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Episode 74: How Helping Her Father Complete His Exceptional Ability Visa Inspired Business Immigration Lawyer Saja Raoof

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Episode 74: How Helping Her Father Complete His Exceptional Ability Visa Inspired Business Immigration Lawyer Saja Raoof

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In this episode of the Ask Canada Immigration Lawyer Evelyn Ackah podcast, Calgary immigration lawyer Evelyn Ackah talks to Business Immigration Lawyer Saja Raoof, a U.S. immigration attorney specializing in extraordinary ability visas for individuals wanting to move to the United States. Saja shares her personal background as an immigrant from Iraq and her journey to becoming an immigration lawyer. She discusses the Alien of Extraordinary Ability category and the criteria for eligibility, including original contributions, publications, awards and impact on the field. Saja also talks about the challenges faced by immigrants and the importance of standing up for one's freedoms and liberties. She shares her experiences with clients and the delays caused by COVID-19 in the immigration process. Saja concludes by discussing the increasing interest in EB-1 applications as an alternative to H-1B visas, particularly in the STEM field.

Connect with Saja Raoof on LinkedIn

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      On the podcast, Evelyn and Saja discuss as an Iraqi immigrant to America, Saja's journey to becoming a business immigration lawyer.

      Key points from Evelyn and Saja's conversation:

      • Saja shares her background, including being born in Baghdad, Iraq, and later moving to the UK and Saudi Arabia before immigrating to the US.
      • Saja's family decided to immigrate to the US in the early '90s under the category of Alien of Extraordinary Ability, which her father qualified for. She assisted in putting together the application.
      • Saja discusses the challenges she faced as a woman, Arab American, and Muslim when she first moved to the US for college.
      • She also talks about the decision to wear a hijab in college as a way to connect with the Muslim community and how 9/11 and its aftermath affected her choice to continue wearing it despite the challenges.
      • Evelyn and Saja discuss the importance of standing up for one's freedoms and liberties, especially during difficult times.
      • Saja talks about her transition from pre-med to law school and her focus on immigration law, particularly extraordinary ability visas. She shares her passion for helping clients navigate the criteria and process.
      • The conversation touches on the challenges and delays in immigration processes caused by COVID-19.
      • Saja explains the criteria for an Extraordinary Ability visa, which can be demonstrated through factors like original contributions to a field, publications, awards, and impact on the field.
      • They discuss the variations in processing times for immigration applications, influenced by factors like place of residence and country of birth.
      • Evelyn asks about the trend of individuals exploring EB-1 visas as an alternative to H-1B visas, especially for those in STEM fields. Saja confirms that it's a popular topic among immigration lawyers.
      • Saja's practice primarily focuses on business immigration with a special emphasis on EB-1 visas for those with extraordinary abilities.


      About Evelyn Ackah

      Evelyn Ackah is the Founder and Managing Lawyer at Ackah Business Immigration Law. With offices in Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver, we work with individuals and business owners from all over the world who want to cross borders seamlessly. For more information on immigration to Canada or the United States, Ask Evelyn Ackah at Ackah Business Immigration Law today at (403) 452‑9515 or email Evelyn directly at contact@ackahlaw.com.

      The Ask Canada Immigration Lawyer Evelyn Ackah podcast by Calgary Immigration Lawyer Evelyn Ackah was named #1 Best Canada Immigration Podcast in 2023 by Feedspot.

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      Transcript

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Hello everyone, it's Evelyn Ackah from the Ask Canada Immigration Lawyer podcast. I'm so excited today as I have my good friend and colleague, Saja Raoof joining us all the way from California. Welcome, Saja.

      Saja Raoof:

      Thank you, Evelyn. It's wonderful to be here.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Saja is a fabulous and very well-recognized immigration lawyer. She focuses on exceptional ability visas for those people or extraordinary ability visas for those people wanting to move to the United States and it is a real niche area and very challenging. And so I wanted to have her on the podcast to talk about her background, her practice, why she moved into immigration law, and also where she sees the future of immigration law heading into the future while we're together. So thanks so much again. You know I'm so grateful to have you. I'm going to give you an opportunity to tell us about how you moved to the US because your story is so exciting and really interesting.

