Behind the billboard: Joumana Kayrouz's against-all-odds story
Published: April 22, 2014
One of the three Iraqi brothers had mentioned earlier that he’d purchased an uninsured motorist rider on his plan on a recommendation he had heard from Kayrouz on the radio. It was integral to his case.
Kayrouz hangs up the phone and an assistant enters. She notifies Kayrouz that she’ll be bringing in her next client, an Albanian woman who has recently been in an auto accident, and her son. The woman is short and round, her son tall and angular. They both wear leather jackets and he habitually refers to her as “’Ma” as they discuss the case with varying levels of English proficiency.
Near the end of the meeting the mother begins to cry.
“I can’t live like this,” she says in accented English, motioning to her back and neck. “I can’t do nothing.”
Kayrouz stands and hands her a box of tissues. She hugs her for longer than it takes to shoot a free throw, and holds her arm looking into her eyes. She says she’ll do what she can to help.
When they leave, Kayrouz is asked if the interaction is typical.
Kayrouz was born and raised in the Christian section of Beirut to a military officer father and a housewife mother. She is the youngest of four siblings, the other three brothers, and education was held in esteem second only to Christianity in her household. She describes her upbringing as “very safe, very comfortable” despite the civil war happening in the tiny country. “Maybe I should have been more worried.”
She defined her childhood self as a “misfit” while attending the American University in Beirut, where she studied philosophy — noting Plato, Aristotle and Jesus Christ among her favorite philosophers — and remained under the shadow of her family, especially her brothers, all of whom have Ph.D.s. She originally wanted to become a doctor.
“I am going to outdo my three brothers,” she remembers thinking, “‘do not’ never worked well for me.”
“I hadn’t come into my own. I had to live by other people’s rules. That girl was unsure of herself, a little lost, a little lonely,” she says.
“I was a misfit because of my thinking as a girl. I didn’t fit into what society expected of a Lebanese Christian young girl. I had grand ideas — grand plans! I wanted to exercise my unlimited potential.”
One week before her 22nd birthday, she moved to New Haven, Conn., following her former husband, who was accepted to medical school in the United States. They lived in the tiny second-floor flat of a house and her husband was often on call, leaving Kayrouz with homesickness, first-trimester pregnancy and loneliness.
“The U.S. was a cultural shock,” she says. “I was so lost. We didn’t know where to buy a mattress. I remember a lady at church explaining to me what a credit card was.” An interesting turn, considering almost 30 years later she’s speaking to immigrants on the radio about how credit cards work.
She finished her undergraduate degree at Connecticut State University, and then enrolled at Yale University, where she created the curriculum for a master’s degree in medical ethics. She also became enamored of some of the protest movements and debates happening at Yale, specifically campaigns to coerce the wealthy university to pay taxes to the struggling city and the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas over the sexual harassment objections of Anita Hill.
“People were so engaged and interested in human injustice. They debated issues from the bottom of their hearts,” she says. “I was happy to tag along, but shy and timid. I was interested and impressed, but at first my voice was tiny.”
She began to grow disenchanted with medicine and decided she wanted to be a lawyer, something people had suggested she would be good at her entire life. Although her reasons for practicing have changed — “evaporated light years ago” — at the time she was enamored of the power, sway and glitz attorneys held in American culture.
“[I saw that] every person with a law degree had power,” she says. “Lawyers can sue the president, and the city and the police. That was new to me!
“Bill Clinton was treated like a citizen like everyone else,” she says, referring to his impeachment trial. “You couldn’t sue the president of Lebanon.”
Soon after graduating, her former husband took a job at a new hospital, and once again she followed him, this time to metro Detroit. She applied to the top five law schools in Michigan, was accepted to all of them, and chose Wayne State University in part because it would allow her to spend the most time with her daughters, the youngest of which was 2 years old. After graduation, she went to work for the late Harry Philo, a legend in personal injury law, and was made junior partner within four months of being hired.
