Hamid Karzai’s 2004 election to the presidency, she decided to attend American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She studied law and the Russian language, and graduated with a focus on international and business law in 2010.
During her time abroad Noorestani volunteered at the grassroots level to address pressing issues such as bride kidnapping, or the abduction of a woman by a man with the intention of marriage, a custom she found complex and fascinating. Her work involved a great deal of time spent speaking to women directly, allowing her to become intimately acquainted with all angles of the issue.
“There is a dichotomy with such practices because on the one hand we have a cultural element to it which encompasses a very rich culture and one that portrays chivalry in some regards, when done consensually,” explained Noorestani. “On the other hand, it is a practice that is deemed a human rights violation at the international level, and even considered human trafficking by some analysts.
“These are modern, realistic issues a human rights attorney would have to deal with. Sometimes laws don’t provide for avenues to make sure that rights are not infringed whilst preserving cultural identity.”
Noorestani returned to the United States to undertake the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s LL.M. degree program, serving as the Human Rights Fellow for the class of 2011.
“I want to be able to help my countries not only through Ariana Outreach, but also by excelling in the legal field,” said Noorestani. "If I am able to build a name for myself in the legal industry, I will have more leverage to be able to serve as a voice for the oppressed and I will meet people who have the ability to make changes.”
Following her graduation from the master’s degree program, she decided to attend the William & Mary Law School LL.M. program in 2012 in order to further ground her legal training in the American system and make her competitive and marketable to practice law in the United States.
“I think it’s important I have a good foundation of the American legal system,” remarked Noorestani. “And what better place to study it than at the oldest law school in the nation?”
This article has been reprinted from the Spring 2013 issue of the World Minded magazine.