      Saja Raoof:

      Thank you, Evelyn. I was born in Baghdad, Iraq and I left when I was one year old and have never been back. My parents moved to the UK for their graduate degrees and they were supposed to be gone for only four years and four decades later and we still have not returned to Iraq. The political turbulence that our homeland has gone through at every time we try to go back to Iraq, it just has not, the stars have not aligned. So in '85, when my parents graduated, my family moved to Saudi Arabia. The Iraq war was going on, so we moved to Saudi Arabia instead and I lived there until I graduated high school. And in the early nineties after the '91 Gulf War it became clear that we were not returning to Iraq, we decided to emigrate to the US. I moved here when I was 17, when I started college and for the majority of my time in the US I've lived in Michigan and I moved to California about seven, eight years ago.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      That's so great. I mean, all of us are immigrants. I always tell people we're all immigrants, but unless you're from the original people in your First Nations or Native American, we were all immigrants and whether you come a year ago or you came 150 years ago, we're all immigrants. And so I love that because it connects us all when we recognize that we're all landing in different places at different times. How did you and your family move to the US? Because we know it's not easy.

      Saja Raoof:

      We decided in the early nineties to look into emigrating to the US under a category called Alien of Extraordinary Ability. My dad qualified for it and I interviewed him recently on that process. I was about 12 or 13 years years old, and as the eldest of four, I was delegated with helping him put our application together. And this was before, the internet was around but not widely used. So sending our attorney in the US our documents for what's called EB-1 was a tedious process that my dad and I and my mom went through together for about a year. And once we were approved, we got interviewed at the US Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and then we moved here.

      And when I interviewed him, I asked him about how he got letters of recommendation from his mentors in the UK and now when I work on Alien of Extraordinary Ability applications for my clients, getting a recommendation letter, the hard part is just drafting the text, but then it's emailed and it takes, from there it's the easy part. With my dad, it would take about a month to get a recommendation letter because we had a postal service.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      I remember those days. That's incredible. So the whole family was able to move as green card holders because of your dad's education and really being an extraordinary person. I think that's incredible. I always find it funny when Americans, immigration lawyers refer to aliens, just aliens. Where did that come from? It just seems so bizarre to me. We call them foreigners or temporary foreigners or permanent residents or something, but we don't call them aliens in Canada. And so it always makes me feel like they don't belong. Do you know what I mean?

      Saja Raoof:

      Yeah.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      And I wonder if that's even a deliberate use of language that you always are not one of them. How was it for you growing up, Saja, as a woman going to university in the States and being Arab American too? What was that experience like for you?

      Saja Raoof:

      Feeling like an outsider, an alien, if you will, a foreigner. Having always, since we left Iraq, feeling that the language that we speak, the faith that we subscribe to, the extent that we exercise our faith and our customs, our attitudes, always felt out of place where we lived. We can either focus on the occasional expressions of hostility, the "go back to where you came from" language.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      I've heard those.

      Saja Raoof:

      Or we can choose to focus on and celebrate and embrace the people who extend support and solidarity.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      I think it says a lot about the fact that we both got into this area of law. I think I remember being called awful things when I was young. I moved to Canada when I was five from West Africa, Ghana, and let me tell you, Vancouver, in the seventies, there were no black people. And if there were, we knew them already because we would embrace them. We had this thing, you'd see a black person, you'd be like, "Hey, hi, how are you? Here's my phone number. Where do you find your food? Where do you get your hair done?" And it was so challenging and I think being five, you get to adapt. You hope you can integrate a little bit more.

      But being 17, that's a huge difference in terms of growing up in the culture and then now you already have your set culture to come with that to a whole new country. So I always feel like that about adults even who immigrate. I think it's so much harder for them to really adapt, I feel, because they already have formed who they are and then you come and you have to adjust again. So I think you've obviously done incredibly well with that. So you finished university and then what made you go to law school, Saja?

      Saja Raoof:

      I was pre-med in college, both because both my parents are doctors, because that seems to be the default thinking for children of immigrants, at least. And I went as far as taking biochemistry and anatomy in college and then decided to, I considered law, I thought, I took a few classes in undergrad in legal philosophy, enjoyed the subject matter more and decided to go to law school. When I graduated, I went to law school.

      Since I was involved in my family's immigration, that seemed like a natural area of law to focus on, so I went to, that was one of my reasons for going to law school and my family, like many Iraqis who grew up in the sixties and seventies, secular. So when we moved here, I did not wear a hijab, a headscarf, and I chose to wear it in college in that same sense of when you said you see another black person in Vancouver and I chose to wear hijab to connect with the Muslim community. I have the opposite attitude now. I do not want to wear clothing that binds conversation.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      I know.

      Saja Raoof:

      I'm more reserved now than I was in my twenties, but I wanted to make friendships and connections. So I wore hijab in the late nineties. And in 2001, 9/11 happened my third week of law school. I was in Torts class when it happened. We had a bomb threat at my law school in Detroit and we evacuated. The next day class was canceled and on the morning of September 13th, it was time to go back to class. And during those two days, we were glued to the TV, not only watching what was unfolding with the terrorist attacks, but also watching the backlash against the Muslim community. And hearing about attacks on Muslims, on mosques, and our conversations during those two days were my parents strongly asking me to take off my hijab.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      They were scared for you.

