Besides being a lawyer, Dona Hariri is always busy starting a multitude of conversations by organizing panels and debates, hosting lectures and TV-shows. She is often described as being a crucial voice for the most marginalized groups in society. With her very hands-on approach to helping others with legal advice and her strong commitment to human rights, she not only re-imagines what law is and what can be created with law, but continuously push democracy forward.
What do you think about law? You’ve mentioned that you use law as a tool, can you explain what you mean by that?
I see law as a kind of democratic tool. It’s not about paragraphs for me but about equality. I believe in everyone’s right to know their rights. I want people to be able to defend themselves and those around them. But to do that, lawyers also need to make law more available. To build some kind of bridge between the law and the citizens. And that’s what I’m trying to do, to use law as a democratic tool.
You spent 220 days, and sometimes nights, at the Central Station in Stockholm, taking care of and helping refugees arriving (during 2015 and 2016 migrant crisis). Would you say that that was like practicing law for you?
Of course it was. I knew that there were people who needed my knowledge. And the only thing I really needed to give them was time. So what I did was that I went to the Central Station when a lot of refugees were arriving and started just to make law more available. Because I also came to the Central Station at the beginning of the 1990s with my family, as a refugee. So it wasn’t a hard decision for me to make and it felt quite good to be there.
What went through your head, what were your thoughts at that point?
Action! I just thought “How can I do this?” I went there and just looked and tried to identify where I could play a role. First I just started by giving out water and food to people, but after just one hour I saw that the things people really needed were to know their rights. “What can I say and can’t say? Should I hide from the police? Where are my children?” Soon it was me and 100, 200, sometimes 600 refugees at the same time. So, I started a Facebook page where I mobilized 600 lawyers and law students.
So this is what you would tell your law students who sit in a classroom all day, to go out into society and practice law?
Yes, that’s what I’m always telling them. The lawyer should be a social actor, who also criticizes and also have questions and want to change things. We are some kind of bridge. This is what I want them to believe in but also work as.
What did other practicing lawyers think of your work?
When I started to give legal advice in the suburbs, other lawyers criticized me the most, they thought that it was something unthinkable, almost unacceptable to give away your knowledge for free. This was like five or six years ago. I was not only a disappointment, but I was also doing everything wrong. Today it’s more common, of course. You see more lawyers in the suburbs and in the women’s shelters. But the law students are a step ahead.
Do you see a difference in diversity now? More law students from different types of backgrounds?
Oh yes. And different languages and cultural backgrounds, which helped us a lot at the Central Station. These are things that you need when you’re standing in front of a person with absolutely nothing. You have to connect somehow. I did it very much through my Arabic, but also through my story. That was the first meeting. “I understand you; I know what you are in right now”. Through that we build trust. And after that the law came.