Lebanese student looking forward to practicing law in his adopted country

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Law student Rabih Hamawi was amazed recently when he toured the Washtenaw County Courthouse and got to meet a few of the judges.

Back in his native Lebanon, courts are closed to the people, bodyguards often surround judges, and there are no jury rooms because there are no juries.

The American justice system is one of the reasons Hamawi, 33, believes he now lives in the greatest country in the world.

"I love it here!" said Hamawi, sitting in the library of Cooley Law School's Ann Arbor campus, where he has nearly completed his first year. "I want to stay here. I want to die here."

Nine years ago, Hamawi moved to Michigan with $20 in his pocket, a law degree he'd earned in Lebanon, and a whole lot of gratitude for the VISA that would make his longtime dream come true.

Hamawi had been in the top three percent of his law school class in Lebanon, but would come to realize he wouldn't get a job because such qualifications weren't considered.

"It's, 'Who do you cheer for? The president? Prime minister? And who do you know?'" he said. "Basically, it's a corrupt environment.

"I like that in almost nine years year here, I've not been discriminated against. People always give me a fair chance."

Back in Lebanon, he applied six times for a VISA before he was granted one.

"They asked me, 'How can you prove you're not going to be an economic burden to the country?'" he recalled.

Hamawi assured authorities that he would be employed and happy to pay his fair share of taxes.

Prior to enrolling at Cooley, Hamawi earned a master's degree in finance with concentration in financial planning from Walsh College in Troy, and was a top insurance advisor at a Southfield firm. In Lebanon, he says, there was no insurance until the last couple of years. And his desire to give people the protection they need meant insurance sales came naturally to him.

After becoming a United States citizen, he brought his parents and three of his five younger siblings here. His parents and a brother, who is battling a rare disease, still live with him in Dearborn.

Hamawi works fulltime in risk management/financial services capacity at a Livonia firm. And he's an adjunct professor of corporate and personal finance at Davenport University and the University of Phoenix. He belongs to the Islamic Center of Detroit, plays chess and ping pong, works out at a gym, and got his boating license last year to enjoy time on Michigan waters.

He has returned to Lebanon twice in nine years.

"I love Lebanon and its people," he said. "It's a beautiful country, and I will never forget my roots or where I come from. I really hope that things will change. But every time I go back, I thank God 100 times I came here.

"We're still in an undeclared civil war, and the basic means of life are nonexistent. Whenever some one has a vision for a change, the mercenaries assassinate him, as they did to Mr. Rafic Hariri in 2005 and to others before him. Many of my law school friends are still looking for jobs."

He isn't worried that the same fate awaits him here.

"If you work hard, whether that's in school, business or some other career, you'll be rewarded," said Hamawi, who is on the dean's list. "I got the same argument when I went into insurance. 'There are lots of agents.' If you can show them how, where and why you are different, they'll hire you."

Ambitious and determined, Hamawi hopes to one day handle insurance litigation including personal injury, products liability, medical malpractice, workers' compensation, professional liability, and general tort issues.

"I see some without means to the justice system; their rights are ignored by large corporations," he said. "That's the reason I came to this country. Everybody is equal. No one is above the law. I want to help everyone get their day in court."

Ann Arbor attorney Chad D. Engelhardt, who was introduced to Hamawi by Dean Joan Vestrand, said Hamawi is proof that the American dream is still alive.

"His hard work and dedication are truly inspirational," said Engelhardt. "I have no doubt that he will make an excellent lawyer."

Published: Fri, Aug 3, 2012