      Saja Raoof:

      Absolutely. My dad said, "God would not want you to put yourself in harm's way. You are going to get hurt. Please consider taking it off." So the morning of September 13th, when it was time to go back to class, I took it off for a few minutes and then I stopped myself and said, "This is not what I immigrated to the US for. I immigrated here not to abandon my freedoms and my liberties. And if being an American means anything, if what I'm studying in law school means anything, it must mean the insistence on exercising my first amendment rights and expressing my faith, not even during precarious times, but especially during precarious times."

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Wow, that is so brave, Saja. I mean, I remember that timeframe. It was crazy. The racism, the Islamophobia, the xenophobia that was happening was everywhere. The policies against immigration and who could come in and visit, it was a really challenging time. How did you get through that? It seems like if anything else, it reinforced your confidence and your faith in being able to be who you were and show up however you wanted to.

      Saja Raoof:

      Part of it was the recklessness of being in your early twenties.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      You, reckless? No.

      Saja Raoof:

      One of the things I heard most from my dad during those years is, "Do you have no sense of danger?" And so there was definitely an incentive to remove hijab. I went to law school with somebody who is brilliant. She was at the top of the class, extremely hardworking and smart, and she wore a hijab and she didn't get any interviews for first summer internships. I luckily landed at the ACLU, but I've definitely seen a lot of hijab wearing women, understandably remove it for fewer purposes, of course for personal safety, all kinds of very understandable reasons. For me, I remember having a conversation with a colleague in law school who said, "Would you want to work for an Islamophobic employer? Use your hijab as a filter to any law firm that doesn't extend you a job offer because of your hijab. Would you want to work from them anyway?" So part of it was choosing, I could take it off and be afraid or I could keep it on and insist on my freedom and my, whatever consequences happen, I'll embrace it.

      And another huge part of it was the communities that were the focus of discrimination and racism for us. So I was in Detroit, I went to Maine State University law school and I was surrounded by African-American students whose parents were in the Civil Rights Movement and who had a strong belief in a lot of practice in standing up for their freedoms and for their liberties. During the Trump administration, I had just moved to the Bay area and I attended a presentation by Karen Korematsu, the daughter of Fred Korematsu. Her father had resisted going to Japanese internment camps in World War II and her support and the Japanese American community's support for the Muslim community during those years was very valuable. I picked up a poster of Fred Korematsu at that event and I had it in my office for the longest time to inspire me and encourage me.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Yeah, no, I think what's really great is when communities come together. I mean, we've been dealing with COVID. I mean, we're getting into so many things with, I could talk to you about anything but during COVID, how the Asian American and the Asian Canadian communities were targeted and the importance of other communities speaking for them because it's hard to always be the one, as you know, who's defending or speaking or stepping into that for yourself. It is more powerful even when others step into that and speak up on behalf of their friends, their other community members that they are allied with. And so I'm really happy that you were able to feel that support from the African American community and the Asian community because that's how I think it should be and it should be the same from the dominant community as well. We don't always want to be the one talking about diversity, equity, inclusion.

      It gets tiresome, right? Well, thank you so much for sharing that. I mean, I know it's the first time you've really gotten into explaining where you were and how things were at that time. I just remember as an immigration lawyer, I was young just starting my career, I think in 2000 in Toronto. We had to leave the Ernst and Young Building and I had to walk 35 floors with my high heels and I was like, never again. And I have runners in my office no matter where I am, just in case of a fire alarm or whatever. But also I remember the rules changed so quickly around who could come to the States and I had to deal with people from Muslim communities and Africans that were Muslims who were like, "I can't even go visit my family anymore."

      How it changed their experience at the border and they're Canadians as well as maybe dual with their home countries or even being born in a country that was considered Muslim or Arab all of a sudden changed their abilities to travel. And it was quite a scary time to be doing the kind of work we do because you felt the pain of your clients and you couldn't make any real changes for them. So let me just pivot now to ask you some more questions about generally about your practice. Tell me about Raoof Immigration, when you started it, why you started your own business and who your ideal clients are, Saja.

