Updated: Aug 23
Arwa Zakir Kakavand: Human Rights Champion &
Trauma-Informed Yoga Instructor
Sarah Almond Pike*
Arwa Zakir Kakavand wants young attorneys to know that a legal career is not a straight line. Her own impressive trajectory to date—from the East Coast to California, class actions to human rights, and policy to direct representation and back—proves just that.
Arwa is currently a Senior Staff Attorney with the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, and Of Counsel at Casa Cornelia Law Center. She is involved in numerous San Diego bar associations, including the South Asian Bar Association (SABA) San Diego, Lawyers Club, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) San Diego.
The San Diego FBA is thrilled to feature Arwa in this month’s member spotlight.
Early Life and Law School
Arwa grew up with her family in Brooklyn, New York and moved to New Jersey when she was seven. She attended St. John’s University in Queens, New York, graduating with her degree in psychology. She then took a year to work for a human rights attorney who consulted for various organizations. Arwa crafted a report on the situation faced by the Roma population in Europe. This experience helped ignite her interest in human rights, which she continued to pursue at Seton Hall University School of Law in New Jersey.
At Seton Hall, Arwa was the inaugural International Human Rights/Rule of Law Scholar. She also participated in in the Social Justice Clinic all three years of law school, which solidified her passion for human rights, especially immigrant rights.
Arwa spent her first summer working as a law student on a series of women’s rights issues. Her second summer, she worked as an Ella Baker Fellow for the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York. By chance, an attorney from the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) in France was also in the CCR office space that summer. Arwa took the opportunity to connect with her, which would prove important during the early steps of her career.
Creative Career Choices
As Arwa began her final year of law school, she took stock of the local job market. She was set to graduate in 2009, and the economy was still in the throes of the Great Recession. Arwa wasn’t interested in working for a big firm. Her passion for human and civil rights remained, and while she was familiar with the organizations doing this vital work, deferred associates from private firms were being slotted into those roles.
She decided to look beyond the New York market. Despite the law school’s limited institutional capacity to support public interest careers at the time, Arwa had made many connections through her clinic work and networking, which helped her greatly. The CCR office connected her with the FIDH attorney she had met during the summer, and they worked on a fellowship proposal together. The project was a marriage of what FIDH needed and what Arwa wanted to do. Her project was selected, and Arwa left after graduation for Paris, France. She spent the next two years providing technical expertise on how to use international law as binding authority in regional and local courts to support human rights in African and Middle Eastern countries.
After riding out the recession for two years, Arwa returned to New York. The job market was still tough for human rights positions, so she soon settled at a firm handling class actions and mass torts. The position was interesting: she worked for years on the BP Deepwater Horizon settlement and saw the differences between how individual claimants and corporations are treated in the settlement process. But on top of her day job, Arwa continued to pursue her passion for immigration issues, assisting asylum-seekers pro bono.
Westward Bound: Returning to Human Rights Work
After four years in settlement work, Arwa made the move to California. She had met her now husband at the class action firm, and he grew up in Orange County and wanted to return to Southern California. They happily settled in San Diego. Already barred in New Jersey and New York, Arwa passed the California bar.
In January 2016, Arwa returned to her passion for human rights and joined Casa Cornelia Law Center, a non-profit which works on humanitarian immigration issues. She went on to become the Managing Attorney of the Center’s Litigation Program, managing its administration, mentoring pro bono attorneys, and litigating her own cases. Most of her clients were in detention and Arwa handled their appeals. Such cases are heard in immigration court, a federal court organized under the Department of Justice. Arwa also filed an appeal for a client in the Ninth Circuit.
Speaking on moving between practice areas and stepping into leadership earlier in your career, Arwa reminds us: “Don’t second-guess yourself.” If you have a goal, there’s a way to reach it. “Don’t foreclose opportunities. You can always train yourself or be mentored to get up to competency to do the work” that inspires you. By being flexible but always staying committed to her areas of interest, Arwa returned to the work that inspired her in law school. “There’s no straight path—be creative in how you get from A to B.”
Earlier this year Arwa also returned to policy work when she joined the CGRS as a Senior Staff Attorney in Technical Assistance and Training. She develops training programs and resources for pro bono attorneys handling cases for clients who fear returning to their country of origin.
Powerful Pro Bono
Arwa encourages attorneys, including those without immigration experience, to consider volunteering in this important and dynamic federal practice area. Casa Cornelia offers truly robust mentorship—Arwa has even gone with nervous pro bono attorneys to their hearings for support. Attorneys can expect training and guidance, and most likely to feel drawn to come volunteer again. “Pro bono attorneys say this work is life-changing for them.” (This author agrees.) Beyond taking on cases there are opportunities to work on discrete programs, like individual clinics or the Afghan asylum program that Arwa helped launch in 2021, which has helped over 200 individuals seek asylum.
Yoga and Life Outside the Law
Right before the pandemic, Arwa started to feel the burnout and vicarious trauma of working with asylum clients. She also “felt the guilt of re-traumatizing them” while working up their cases and wanted to be able to offer them something else. This led her to pursue her certification as a trauma-informed yoga instructor. She received her accreditation from OG Yoga in City Heights, whose equity-based and trauma-informed model expands access to yoga practice. After persevering when instruction went completely virtual in late March 2020, Arwa completed her certification and started teaching a restorative yoga class. She also volunteered her time leading a recess yoga class for kids through the Boys & Girls Club.
Most recently she has begun focusing on “yoga as a self-care tool for legal professionals,” leading sessions on a contract basis, such as during AILA’s wellness retreat. Arwa also enjoys sharing her yoga practice with her five-year-old.
Joining the FBA
Arwa joined our local FBA chapter after a great experience at the 2022 Holiday Party, where she enjoyed dining with District Court Judges Montenegro and Ohta. “Now that I work at an organization (CGRS) that has an entire program dedicated to federal impact litigation, being a member of the FBA keeps me keyed into the Southern District of California, where many cases impacting immigration law are filed and decided.”
We are grateful for Arwa’s presence in the FBA and her many contributions to the San Diego community.
*Sarah Almond Pike is a member of the San Diego Chapter of the Federal Bar Association and its Public Relations Committee. She is an associate attorney representing plaintiff employees at Haeggquist & Eck, LLP, and a former term clerk for the Hon. Dana M. Sabraw of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.