For Zeina Mobassaleh, the most challenging part of pursuing a dual degree from Columbia Law School and the Sorbonne, where she spent the 2003-04 school year, has been understanding legal terminology in French—her third language after English and Arabic.
Although French law is new for Ms. Mobassaleh, she is used to new environments and enjoys the process of adapting. She was born in Beirut during that nation's war; moved to the United Arab Emirates, where she lived in Abu Dhabi until the age of eight; and then moved to Maryland, where she lived through high school while spending her summers outside Geneva.
Indeed, the magna cum laude graduate of Brown University has embraced both difference and diversity, having been a minority peer counselor and a leader in the Arab-Jewish Dialog group while at Brown. Her participation in the dialog group was a good experience, she says, "but exhausting because I was called on by strangers to represent the ‘Arab point of view,' as if there were only one."
Born to a Palestinian father and Lebanese mother who left Lebanon during the war, Ms. Mobassaleh has always harbored a desire to return there to ground her "lofty idealism," as she puts it, and to gain a better understanding of the country's needs in the post-war period. She did so after college, by becoming a reporter with The Lebanese Daily Star. Although at the time Ms. Mobassaleh had little experience in journalism, her English skills helped her land a key position covering education, health care reform, and Palestinian issues such as the Intifada and the refugee situation. She was in the south of the country, covering Israel's withdrawal of forces, while missiles left craters nearby. Still, she found time to tutor refugee children during this period.
It was Ms. Mobassaleh's interest in minority rights, social justice, and particularly in Lebanon's criminal tribunals that drew her to law school. In fact, she explains, the Arabic word for lawyer, muhami, means protector - an aspect of the law that initially attracted her to the field.
She spent her first two summers of law school in the Human Rights Internship Program, first with the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights, interpreting from Arabic while helping new immigrants understand the asylum system, and second with the Center for Constitutional Rights, doing domestic civil rights and international human rights work.
Ms. Mobassaleh's record of achievement continued apace at Columbia: In her first year, she took the best oralist award and shared in the title of first-runner-up from the Native American moot court competition, a national event. She also served as co-chair of Qanun, the Middle Eastern-North African student group at the Law School—an organization that she says has had to cope with rising anti-Arab sentiment in recent years. Indeed, says Ms. Mobassaleh, she has enjoyed the decreased emphasis on her ethnicity while studying in Paris.
Coupled with her passion for human rights advocacy, Ms. Mobassaleh has found herself increasingly attracted to litigation and international arbitration. Having law degrees from the United States and France will undoubtedly open doors for Ms. Mobassaleh, including those to Lebanon's legal system, which is modeled on the French system. "The dual degree program opens up three jurisdictions in one legal education," she says.