      Saja Raoof:

      Thank you for asking. I have done only immigration since my first summer in law school. I did both my internships during law school were focused on post 9/11 civil liberties for immigrants, and then I worked for a law firm in Ann Arbor my first six years out of law school. And then set up my own practice in 2012, and I practice primarily business immigration with a special focus on the category that my dad qualified for, the Alien of Extraordinary Ability. And this gives me, it's a category that is near and dear to my heart, so I really enjoy going through the criteria for my clients and finding grounds for eligibility and then walking them through the process and then finally when they become US citizens, I get to relive my family's own excitement and relief for finally belonging to the country that they lived in for the first time since they left Iraq two decades before we became US citizens.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Wow, that's incredible. It's so great to feel like you're making a difference every day. I'd love to learn more about that because we don't have a category like that in Canada. I hear sometimes models, extraordinary. I'm always like, is it really the case? I mean, really, obviously if we have any extraordinary files, we're sending them to you, Saja, but I'm like, what makes somebody considered extraordinary in this day and age?

      Saja Raoof:

      One way to demonstrate that is if somebody has an amazing lifetime award like the Nobel Prize. If you have the Nobel prize in medicine or physics, you're going to get a green card. Alternatively, it could be a combination of factors. So for example, we demonstrate your original contributions to say, COVID research, and so we show your publications, we demonstrate the evidentiary value of those contributions. What kind of journals were they published in? How heavily are your articles cited? What impact have they had in the field? Have you received awards for your work? Have you served on a panel to judge others' work? A combination of those factors is how we demonstrate that you are at the top of your field and that you'll continue to contribute your talents to the US.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      I love that immigration, it's so broad that it allows us to really niche down and you've found your calling. And so whenever anybody needs somebody with extraordinary ability visa or somebody who wants to see if they even qualify, I think what I love about my work is we're always learning about our clients, but you're digging deep. Do you find that you read all the reports, so it gives you that sense of understanding the STEM world even more so than just the immigration law world, right? Is that what that curiosity is that what keeps you engaged after all these years?

      Saja Raoof:

      That's the sort of inescapable part of having been pre-med for a long time and coming from a family that is...

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Of doctors.

      Saja Raoof:

      Doctors. And so I was pre-med as I mentioned for many years, so I have an understanding of that sort of language and I appreciate deeply, of course, the impact that people like that bring to our society.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Wow. It's incredible. So for instance, if somebody gets in and you get them an EB-1, they're coming as permanent resident, is that right? First. And then generally, how long does it take to become a naturalized citizen?

      Saja Raoof:

      Five years.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Five years, okay. That's exciting. Do you go sometimes to their ceremonies?

      Saja Raoof:

      Yes. I leave it up to them, so I go if I can.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Yeah, of course. I love it.

      Saja Raoof:

      Yeah, it's very meaningful.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Yeah, it makes us feel very proud. Whenever I go to one in Canada, they make you, if you're a citizen, stand up and swear and do all that again with the people that are becoming citizens that day and it's so heartwarming and it's so powerful because I'm saying it again. And it's something that we don't take for granted, I think you and I, because we know how privileged we are and how lucky we are. But also what we bring to our communities and to our countries doing the work we do, we're making big differences, for sure. Is there anything else, I want to ask you about, is there anything you see when it comes to the EB-1, any trends? Are you seeing more scrutiny? I mean, everything changed with COVID. Did you notice during COVID challenges to your specific category?

      Saja Raoof:

      The delays that have resulted from COVID have been outrageous. Immigration is really behind. It's taking many, many months to get anything processed, so that has really put people's lives, it's just prolonged what was already a long waiting game. And during COVID, there was a travel ban on countries that had high rates of COVID and in order to travel to the US from those countries, you had to show some kind, you had to qualify for some kind of exception. So I argued for clients' ability to overcome those travel bans during COVID.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Oh my goodness. How long, normally, let's say now you get a brand new client, they've got all their stuff, you submit it, how long do you think it's taking? Does it depend on the country of origin?

      Saja Raoof:

      It depends on a number of things. First of all, where in the US does the application need to be filed? The place of residence determines which citizenship and immigration service center the application needs to be filed with. And they have different processing times and that those times are published on immigration's website. Another factor is the individual's country of birth and the visa bulletin that the Department of States puts out every month determines when countries in each category are qualified to apply for green cards.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Okay, so you know general sets, a year, three years?

      Saja Raoof:

      Yeah, at least.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      It varies like that, really?

      Saja Raoof:

      At least three years, for sure.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Wow. Can I ask you lastly about H-1B and let's say India nationals and I feel like I'm seeing more and more EB-1 applications. I don't do them, but my friends who do them in the States probably, and you as well, probably finding more people are looking to that as an option because of the caps, whether you're from India or China or Pakistan and it's taking so long or you're not getting invited under the lottery, they're pivoting and looking at EB-1. Have you been seeing that too?

