Behind the billboard: Joumana Kayrouz's against-all-odds story
Published: April 22, 2014
Her story may offer some insight on modern-day immigration and the American Dream, the continued challenges of what it means to be a successful woman of color in today’s America, and a peek inside southeast Michigan’s Arab-American community. It might also say something difficult and hopeful about the America we live in today.
In any case, she elicits strong responses on all sides.
“People who are mysteries stimulate the imagination until they can be put into a box,” Kayrouz says. “People have a desire to fit everybody and anybody in a box.”
Kayrouz sits behind her desk in the corner office on the seventh floor of the Southfield Town Center, listening to three Iraqi brothers plead their case before her. Each holds an envelope torn at the top, sheaths for documents critical to their current struggle.
She reclines and bounces slowly in her chair, her eyes following each brother in turn as he speaks. So far she’s done business in two languages this day, Arabic and English, and her assistant has not yet brought in her lunch, a meal of spiced chicken, vegetables and pickles. This conversation is in Arabic and is occasionally punctuated with English for technical terms like “deposition” and “CT Scan.”
It’s a typical day and client roster at her office, and she’s willing to accommodate a reporter who showed up unannounced.
Her office spans two floors in the glass tower and has the feel of a newsroom when someone important has just died, all hustle and rapid communication, deference to experience. It’s refreshingly diverse, and Kayrouz employs many women and “minorities.”
Yet her personal office is quiet and formal, and gives the air of having audience with royalty, a queen upon her throne. The three brothers approach and speak to her as such, deference apparent even in a language foreign to the visitor.
Kayrouz has an extraordinarily lucid and orderly mind, and she counts argumentative points off on her fingers, often delving into the finer nuance of an argument without losing focus and returning to the central point the way a quiet pack of wolves encircles a fawn; that is to say, totally. Her command of language is awesome, especially notable because it’s not her first or even second, but her third language that wins cases. She is able to afford so many advertisements because her firm is extremely successful in the courtroom.
The three brothers stand to leave, obviously pleased with whatever has been said in their native language, and hug Kayrouz in turn. They profusely thank her in English and call her “beautiful.” She walks them to the front door and returns.
“It never stops here,” she says referring to her caseload. She returns to her computer, looking for information on her next client. The previous couple, a Pakistani husband and wife, had invited Kayrouz to his son’s wedding.
“Is your son still in law school,” Kayrouz asks the man.
His face brightens and he straightens in his chair. “You remember!”
“I would like you to come and meet my community,” he says. Kayrouz replied she would come if she is in the country.
“It’s all about fighting for people. My slogan is lawyers on the side of people,” she says later, underlining “people” in the air with her finger. “Not corporations, not hospitals, people.”
The Kayrouz firm specializes in auto accidents and primarily sues insurance companies for money her clients believe is owed to them but whose claims have been denied or shorted. She charges a contingency fee, like almost all other personal injury lawyers, at industry standard 33 percent, also the cap in Michigan. The cases rarely exceed $50,000, a common state policy amount, and the firm makes money by handling lots of these cases at a time, dozens, hundreds. It’s a special lawyer who gets invited to weddings and sees a half-dozen clients a day.
An alarm rings on her phone. “If you allow me, I must appear on the radio each day, at 2:53 p.m.” She returns to her computer, looking for the day’s topic. The show is in Arabic and broadcast on WNZK-AM, a station whose primary audience is immigrants. She’s also on for 20 minutes on Wednesdays and Fridays at 12:30 p.m. She mentions that she used to speak about auto accidents and insurance specifically, but now gives simple and practical financial advice, responding to a need expressed by the community. About 60 percent to 65 percent of her business is done in Arabic.
She says about 15 percent of her clients cannot speak English at all, and that there was much discussion about translating contracts and other documents into other languages, but ultimately it was decided against. Members of her staff help translate.
“It’s based on lots of trust,” she says.
On this day, her three minutes of radio time concern how interest is calculated on credit cards. It’s part advertising strategy and part genuine empathy for her community. The American legal system can be huge and scary for anyone, but especially for immigrants and people who may not have the technical grasp of English necessary to decipher dense documents and quick proceedings. It’s part of the reason she commands so much respect and awe within the immigrant community because she is often the voice and advocate for those rubbing up against American-style corporate capitalism and serpentine legal proceedings.
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