Sharifa Elaraj arrived in Minnesota from her native Panama on Dec. 23, 1993. At the time, she knew all of six words of English. Less than 10 years later, she had earned multiple academic degrees, including a Juris Doctorate from Hamline University. Today she’s a Minneapolis-based personal injury attorney with a thriving practice, a stellar reputation and numerous awards to her name.
What sparked this remarkable chain of developments?
Sharifa says much of it stems from her time at Minneapolis College.
“I don’t think there were many colleges willing to take a chance on an 18-year-old who didn’t know the language,” she notes. “But Minneapolis College accepted me, and I took ESL courses to improve my speaking, along with my reading and writing skills. It was a tremendous help.”
Sharifa continued that legacy. Outside of her law practice, she regularly volunteers for domestic abuse shelters and such organizations as the Volunteer Lawyers Network. Many of her firm’s clients are recent immigrants and nonnative English speakers who often struggle to navigate the American legal system.
“My native language has been a key in helping my clients communicate directly with me and break down the barriers that can force them to go without adequate legal representation,” she said. “Many of these underrepresented people have a hard time finding due process under the law. I have always striven to ensure cases are tried on their facts and merits, rather than prejudices in favor of or against the parties’ ethnicities.”
Sharifa adds that Minneapolis College helped shape and influence this approach.
“When I was new to this country, the Minneapolis College faculty, staff and students made me feel like I belonged right away,” she said. “I am tremendously grateful for that, and I’ve tried to give back to the community in equal measure.