Maryan Hassan LL.M. ’22, a UK lawyer and former chief trade negotiator to the World Trade Organization for the Federal Government of Somalia, says that her time at Harvard Law School helped her “start believing in myself.” As a member of the Somali diaspora, she is focused on helping others understand how climate change is impacting local farming communities and robbing girls in the Horn of Africa of vital opportunities. But she is careful, she says, to always remember that, as someone who grew up in Europe, she considers herself a beneficiary of “diaspora privilege” when interacting with people from her ancestral nation.
At Harvard Law School, she co-founded the Harvard United Kingdom Student Law Association and the Harvard Law and International Development Society Trade Forum. She was also served as president of the Harvard International Arbitration Law Students Association. Upon graduation she was selected by the Biden administration as a White House African and Diaspora Young Leaders and invited to the Forum at the US-Africa Leaders Summit in the fall of 2022. She’s an Obama Foundation Leader for Africa, recognized for her transformative work in the Horn of Africa, culminating in a closed round table meeting with President Obama in 2020. She is a single mother to Sofia, 5.
What brought you to Harvard Law School?
Working in Somalia as a high-level technocrat, being an articulate, young, professional woman of color, I became disillusioned with the typecasting and misogyny I would regularly face – usually by members of the international community. I had to navigate maternity discrimination, and I was burning out. Harvard was a chance for me to recalibrate and remember why I even loved the law, policy, and development to begin with. I had long heard about the invaluable network and peer group Harvard provides one with, and I was also encouraged to apply by two close friends of mine who are coincidently HLS alumni – Fatima Hassan Ali [’14] and Saadia Bhatty [LL.M. ’09] – two trailblazing lawyers and women whom I love and respect very much. So coming to Harvard Law School was a no-brainer. And I’m glad I did. The Graduate Program was hugely supportive, and many of my classmates were also in search of a new challenge and inspiration. It helped me pour into myself, and reestablish healthy boundaries for the next chapter of my career. I think that really materialized during my time at Harvard. It’s important that women know that they deserve peace and safety – even at work.
Who are some women who have inspired you?
Anybody who knows me will tell you Michelle Obama [’88]! She’s one of my biggest heroes and being recognized by the Obama Foundation meant so much to because of what she has meant to my life and academic pursuits. Seeing Vice-President Kamala Harris [at the Forum] was a moment. Speaking of the White House, I am really inspired by Dana Banks, who is the National Security Council Special Advisor for the Africa, and Deniece Laurent-Mantey, [foreign affairs officer at the U.S. Department of State], – both incredible black women at the top end of the White House. I think seeing them was really inspiring.
I was also really inspired to meet and talk with Sabrina Dhowre Elba – the critical work she is doing is lifesaving, and as a fellow Somali woman I’m proud of her. If I can take this moment to thank women who have helped me get this point: Amina Hassan (my Mum). Ilham Kabbouri, Ayan Islam, Linda Abdulle, H.E. Anabel Gonzalez, H.E. Khadra Dualeh, Dr. Emilia Onyema, Sabrina Hersi-Issa, Nasra Ismail and many more. It takes a village as they say I wouldn’t be here without the women I’ve mentioned!
Speaking of the White House – you were recently invited to attend the White House African and Diaspora Young Leaders Forum. What was that like and how has it affected your approach to work?
I’m definitely [developing] more of a holistic approach to my work and applying intentionality in everything I do. During the Young Leaders Forum, there were different subsets, different breakout groups. So, I was able to go to the climate change and environment one, where we talked about agriculture and trade. As a former trade negotiator, I used to deal with the nuts and bolts of agreements, policies and other non-contentious matters. I’m much more interested in the root causes of inequality, lopsided diplomacy and real sustainable agricultural policies that effect change in fragile states. I was grateful to be able to meet peers and meet other government officials and VIPs at the Forum. A highlight was meeting several African Heads of State and members of US Congress. It’s important to listen and soak up the wisdom being shared, and I was very grateful that I was able to share my views and build new connections.
You’ve talked about being a “third-culture kid.” In the diaspora. Can you explain your experience a little?
I understand my privilege as a member of the diaspora. Life wasn’t easy growing up, but I think more people who are dual nationals need to speak on their privilege and to need to advocate for the local communities back home. For example, in my previous teams, my staff and people I worked with were people who had grown up [in Somalia]. In countries like Somalia, there is this very neocolonial distinction between local and international staff. That kind of thing needs to be done away with, because you’ll find the locals understand far more – they know the region, they can navigate it, they have far better contacts, but they won’t have security insurance, they won’t have life insurance and for all that their salaries will still be extremely low. International foreign consultants are flown in and paid far more when they lack so much context – it is a really depressing state of play. I’m currently reading ‘The Big Con: How the Consulting Industry Weakens out Businesses, Infantilizes our Governments & Warps Our Economies’ a new book by Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington. I implore anyone who is interested in international development to read it.
So, back to being a third culture kid. I was born in exile in London when my parents married here and my father escaped the military regime of Siad Barre in the late 1980s. Life for those born stateless, in exile – growing up through their parents’ lived trauma and loss – isn’t easy at all. I felt like I was stuck in limbo a lot of the time being between two cultures and perhaps working in Somalia to find purpose and belonging. However, I understand that I can go and come as I please as a dual national carrying a western passport. I try to always be honest about my privilege because I have family members right now unable to flee cities like Las Anod.
What is your biggest motivator and what do you hope to leave as a legacy at HLS?
This is a very cliche thing to say but it’s my daughter, Sofia who many at Harvard will know as she became the unofficial mascot of the LL.M. class of 2022 and legend in her own right. She’s now just turned 5 and is in full-time school. She reminds me to slow down and finds the beauty in the smallest things. More than anything she is always fair and dislikes injustice – when she sees a child being bullied, she’s always getting involved. She is my biggest motivation to always be kind and never lose my sense of humanity.
I was lucky to receive a Frank Knox Memorial Fellowship to fund my studies and was able to have Sofia with me. I would like to give back and help the school attract more single parent applicants like me. If people were aware of the vast number of outside scholarships and the extent of the need-based financial aid available to Harvard LL.M. students, I’m sure many more would apply. I avail myself to anyone who is a caregiver and needs advice – please hit me up on LinkedIn.