      Saja Raoof:

      Yes. That's definitely a popular topic of conversation among US immigration lawyers. If your client's candidate for H-1 one is not selected, then what are alternative routes and the EB-1 is one of many.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Yeah, especially in the area you're in. You're in San Francisco area dealing with Silicon Valley and STEM, and I can see they're all extraordinary. So it was like how do you distinguish yourself? It's like being in law school. Everybody's smart. How do you distinguish yourself? You have to rise up even higher. So how can people reach you, Saja, if they want to learn more about your immigration services, if they think they're extraordinary or they know somebody in their family that they feel would benefit from your expertise?

      Saja Raoof:

      Thank you for asking, Evelyn. My website is my initials, sar.law, and I'm on LinkedIn, Saja Raoof. I guess I need to spell that out. S-A-J-A. My last name is R-A-O-O-F.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Yes, and it shows up here on the podcast too, the video that we'll share, and we'll make sure in our liner notes for the podcast, Saja, everything will be there. I want to thank you so much for your sincere sharing and for being on our podcast. It means so much to me since we know each other through ProVisors and you're my fabulous group leader. It's so exciting for me to have you share your knowledge and wisdom with me and our listeners, and I want to just thank you so much. Very grateful.

      Saja Raoof:

      Thank you, Evelyn. Thank you so much for having me and for making it comfortable for me to open up about things that I don't usually talk about. So I am very appreciative for your practice and you are my role model for how engaged and energetic. And I love that I got to meet you in person last month.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Me too.

      Saja Raoof:

      And I can't wait until I see you again.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      It made me so happy. Thank you so much. You're my first ProVisors podcast interview, so you're right at the top, always. Okay, take care.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Hello everyone, it's Evelyn Ackah from the Ask Canada Immigration Lawyer podcast. I'm so excited today as I have my good friend and colleague, Saja Raoof joining us all the way from California. Welcome, Saja.

      Saja Raoof:

      Thank you, Evelyn. It's wonderful to be here.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Saja is a fabulous and very well-recognized immigration lawyer. She focuses on exceptional ability visas for those people or extraordinary ability visas for those people wanting to move to the United States and it is a real niche area and very challenging. And so I wanted to have her on the podcast to talk about her background, her practice, why she moved into immigration law, and also where she sees the future of immigration law heading into the future while we're together. So thanks so much again. You know I'm so grateful to have you. I'm going to give you an opportunity to tell us about how you moved to the US because your story is so exciting and really interesting.

      Saja Raoof:

      Thank you, Evelyn. I was born in Baghdad, Iraq and I left when I was one year old and have never been back. My parents moved to the UK for their graduate degrees and they were supposed to be gone for only four years and four decades later and we still have not returned to Iraq. The political turbulence that our homeland has gone through at every time we try to go back to Iraq, it just has not, the stars have not aligned. So in '85, when my parents graduated, my family moved to Saudi Arabia. The Iraq war was going on, so we moved to Saudi Arabia instead and I lived there until I graduated high school. And in the early nineties after the '91 Gulf War it became clear that we were not returning to Iraq, we decided to emigrate to the US. I moved here when I was 17, when I started college and for the majority of my time in the US I've lived in Michigan and I moved to California about seven, eight years ago.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      That's so great. I mean, all of us are immigrants. I always tell people we're all immigrants, but unless you're from the original people in your First Nations or Native American, we were all immigrants and whether you come a year ago or you came 150 years ago, we're all immigrants. And so I love that because it connects us all when we recognize that we're all landing in different places at different times. How did you and your family move to the US? Because we know it's not easy.

      Saja Raoof:

      We decided in the early nineties to look into emigrating to the US under a category called Alien of Extraordinary Ability. My dad qualified for it and I interviewed him recently on that process. I was about 12 or 13 years years old, and as the eldest of four, I was delegated with helping him put our application together. And this was before, the internet was around but not widely used. So sending our attorney in the US our documents for what's called EB-1 was a tedious process that my dad and I and my mom went through together for about a year. And once we were approved, we got interviewed at the US Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and then we moved here.

      And when I interviewed him, I asked him about how he got letters of recommendation from his mentors in the UK and now when I work on Alien of Extraordinary Ability applications for my clients, getting a recommendation letter, the hard part is just drafting the text, but then it's emailed and it takes, from there it's the easy part. With my dad, it would take about a month to get a recommendation letter because we had a postal service.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      I remember those days. That's incredible. So the whole family was able to move as green card holders because of your dad's education and really being an extraordinary person. I think that's incredible. I always find it funny when Americans, immigration lawyers refer to aliens, just aliens. Where did that come from? It just seems so bizarre to me. We call them foreigners or temporary foreigners or permanent residents or something, but we don't call them aliens in Canada. And so it always makes me feel like they don't belong. Do you know what I mean?

