Justice For All

At the Department of Homeland Security, School of Law alumnus Ehsan Zaffar (JD ’07) champions civil rights close to home and beyond.

May 1, 2015  | 4 min read

In certain remote, rural regions of the Middle East, there lives a small population of individuals who identify as Sabian Mandaeans. Roughly 1,000 Mandaeans live in Iraq today and there remain, at most, 20,000 practicing members in the world. Only seven people in the world can speak the Mandaean liturgical language, an eastern dialect of Aramaic. In 2003, the strictly pacifist Mandaean population began facing persecution during the Iraq war and was unable, by philosophy, to defend against it. By the end of the war, an estimated 90 percent of Iraqi Mandaeans had either been killed or had fled.

“People’s houses were being burned, there was a lot of sexual assault, and kids were being shot, but due to their beliefs, many felt they could not fight back,” says Ehsan Zaffar, senior advisor at the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Washington, D.C.

At DHS, Zaffar leads both domestic and international efforts to implement UNHRC Resolution 16/18 to combat intolerance and violence against persons on the basis of religion or belief. His primary purpose is to advise the DHS on policy based on what he has learned through his personal outreach and travel to affected sites.

“One of the reasons why I feel fulfilled and enjoy my work is because I am able to pierce a lot of those barriers and get to people who have no voice,” says Zaffar. “Sometimes they are forgotten and have no voice in government. I try to get them to a place so their voice can be heard.”

A graduate of the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at the School of Law, Zaffar often engages internationally with communities and foreign governments in order to facilitate the sharing of best practices to enable religious freedom and increased respect for human rights.

“Sometimes, communities fear engaging with the government, because they fear retaliation,” Zaffar explains. “I encourage them to propose their own ideas about laws and policy changes, so they may hold government officials accountable for facilitating progress.”

With the Mandaeans in Iraq, Zaffar martialed efforts to grant a group of them refugee status and was successful in helping to relocate them to different parts of the United States. “That felt awesome,” he says. “They were ecstatic that their kids were finally safe. For that one moment, it was worth all of the work I did in the year.”

The concept of civil and human rights has always fascinated Zaffar. The concept of rights as they relate to security is a more specific passion that has helped shape his career, especially domestically.

Though he often works internationally, his primary role is to engage communities, organizations, state and local governments, and other government agencies within the U.S. to discuss issues specific to their needs, from empowering groups to be resilient to violent extremism to assisting the orthodox Jewish community’s travel through the airport while wearing religious garb.

“One of the missions of the DHS is to build resilient communities, so that they can bounce back from natural disasters and counter things like terrorism with their own positive narratives.”

Zaffar’s passion first blossomed in his second year at the School of Law, when he partnered with Oxfam and Team Duke Katrina and traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi, to volunteer in a region that had been severely impacted by Hurricane Katrina.

As a director and relief worker with the two organizations, he and a team assisted hurricane victims with short-term legal needs, advocating on behalf of individuals involved in suits related to the natural disaster. When he returned to Los Angeles, he was struck by the ways his work in the post-disaster environment could be applied closer to home.

“Many people in Los Angeles can’t afford a lawyer,” Zaffar explains, “and most of those people live far away from inexpensive or free legal services. I found L.A. to be, in many ways, a post-disaster/post-conflict environment, where people were not getting any legal care and did not have access to a lot of services.”

In response, Zaffar founded the Los Angeles Mobile Legal Aid Clinic, a self-sustaining service that provided preventive legal care to low- income individuals. The clinic partnered with organizations around town, such as churches and medical clinics accessible to local communities. The endeavor, which Zaffar departed from in 2010, was in line with his desires to promote civil rights and influence deep change.

“My work with the clinic was deep but narrow change,” he explains. “Important but limited, and affecting one person at a time.”

An article he wrote in the Pepperdine Journal of Business, Entrepreneurship, and the Law in 2009 demonstrating the need for a mobile legal clinic in urban centers gave him the opportunity to effect wider change. It caught the attention of the Rule of Law Initiative at the American Bar Association (ABA) and Zaffar was tasked with advising the ABA Rule of Law Initiative on the implementation of legal clinics following the devastating Haiti earthquake in 2010.

“Many of the judges and lawyers had died in the earthquake, courts had been destroyed,

and records had been lost,” says Zaffar. “Property lines were difficult to locate–people couldn’t tell where their house ended and their neighbors’ began. Crime was rampant and there wasn’t much legal infrastructure to prosecute criminals.”

Today, between his duties at the DHS, he serves as adjunct faculty at George Mason University and George Washington University, where he teaches courses on surveillance, privacy, and homeland security law and policy, and is a panel member and mediator at the Agency for Dispute Resolution. His forthcoming textbook, Understanding Homeland Security: Foundations of Security Policy, features interviews with renowned experts in the fields of homeland security and national security.

“I always want to be in positions where I can be empowered to deliver broad and deep change,” says Zaffar. “Whether that’s through entrepreneurship and taking risks, or whether I do that through my role in government.”

“I also want to do work based on who I am, not what I do,” he continues. “And to always be of service.”

Learn more about the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at the School of Law, U.S. News & World Report’s number one dispute resolution program for an unprecedented 11 years in a row: law.pepperdine.edu/straus