When Tahanie Aboushi L’09 was 14 years old, she and her nine siblings got a firsthand glimpse of the legal system as her father stood trial and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. “It was a very destabilizing experience,” recalls Aboushi, a civil rights attorney now running for Manhattan district attorney . “We underestimate how big of a footprint the legal system has on family and on the community.”
Aboushi’s parents immigrated to New York City from Palestine before she was born and started a grocery store in Brooklyn that became a community staple. “We often only think about the one person who is incarcerated, not realizing that it has an effect on the spouse and children, financial circumstances, educational opportunities and stability,” she says.
Aboushi describes the experience as “invasive”—the defense lawyers were part of their everyday life, but the family ultimately felt abandoned by the legal system. “The legal system disrupted everything—schoolwork, family dynamics, dinnertime, what the weekend looked like,” she says. “At the end, it was like, we got our sentencing and you’re all now on your own.”
After the trial was over, the family spoke frequently to their father on the phone and visited him in prison—no easy feat as he was incarcerated in Ohio (among other places over the years), an eight-hour drive from the family’s home in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
The experience left Aboushi wondering what she could do to change this.
Pursuing a Law Degree
Her parents prized and encouraged education. Two of her older siblings became attorneys. Aboushi followed suit, attending Syracuse University College of Law , after seeing what an incredible experience her older sister, Diane Aboushi Saleh L’06, had there.
Diane shared how she explored the law in ways that put a realistic tone to it. “She would tell me how she spoke to professors about current events beyond the classroom. There was an awareness of world events going on, and there were opportunities to express views and find ways to incorporate personality and your objectives in classroom and extracurricular activities. So, once I was accepted, I didn’t care about any other acceptance letters. I said Syracuse is it for me,” says Aboushi.
Though homesick at first, Aboushi found a camaraderie with her fellow law students from out of the area. Like her sister, Aboushi flourished at the College of Law, interning for Judge Margaret Cangilos-Ruiz, the first female bankruptcy judge in the Northern District of New York, and at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District. “Both of those externships were a lot of work, but it was amazing to see the law in action. That was really exciting to me,” says Aboushi.
Practicing Civil Rights Law
After graduating, Aboushi joined the firm Adams, Sampson & Associates and is now a founding partner of the Aboushi Law Firm in New York City, where she practices civil rights law. Her siblings Diane and Aymen are attorneys at the firm, as is her sister-in-law, Sawsan Zaky.
Aboushi says she went into civil rights law because it was an opportunity to take the wrongdoing she saw every day and rectify it, whether it be criminal law, family law or immigration. “I’m not one to accept status quo—I will challenge it,” she says. “When I started practicing law, I wanted to be an advocate for the people. I wanted to be someone who stayed close to the community. I was able to create precedent here by challenging outdated or archaic laws and challenging policies that violated people’s rights so that’s why I was excited to jump into civil rights law.”
She’s worked on several high-profile civil rights cases over the years, including heading up a legal team at John F. Kennedy International Airport, filing habeas petitions in federal court to release people from detention after President Donald J. Trump’s Muslim travel ban was initiated. “The people who were abandoned in the airport were students, doctors, grandparents and children. I was in the airport for four straight days and saw every age range and occupation. Everybody was fair game based on religion. To know how far this country has come and to see we still carry very dark sides to us was disheartening,” says Aboushi.
That experience really made her reflect on her background and heritage. “I thought to myself, here I am, an Arab, a Muslim and a lawyer, and if not for being a citizen, what would have stopped them from detaining me from coming through the border? Everything I’ve done, everything I am, my family’s history, my history, my upbringing wouldn’t mean anything, and I would find myself in handcuffs sitting in a detention room in an airport,” she says. “It’s really difficult to accept that’s a possible reality.”
Running for District Attorney
That is one of the main reasons Aboushi is running for Manhattan district attorney in 2021. She’s looking to unseat the current DA, Cyrus Vance Jr., who has held the position since 2010, saying her goal is to make the office transparent, accountable and collaborative. “I want to achieve justice for all and ensure no one is above the law,” she says. “I want to reorient the office as the guardians of justice for the victims and the accused alike. To lead with justice, mercy and truth, and to center people not privilege.”
Aboushi says she plans to be a district attorney who is present and responsive to the needs of the community. “As an elected official who has immense authority, the community should have access to me, and I will be accountable because the impact of the decision I will make as the Manhattan district attorney will have a permanent impact on your life,” she says. “We shouldn’t be in an ivory tower; we should be down with the people.”
Running for elected office was not something she ever thought she’d do. However, her desire to right injustices—an attribute her parents instilled in their children—motivates her.
“For me as a woman, there are stereotypes upon you that insist on limitations through ceilings and hoops to jump through. As a Muslim and as a Palestinian, I think there is a conversation about your identity and what people think you should or shouldn’t be doing,” Aboushi says. “I fought against all of those opinions because it’s not about you, it’s about your neighbor, your family. Are they OK and do they have enough and, through that, you’ll have enough and you’ll be OK. And that’s all I’ve ever pursued. Every case I’ve ever taken, every family I’ve ever represented, it has always been about making sure they are seen, heard and protected. There is no disconnect between what I believe and the work that I do. I see myself and my family in all of my clients. I see the communities that I come from, and that’s always been my driving force.”