      Saja Raoof:

      Yeah.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      And I wonder if that's even a deliberate use of language that you always are not one of them. How was it for you growing up, Saja, as a woman going to university in the States and being Arab American too? What was that experience like for you?

      Saja Raoof:

      Feeling like an outsider, an alien, if you will, a foreigner. Having always, since we left Iraq, feeling that the language that we speak, the faith that we subscribe to, the extent that we exercise our faith and our customs, our attitudes, always felt out of place where we lived. We can either focus on the occasional expressions of hostility, the "go back to where you came from" language.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      I've heard those.

      Saja Raoof:

      Or we can choose to focus on and celebrate and embrace the people who extend support and solidarity.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      I think it says a lot about the fact that we both got into this area of law. I think I remember being called awful things when I was young. I moved to Canada when I was five from West Africa, Ghana, and let me tell you, Vancouver, in the seventies, there were no black people. And if there were, we knew them already because we would embrace them. We had this thing, you'd see a black person, you'd be like, "Hey, hi, how are you? Here's my phone number. Where do you find your food? Where do you get your hair done?" And it was so challenging and I think being five, you get to adapt. You hope you can integrate a little bit more.

      But being 17, that's a huge difference in terms of growing up in the culture and then now you already have your set culture to come with that to a whole new country. So I always feel like that about adults even who immigrate. I think it's so much harder for them to really adapt, I feel, because they already have formed who they are and then you come and you have to adjust again. So I think you've obviously done incredibly well with that. So you finished university and then what made you go to law school, Saja?

      Saja Raoof:

      I was pre-med in college, both because both my parents are doctors, because that seems to be the default thinking for children of immigrants, at least. And I went as far as taking biochemistry and anatomy in college and then decided to, I considered law, I thought, I took a few classes in undergrad in legal philosophy, enjoyed the subject matter more and decided to go to law school. When I graduated, I went to law school.

      Since I was involved in my family's immigration, that seemed like a natural area of law to focus on, so I went to, that was one of my reasons for going to law school and my family, like many Iraqis who grew up in the sixties and seventies, secular. So when we moved here, I did not wear a hijab, a headscarf, and I chose to wear it in college in that same sense of when you said you see another black person in Vancouver and I chose to wear hijab to connect with the Muslim community. I have the opposite attitude now. I do not want to wear clothing that binds conversation.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      I know.

      Saja Raoof:

      I'm more reserved now than I was in my twenties, but I wanted to make friendships and connections. So I wore hijab in the late nineties. And in 2001, 9/11 happened my third week of law school. I was in Torts class when it happened. We had a bomb threat at my law school in Detroit and we evacuated. The next day class was canceled and on the morning of September 13th, it was time to go back to class. And during those two days, we were glued to the TV, not only watching what was unfolding with the terrorist attacks, but also watching the backlash against the Muslim community. And hearing about attacks on Muslims, on mosques, and our conversations during those two days were my parents strongly asking me to take off my hijab.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      They were scared for you.

      Saja Raoof:

      Absolutely. My dad said, "God would not want you to put yourself in harm's way. You are going to get hurt. Please consider taking it off." So the morning of September 13th, when it was time to go back to class, I took it off for a few minutes and then I stopped myself and said, "This is not what I immigrated to the US for. I immigrated here not to abandon my freedoms and my liberties. And if being an American means anything, if what I'm studying in law school means anything, it must mean the insistence on exercising my first amendment rights and expressing my faith, not even during precarious times, but especially during precarious times."

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Wow, that is so brave, Saja. I mean, I remember that timeframe. It was crazy. The racism, the Islamophobia, the xenophobia that was happening was everywhere. The policies against immigration and who could come in and visit, it was a really challenging time. How did you get through that? It seems like if anything else, it reinforced your confidence and your faith in being able to be who you were and show up however you wanted to.

      Saja Raoof:

      Part of it was the recklessness of being in your early twenties.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      You, reckless? No.

      Saja Raoof:

      One of the things I heard most from my dad during those years is, "Do you have no sense of danger?" And so there was definitely an incentive to remove hijab. I went to law school with somebody who is brilliant. She was at the top of the class, extremely hardworking and smart, and she wore a hijab and she didn't get any interviews for first summer internships. I luckily landed at the ACLU, but I've definitely seen a lot of hijab wearing women, understandably remove it for fewer purposes, of course for personal safety, all kinds of very understandable reasons. For me, I remember having a conversation with a colleague in law school who said, "Would you want to work for an Islamophobic employer? Use your hijab as a filter to any law firm that doesn't extend you a job offer because of your hijab. Would you want to work from them anyway?" So part of it was choosing, I could take it off and be afraid or I could keep it on and insist on my freedom and my, whatever consequences happen, I'll embrace it.

