On the last Thursday of March, inside an airy auditorium on the University of Texas at Arlington campus, Rigien Jackson stood before 50 or so public health students, their laptops open, a few perhaps wondering what an attorney from a firm off Abram Street had to offer about advocacy.
Then Jackson spoke.
She talked of war and death, of refugees and immigrants, of love and family; all of it swathed within the prospect of advocating for others and one’s self – what it is, what it isn’t, what it ought to be.
The class was Dr. Liao Yue’s course, “Public Health Advocacy & Leadership,” and judging by the name alone, Jackson was in the right place. Born in the Kurdistan region of Iraq with sojourns in Turkey, Germany, Australia, Scotland and Oklahoma City before settling in Arlington, Jackson might be the poster child of advocating for one’s self, an art she acquired by simply surviving.
Jackson was quite young when war and violence began to mercilessly unravel her existence, scattering her family as her nurse mother and younger brother fled to Germany, her teacher father and a brother to another city and Jackson and another sister to Turkey. The separation lasted years.
“We were trying to get to Europe,” Jackson, a partner at Jackson, Landrith & Kulesz, tells me. “The idea was to apply for family unification in Germany.”
It just took a bit longer than expected. It was this journey, living without parents, in a country where you don’t speak the language and know the ways, that makes Jackson’s story more than just that.
Dr. Yue had heard only a snippet of that life – two minutes, max – during a lunch with Mayor Jim Ross and Council Member Rebecca Boxall, organized by Don & Linda Dipert and UTA’s public health undergrad program Director Dr. Rebecca Garner.
“She talked about her journey,” Dr. Yue recalls, pointing specifically to Jackson’s diverse background and advocacy passion. “I was very impressed and wanted her to address my students who come from similar diverse backgrounds.”
Jackson was only nine when her mother left. “Whoever can go has to go,” Jackson said of families trying to escape inhospitable situations. “It’s either that or die.” Advocacy became a life line.
In Germany, Jackson, who learned German as a student, translated legal papers in German about the family’s immigration status. She acquired “an anxious fascination” about the laws that determined whether her family could stay or had to be sent back to Iraq: “I remember at age 13 sitting nervously in a courtroom with my mom and our lawyer in the city of Leipzig while a judge decided if we had the right to be granted asylum. Altogether, the court session lasted about 20 minutes. But, in that moment I thought about how a lawyer who knew about the laws of his country helped my family build a better future in 20 minutes.”
Jackson earned a Bachelor’s degree from Hans-Bockler-Stiftung University and a master’s degree from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. After graduation, she worked as a supply chain coordinator for a Norwegian oil company operating back in Kurdistan, which is where she met her husband Jonathan, an American working as an oil and gas contractor. By 2015, they were living in Oklahoma City.
And law? Ah-ha moments come in strange ways.
“For me, that moment was in June, 2016,” Jackson says. “I was 35 weeks pregnant with my first child working at a bank when an armed man walked in and held me up at gunpoint.”
That’s when she decided on law school, even with a newborn at home. She graduated magna cum laude from the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston.
“Growing up as a refugee child, as a first-generation immigrant, just made me resilient,” she says. “Facing discrimination and bullying, I learned to speak up for myself.”
As an attorney, Jackson, who speaks Arabic, Kurdish, German, English and some Turkish, remains an advocate, now for her clients.
“I knew from very early on you have to stand on your two feet and can’t rely on someone else to solve problems,” Jackson says. “I might just be 36, but I have a life experience that came because of difficult circumstances. I want to be the person who advocates for people, helping them to realize their legal rights so that they can build a future for themselves and their families.”