Anchored By Tradition—A Palestinian-American Woman Lawyer Advocates For Social Justice
Born in Beit Hanina, a Palestinian town in East Jerusalem, Awatef Assad immigrated to the United States with her family in 1969. After first settling in Dearborn (Little Arabia), the family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio in 1978. Working in her family’s businesses, Awatef looked for ways to help her family succeed in their adopted home that at times could be less than inviting. Her focus became social justice—not just for her and her family—but for everyone. Her passion for justice ultimately led her to law school.
At Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, she learned the skills she would need to fight to advance the causes that became dear to her. She received her Juris Doctor Degree and was admitted to practice in Ohio in 1995. She is also admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.
Trying to succeed as an Arab-American woman raised in a traditional Arab family required a stubborn determination. From a young age, Awatef knew her path to be less traditional but would never stray far from her family. Awatef has always found inspiration from her mother whose unrelenting determination was responsible for bringing her family to the United States in search of a better life. With her mother’s spirit to guide her, Awatef has found the strength to succeed in the demanding legal profession while advancing various social causes and introducing friends and colleagues to her Arab heritage.
Assad’s Bakery has become a frequent meeting place where Awatef brings friends and co-workers to share traditional Arab foods and hospitality. She has made more than a few converts to Middle Eastern cuisine as she works to breakdown barriers for her community and introduces her non-Arab friends to the warmth of her traditions.
As a government attorney, Awatef took on the challenges of a civil litigation lawyer. Her focus became complex federal civil rights litigation. She developed a reputation as a fierce advocate both inside and outside the courtroom. After 16 years with the City of Cleveland’s Law Department, Awatef continued to hone her skills as a civil litigation attorney handling highly complex litigation for the County of Cuyahoga Department of Law.
“As I government lawyer, I am dedicated to enhancing public trust and confidence in the legal profession and our justice system,” notes Awatef. She spearheaded the first amicus brief filed in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality case in support of the rights of all citizens to marry and raise children. With twenty-two years of experience as a public-sector litigation attorney, Awatef led the County’s effort in enacting the landmark Anti-Discrimination Ordinance and the establishment of a Human Rights Commission. Currently, she serves as the Risk Manager for Cuyahoga County.
Awatef currently serves as a trustee, fellow, and member of the Executive Committee for the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, Vice-Chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and Chair of the Women-In-Law Section Social Justice Committee. She is a proud member of the Leadership Cleveland Class of 2020 and William K. Thomas Inns of Court.
She has earned the respect of other legal professionals. Recently, Awatef received the CMBA Justice for All Volunteer of the Year Award for her work in enhancing the legal profession. This honor is bestowed on area professionals who demonstrate professional excellence, highest standards of integrity, and commitment to the advancement of justice. Awatef states: “I am committed to advancing equity and inclusion in my community and the legal profession.”
She has developed numerous programs that advance diversity and inclusion in the legal community. These programs address the need for equal opportunity and promoting the advancement of women and diverse attorneys in the legal profession. Awatef has also organized programs and initiatives addressing attorney wellness—focusing on mindfulness and stress-reduction techniques. She mentors new attorneys in the Ohio Supreme Court’s Lawyer to Lawyer program and serves as an arbitrator in the Cuyahoga Common Pleas Court ADR program.
Awatef has remained active in many social causes. In an effort to build a more inclusive and equitable community, she has led many civic engagements and programs focused on improving the lives of women. She is a former executive director and board member of ACCESS-Ohio and started her own youth-initiative to inspire Arab-American youth to get involved in their community and to plant the seeds of leadership. Nationally recognized for her community work on behalf of the Arab-American community, Awatef is the recipient of the F.B.I. Director’s Community Leadership, the Arab American Institute’s Excellence in Public Service, and the Ohio Civil Rights Commission’s “Keeping the Dream Alive” awards.
Awatef’s family remains at the center of her life. She always finds time to bring nieces and nephews to work as she tries to instill in them her own passion for learning and striving to achieve their dreams. Many of them have followed her example—pursuing college degrees and professional careers.
Despite her own achievements, Awatef knows that Arab-Americans still have challenges ahead. She strives to be an ambassador for her community. She greets everyone with a bright smile while she touts her Palestinian heritage. Everyone is disarmed as this proud Arab-American greets them. Almost immediately she is back to advocating for social justice. She attributes her commitment to equality to her own experience. Reflecting on her journey, Awatef states: “This experience has instilled in me the importance of ensuring an equal playing field for everyone.”
There is an urgency and sense of humanity in her message. Reaching out to fellow community leaders, she organizes her team to ensure everyone has the same opportunities for which she has tirelessly fought. She keeps the fight going with her own indomitable spirit and promises of Middle Eastern treats from her favorite bakery.
Compiled by Arab America
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