      And another huge part of it was the communities that were the focus of discrimination and racism for us. So I was in Detroit, I went to Maine State University law school and I was surrounded by African-American students whose parents were in the Civil Rights Movement and who had a strong belief in a lot of practice in standing up for their freedoms and for their liberties. During the Trump administration, I had just moved to the Bay area and I attended a presentation by Karen Korematsu, the daughter of Fred Korematsu. Her father had resisted going to Japanese internment camps in World War II and her support and the Japanese American community's support for the Muslim community during those years was very valuable. I picked up a poster of Fred Korematsu at that event and I had it in my office for the longest time to inspire me and encourage me.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Yeah, no, I think what's really great is when communities come together. I mean, we've been dealing with COVID. I mean, we're getting into so many things with, I could talk to you about anything but during COVID, how the Asian American and the Asian Canadian communities were targeted and the importance of other communities speaking for them because it's hard to always be the one, as you know, who's defending or speaking or stepping into that for yourself. It is more powerful even when others step into that and speak up on behalf of their friends, their other community members that they are allied with. And so I'm really happy that you were able to feel that support from the African American community and the Asian community because that's how I think it should be and it should be the same from the dominant community as well. We don't always want to be the one talking about diversity, equity, inclusion.

      It gets tiresome, right? Well, thank you so much for sharing that. I mean, I know it's the first time you've really gotten into explaining where you were and how things were at that time. I just remember as an immigration lawyer, I was young just starting my career, I think in 2000 in Toronto. We had to leave the Ernst and Young Building and I had to walk 35 floors with my high heels and I was like, never again. And I have runners in my office no matter where I am, just in case of a fire alarm or whatever. But also I remember the rules changed so quickly around who could come to the States and I had to deal with people from Muslim communities and Africans that were Muslims who were like, "I can't even go visit my family anymore."

      How it changed their experience at the border and they're Canadians as well as maybe dual with their home countries or even being born in a country that was considered Muslim or Arab all of a sudden changed their abilities to travel. And it was quite a scary time to be doing the kind of work we do because you felt the pain of your clients and you couldn't make any real changes for them. So let me just pivot now to ask you some more questions about generally about your practice. Tell me about Raoof Immigration, when you started it, why you started your own business and who your ideal clients are, Saja.

      Saja Raoof:

      Thank you for asking. I have done only immigration since my first summer in law school. I did both my internships during law school were focused on post 9/11 civil liberties for immigrants, and then I worked for a law firm in Ann Arbor my first six years out of law school. And then set up my own practice in 2012, and I practice primarily business immigration with a special focus on the category that my dad qualified for, the Alien of Extraordinary Ability. And this gives me, it's a category that is near and dear to my heart, so I really enjoy going through the criteria for my clients and finding grounds for eligibility and then walking them through the process and then finally when they become US citizens, I get to relive my family's own excitement and relief for finally belonging to the country that they lived in for the first time since they left Iraq two decades before we became US citizens.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Wow, that's incredible. It's so great to feel like you're making a difference every day. I'd love to learn more about that because we don't have a category like that in Canada. I hear sometimes models, extraordinary. I'm always like, is it really the case? I mean, really, obviously if we have any extraordinary files, we're sending them to you, Saja, but I'm like, what makes somebody considered extraordinary in this day and age?

      Saja Raoof:

      One way to demonstrate that is if somebody has an amazing lifetime award like the Nobel Prize. If you have the Nobel prize in medicine or physics, you're going to get a green card. Alternatively, it could be a combination of factors. So for example, we demonstrate your original contributions to say, COVID research, and so we show your publications, we demonstrate the evidentiary value of those contributions. What kind of journals were they published in? How heavily are your articles cited? What impact have they had in the field? Have you received awards for your work? Have you served on a panel to judge others' work? A combination of those factors is how we demonstrate that you are at the top of your field and that you'll continue to contribute your talents to the US.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      I love that immigration, it's so broad that it allows us to really niche down and you've found your calling. And so whenever anybody needs somebody with extraordinary ability visa or somebody who wants to see if they even qualify, I think what I love about my work is we're always learning about our clients, but you're digging deep. Do you find that you read all the reports, so it gives you that sense of understanding the STEM world even more so than just the immigration law world, right? Is that what that curiosity is that what keeps you engaged after all these years?

      Saja Raoof:

      That's the sort of inescapable part of having been pre-med for a long time and coming from a family that is...

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Of doctors.