At this time her marriage began to disintegrate, and she eventually divorced her husband, an experience she speaks of as the most liberating in her life.
“I’m a late bloomer. I’ve only come into my own over the last 10 years,” she says. “I was the ‘daughter of’ for the first 21 years. Then I became the ‘wife of’ and I didn’t have the freedom to find out who I am.”
“I believe you don’t need a man,” she says. “I believe it’s dangerous to need anyone.”
“I’ll give you six months.”
So said Kayrouz’s former husband, predicting she would be back. She was determined to start a new life, and it was also during this time that Philo retired. Kayrouz decided she wanted to open her own firm, a “leap of faith” and begin anew both personally and professionally.
“I had no plan, no reserves, just my faith in myself and my faith in God,” she says.
Kayrouz began alone, winning her first case for the maximum amount for her client, one that had been overlooked by a local rival. She was soon able to hire a secretary that she shared with another lawyer, and for four years worked by herself with the one part-time staff member.
She recounted a story of a judge, whom she asked remain unnamed, who did not believe she was a lawyer, owing to her appearance. He forced Kayrouz to recite her bar code for the court — a lawyerly identification akin to a social security number — a humiliating experience.
“One day, you will remember this face,” she remembers thinking.
If he lives in metro Detroit and drives with any regularity it’s likely he cannot forget it. After approximately four years, her business exploded, partially due to her advertisements on billboards and buses, considered innovative at the time. The advertisements are particularly effective because they’re primarily based on an image, in a profession typically associated with words, and can appeal to anyone regardless of language skills.
She credits her faith as the key to her success and said it has contributed “one billion percent.” She says she often prays with clients — be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish or anything else. She often seasons her conversations with stories from the Bible, and says she “finds the common ground” with other faiths.
Cautioning she is not a Christian scholar nor has read extensively in other religious texts, “I have met enough people that are Jews or Muslims, and I will quote the Bible and they will quote its match in the Koran or the Torah,” she says. “We’re all equal under the eyes of God.”
She says her success has allowed her to advocate not only for clients but female judges and female politicians, and she ardently supports Hillary Clinton. She views the former senator and secretary of state as a role model as a woman and a professional.
“I am so shocked America hasn’t been ready for a [female president],” Kayrouz says. “Enough already — she needs to be our next president.”
“Women still get 70 cents to the dollar [compared to men]” she says. “That’s so shocking in the U.S., one of the most liberal countries in the world; women still make 70 cents to the dollar.”
“It’s already hard to be a professional woman,” says Anne Duggan, director of the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s studies program at Wayne State University. “And [Kayrouz’s] image doesn’t necessarily correspond to people’s notions of a professional woman. [In American culture] the professional woman has been defeminized.”
“You don’t have to burn your bra to be a feminist,” Duggan says. “You don’t have to throw out your dresses.”
Duggan notes the word “feminism” is sometimes still associated with “male-hating,” — a co-opted definition used to discredit its message of equality — and Kayrouz is careful to avoid this definition.
“I don’t want to call myself a feminist, because I don’t know exactly what that means,” Kayrouz says. “But I’ll tell you what I am: I see no difference between men and women.”
Duggan notes that the prevalence of rumors surrounding Kayrouz are typical for women in positions of power, and are variants on the “slept her way to the top” charge successful women often face.
“It’s a way of undermining her authority instead of recognizing her talent and hard work,” Duggan says. “People want to explain away a woman’s success.”
For the record, we attempted to verify any rumors surrounding Kayrouz and her law practice. We found no merit to any of them, nor could we get anyone to speak on record charging Kayrouz with anything. Kayrouz calls the rumors “vicious” and challenges anyone to come up with proof. “Not one dime,” she says.
“You have a lot of these other attorneys jealous of what this single mom has accomplished on her own,” says fellow Attorney Bill Dobreff. “I think she is targeted because she is dominating a business previously dominated by men.”
