Multi-lingual: Detroit Mercy Law student puts language skills to good use


(l) Elaria Essak will intern this summer with the Department of Justice at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.; (r) A student at Detroit Mercy Law School, Elaria Essak is a member of the St. Paul Mission Team, and recently served in Bolivia.

Photos courtesy of Elaria Essak

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News   

The daughter of immigrants from Egypt, Detroit Mercy Law 1L student Elaria Essak has witnessed the realities of the immigrant experience first-hand, spurring her desire to help newcomers to this country. Fluent in Arabic, Spanish, and English, she is a volunteer interpreter at the law school’s Immigration Law Clinic, giving a voice those who face obstacles because of language barriers and other disadvantages.      

“I help break down these barriers to make it easier for immigrants to get the help they need,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see people who need help adjusting their immigration status can get the services they need when law students and faculty work as a team on each case.”

Essak is treasurer of the law school’s Hispanic and Latino/a Law Students Association (HiLLSA), which has been active in the community and is tightly connected with the Hispanic Bar Association of Michigan (HBAM), an organization that has been instrumental in introducing her to attorneys, community activists, judges, and law students who share her interests.

She is also a member of the 10CORE Law Society, a new group that advocates for real estate rights for multiple sectors of society, including veterans and graduates of foster programs. The society will hold a Veterans’ Fair in May to discuss equal housing opportunities with veterans and veteran advocacy groups.

Essak was drawn to the law by her desire to be a mediator between the law and the public; and picked Detroit Mercy Law for its focus on commitment to service.    

“I felt very welcomed and accepted into the Detroit Mercy family,” she says. “The school felt like home – the faculty knew my name, and students were always willing to meet up to talk or answer questions. I studied in Detroit for my bachelor’s degrees, so it was important to me to stay close to this community and be part of the growth Detroit has experienced in the past few years.”   

She enjoys being in the Fellows Program, a leadership program that has helped her transition into law school and facilitated opportunities in the greater Detroit area.

“I’m glad to know the law school fosters this environment for those of us whose highest aims in the study of law are to serve others,” she says.

While her career goals are not set in stone, Essak—who this summer will intern with the Department of Justice at the U.S. Attorney’s Office—would like to work in immigration law or in another field with opportunities to interact with those most in need of legal assistance.

“There is so much out there that I can’t say right now just where I’ll end up,” she says. “I am trying to attend court sessions, get involved with student organizations, and help out with service projects so I can explore my interests and opportunities.”

Serving as an interpreter at the Immigration Law Clinic continues a sense of fulfillment Essak enjoyed during undergrad at Wayne State University, where she worked as a research assistant on a project addressing the history of Spanish-speaking immigrant women and their voting rights in the United States. She also interviewed study participants in multiple languages to collect data for a federally funded research project.

“One of the goals was to educate members of the community about local criminal justice procedures and to encourage them to voice their concerns,” she says.

One of her largest projects was working with Centro de San José, a Hispanic outreach center in Southwest Detroit, teaching single mothers who wanted to learn basic English skills; the weekly class eventually grew into a grant-funded ESL program. She also mobilized fellow WSU students as conversation partners for Detroiters who wanted to improve their English skills, as tutors for Spanish-speaking children at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, as interpreters at parent-teacher conferences, and as translators for Spanish-speaking Detroiters at medical appointments.

These endeavors earned the attention of local media.

“The coverage helped to propel the success of the original project so that it could flourish into what it is today,” she says. “Centro de San José just graduated many men and women from its GED program. Earning a GED is something many members of the Centro never thought would be achievable.”

Essak is currently helping with a political education project at her church, where the majority of members come from immigrant families; and she serves as a congressional representative in a political action group founded by church members, preparing presentations and reports for members of Congress and other government officials to help them address the needs of the immigrant communities in Southeast Michigan.

She teaches classes at her church, helping younger generations learn and preserve the indigenous language of Coptic, deriving from Greek and ancient Egyptian.

“I’m working on learning Coptic and teaching it to others,” she says.

“I speak Arabic and Spanish, and each day I’m incredibly thankful these two languages are increasingly prominent in our metro-Detroit area.”

A native of Troy, Essak continues to make her home there.

“I enjoy being a part of a community known nationwide for its diversity,” she says. “I’m proud of the time I’ve spent in Detroit attending classes and leading student groups with people of various backgrounds. It’s amazing to see people of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions, and ages coming together for common goals. I’ve learned so much from veterans, the homeless, youth, the elderly, and others in our community.

That’s what I value the most—there’s always a place for every type of person, and always an opportunity to serve those around us.”

Essak, who plays basketball and lacrosse for two women’s leagues, enjoys spending time outside in nature, discovering new places, and travel.

“It’s been really fun exploring different sites in and around Detroit,” she says. “Traveling helps me understand the world and myself a little more and expands my perspectives.”

A member of the St. Paul Mission Team, which organizes international mission trips to serve youth, Essak recently served in the Dominican Republic and Bolivia. She translated literature, and led brainstorming discussions in Spanish with local youth about ways to serve their communities. She is planning a similar trip to her parents’ homeland of Egypt.

She is also involved in FTFT! Youth Services; the acronym stands for “First Timothy Four Twelve”—a Bible verse that urges young people to be positive examples. She leads visits to nursing homes, children’s hospitals and homeless shelters, and an upcoming project is serving and learning from incarcerated men and women in Michigan.

“We’re always learning from the people we serve,” she says. “Each visit opens my mind a bit more and shows me how strong we can be if we understand each other and work together.”