      Saja Raoof:

      Doctors. And so I was pre-med as I mentioned for many years, so I have an understanding of that sort of language and I appreciate deeply, of course, the impact that people like that bring to our society.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Wow. It's incredible. So for instance, if somebody gets in and you get them an EB-1, they're coming as permanent resident, is that right? First. And then generally, how long does it take to become a naturalized citizen?

      Saja Raoof:

      Five years.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Five years, okay. That's exciting. Do you go sometimes to their ceremonies?

      Saja Raoof:

      Yes. I leave it up to them, so I go if I can.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Yeah, of course. I love it.

      Saja Raoof:

      Yeah, it's very meaningful.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Yeah, it makes us feel very proud. Whenever I go to one in Canada, they make you, if you're a citizen, stand up and swear and do all that again with the people that are becoming citizens that day and it's so heartwarming and it's so powerful because I'm saying it again. And it's something that we don't take for granted, I think you and I, because we know how privileged we are and how lucky we are. But also what we bring to our communities and to our countries doing the work we do, we're making big differences, for sure. Is there anything else, I want to ask you about, is there anything you see when it comes to the EB-1, any trends? Are you seeing more scrutiny? I mean, everything changed with COVID. Did you notice during COVID challenges to your specific category?

      Saja Raoof:

      The delays that have resulted from COVID have been outrageous. Immigration is really behind. It's taking many, many months to get anything processed, so that has really put people's lives, it's just prolonged what was already a long waiting game. And during COVID, there was a travel ban on countries that had high rates of COVID and in order to travel to the US from those countries, you had to show some kind, you had to qualify for some kind of exception. So I argued for clients' ability to overcome those travel bans during COVID.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Oh my goodness. How long, normally, let's say now you get a brand new client, they've got all their stuff, you submit it, how long do you think it's taking? Does it depend on the country of origin?

      Saja Raoof:

      It depends on a number of things. First of all, where in the US does the application need to be filed? The place of residence determines which citizenship and immigration service center the application needs to be filed with. And they have different processing times and that those times are published on immigration's website. Another factor is the individual's country of birth and the visa bulletin that the Department of States puts out every month determines when countries in each category are qualified to apply for green cards.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Okay, so you know general sets, a year, three years?

      Saja Raoof:

      Yeah, at least.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      It varies like that, really?

      Saja Raoof:

      At least three years, for sure.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Wow. Can I ask you lastly about H-1B and let's say India nationals and I feel like I'm seeing more and more EB-1 applications. I don't do them, but my friends who do them in the States probably, and you as well, probably finding more people are looking to that as an option because of the caps, whether you're from India or China or Pakistan and it's taking so long or you're not getting invited under the lottery, they're pivoting and looking at EB-1. Have you been seeing that too?

      Saja Raoof:

      Yes. That's definitely a popular topic of conversation among US immigration lawyers. If your client's candidate for H-1 one is not selected, then what are alternative routes and the EB-1 is one of many.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Yeah, especially in the area you're in. You're in San Francisco area dealing with Silicon Valley and STEM, and I can see they're all extraordinary. So it was like how do you distinguish yourself? It's like being in law school. Everybody's smart. How do you distinguish yourself? You have to rise up even higher. So how can people reach you, Saja, if they want to learn more about your immigration services, if they think they're extraordinary or they know somebody in their family that they feel would benefit from your expertise?

      Saja Raoof:

      Thank you for asking, Evelyn. My website is my initials, sar.law, and I'm on LinkedIn, Saja Raoof. I guess I need to spell that out. S-A-J-A. My last name is R-A-O-O-F.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Yes, and it shows up here on the podcast too, the video that we'll share, and we'll make sure in our liner notes for the podcast, Saja, everything will be there. I want to thank you so much for your sincere sharing and for being on our podcast. It means so much to me since we know each other through ProVisors and you're my fabulous group leader. It's so exciting for me to have you share your knowledge and wisdom with me and our listeners, and I want to just thank you so much. Very grateful.

      Saja Raoof:

      Thank you, Evelyn. Thank you so much for having me and for making it comfortable for me to open up about things that I don't usually talk about. So I am very appreciative for your practice and you are my role model for how engaged and energetic. And I love that I got to meet you in person last month.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      Me too.

      Saja Raoof:

      And I can't wait until I see you again.

      Evelyn Ackah:

      It made me so happy. Thank you so much. You're my first ProVisors podcast interview, so you're right at the top, always. Okay, take care.



      Evelyn L. Ackah, BA, LL.B.

      Founder/Managing Lawyer

      Ms. Ackah is passionate about immigration law because it focuses on people and relationships, which are at the core of her personal values. Starting her legal career as a corporate/commercial ...

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