He also says he considers her an “outstanding” lawyer and especially a judge of talent, and said, “She is the American Dream. She is one of the things you celebrate in this country.”
As for questions regarding her appearance, all we will note is she has naturally green eyes — not the stereotype of Arab women that dominates American media. Readers can extrapolate from there.
“The media representation of Arab-Americans has been generally negative [and homogenous]” says Sally Howell, Professor of Arab-American studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. “Roughly half the Arab-Americans in metro Detroit are Christian. … The Arab-American community is very diverse.”
She points to the city of Hamtramck, “where the economy of the city is basically being driven by new immigrants from Yemen and Bangladesh. There’s opportunity if people are willing to take risks,” she says. “Joumana Kayrouz is a great example of that.”
“I love this country and I fiercely protect it,” Kayrouz says. “I have lived in this country for 28 years, more than I lived in Lebanon. This is the most beautiful country in the world, and I am proud to be an American.”
“Real power is the ability to make change,” she says.
Back in Kayrouz’s great room, the dog with the Star Wars collar jumps on a couch, holding a toy. Kayrouz speaks to him in baby talk and he drops it into our lap, hoping this guest will start a game of fetch. There is a pink sticky note attached to the inside of the front door, reminding residents and guests not to open it and to use its twin. It’s somehow strangely touching, this small human intrusion into the glass and stone grandeur.
“Even with my friends I am guarded,” Kayrouz says. “It’s the fate of all the people who are at the top of their careers and what they do. It’s a function of the times we live in.”
“At the top there are only false friends and true enemies,” she says. “When you are vulnerable you can never let your guard down.”
She says she’s always wary of people taking advantage of her generosity, and it can become exhausting to figure out who is genuine. Despite this, she wishes to continue her charity work and expand its scope in the future.
“I want to spend the rest of my life serving,” she says. “[But for now] I serve exactly where I am.”
It would be easy for Kayrouz to become wistful, thinking about the future and past, but she does not. Her passion flares, indicating continued striving.
“It’s not that I don’t have regrets — some things I would have done differently. But I did the best I could with the knowledge and wisdom I had.
“I was slated not to succeed. I don’t look like a lawyer, I have a foreign name, I could have used all these excuses. I created something out of thin air, and I am really proud of it.”
Kayrouz grabs her phone from an end table and texts her daughter, waiting upstairs to be interviewed.
“I don’t need to be better than anyone. I want to be better than I was yesterday,” Kayrouz says.
Her daughter Stephanie descends the stairs, the spitting image of her mother and the eldest of two daughters. She is 27 and in her first year of law school at the University of Detroit Mercy. Her mother asks her how a recent test went, using the colloquialism “crim’,” short for criminal, and her daughter replies it went well.
“I will let you two speak,” Kayrouz says before exiting.
After briefly considering advertising, the younger Kayrouz has decided she wants to follow her mother into the personal injury law business.
“It’s a magic moment in your life when you realize you can be like your parents,” she says.
“I am flawed from head to toe. Make sure you put that,” Kayrouz says. “I am a flawed person.
“I don’t like seeing myself in all of the advertisements.”
As Kayrouz looks back at her life in this modern Xanadu and speaks of past loneliness, her detractors and her accomplishments, her faith in God and America, it’s difficult not to see some parallels in the greatest of American movies, Citizen Kane.
But her story seems to have a different ending. Instead of losing something — in Kane’s case his innocence — this magnate seems to have found something — her voice.
Like Charles Foster Kane, it’s easy to see Joumana Kayrouz as a static and towering tycoon, a one-dimensional image on a billboard. It’s easy to imagine the woman behind the image as a caricature, someone we have figured out, someone we can place in easy and fixed categories. As it turns out, it’s more complex. That image we see might not just be a photograph of Kayrouz at all. In fact, it might be a reflection of what is in our own hearts, a mirror into the American landscape.
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