Alumni profile - Sheroy Zaq
My work has the possibility to alter the life of someone who is far less fortunate than I am, to such an extent that it may well result in ensuring that they are not sent back to their persecutor. In my view, the notion of fulfilling a humanitarian purpose through my career is what excites me.
Why did you choose to study at Queen Mary? My primary consideration was of course the reputation of the institution, along with the regard in which the politics department was held. That aside, I had received wonderful first-hand feedback from students who had gone before me, not only praising the quality of the teaching and the approach of the staff towards undergraduate learning, but also the eclectic nature of the university and its student population.
What aspects of your degree did you find most enjoyable and was there anything that surprised you in your studies? I was particularly fond of theoretical modules and discussions throughout the duration of my course. Perhaps surprised is the wrong word, but studying at Queen Mary was a real eye-opener for me, in that I was exposed to a wide range of political and ideological views that I had not encountered face-to-face prior to my time at university. A discussion in a seminar concerning the reasons as to why people vote a particular way could very quickly transcend into an existential discussion delving into the nature of humankind, with a vast array of opinions being condensed into a one-hour discussion. The exposure to such a wide range of individuals and their political opinions, many of whom were from varying socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, taught me a lot of lessons that have stayed with me to date.
Was it always your intention to become a lawyer? Why did you choose to study Politics as a precursor to Law? As cliché as it sounds, I have wanted to be a lawyer acting against the state for the majority of my adult life. Given that the underlying reason for my career choice was (and remains) inherently political, I thought that a solid foundation of political understanding would benefit me in the long-term. In addition, I felt as though employers may be enticed by the fact that I had mastered two disciplines (BA Politics & Graduate Diploma in Law), whereas many applicants may have only been able to cite one discipline on their CV. It is a decision that I do not regret taking.
How did you get from Queen Mary to where you are now? Can you describe your current role? Following my time at Queen Mary, I completed the Graduate Diploma in Law and the Legal Practice Course at BPP University, both of which were mandatory for an aspiring solicitor with a non-law undergraduate degree. I worked part-time at Heathrow Airport in order to fund my studies as both courses were incredibly expensive! Fortunately, soon after I completed the Legal Practice Course, I managed to secure an internship at the largest provider of legal aid, i.e. publicly funded legal representation, in the United Kingdom. That is the firm that, seven years later, I still work for. I currently act as a supervising solicitor, responsible for the oversight and training of paralegals and trainee solicitors, as well as managing my own caseload.
Our department challenges decisions made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department, as well as her overarching policies, with a view to ensuring that asylum seekers are treated in accordance with the law. This involves representing individuals in their claims for asylum, obtaining injunctions from the judiciary in order to ensure that individuals are not unlawfully detained or deported, in addition to directly challenging the lawfulness of government policy on a strategic level.
What is the most exciting thing about what you do? Knowing that my work has the possibility to alter the life of someone who is far less fortunate than I am, to such an extent that it may well result in ensuring that they are not sent back to their persecutor. In my view, the notion of fulfilling a humanitarian purpose through my career is what excites me.
You worked in Prison Law and Education Law before re-committing to Public Law, Immigration and Asylum. What influenced your decision to move into this particular area of Law? I am a firm believer in attempting everything that you think you may enjoy prior to reaching a definitive conclusion. Put simply, I felt as though those seeking international protection were in the greatest need of publicly funded legal assistance and arguably had the most to lose; the consequences of them not having legal representation could be far worse than any other category of client that I had served. The decision for me, although it took some time to reach, was a simple one to make when the time eventually came.
In your work, you represent clients from a variety of countries and faiths, but, in your view, what are some of the unique legal challenges that Muslims face in this country? For reasons that I simply do not have the time to delve into in any great depth, Muslims are arguably the most marginalised religious group in not only the United Kingdom, but the world. The legal challenges that Muslims face in this country stem from the fact that a large amount of war-torn countries are in fact countries with a predominantly Muslim population, destabilized by, more often than not, ‘Western’ nations. As such, the majority of the immigration detention population is filled with Muslims, and the majority of those seeking asylum in the United Kingdom follow Islam; they are the largest displaced religious group. The unique challenge to those that follow Islam, sadly, is that they are heavily represented within the UK’s asylum and detention system.
In 2018, you were involved in a case in which the Home Office was found to be 'interfering' with people's right to observe Islam in detention centres. As a non-Muslim, how have you educated yourself about Muslim culture and customs in order to represent Muslims in court? I grew up in Hounslow, a borough in West London that is incredibly diverse. I am also of Indian and Iranian heritage. As such, I have always been familiar with a wide range of religious customs, as well as being well versed in the cultural customs of many countries. That aside, for certain aspects of my work, I do require a technical understanding of Islamic custom, to such an extent that I have commissioned independent opinions from leading Islamic academics and scholars so as to ensure that I am as well informed as possible with regard to the issues that Muslims may face within the UK’s asylum and detention system.
What impact do you think government rhetoric and policy has upon the general perception of members of the Muslim community in this country? This Prime Minister’s historic rhetoric has almost certainly incited racial hatred; the first example that comes to mind is the notion that women who choose to wear the niqab resemble ‘letterboxes’. It is deliberate dehumanisation of a ‘foreign other’. Such opinions can spread through a population like an infection when they are expressed by a head of state; racism is often a top-down phenomenon. That being said, if we turn our mind to France as an example, Muslim students are not lawfully permitted to wear the hijab in school. As such, although the UK government’s attitude towards Muslims is far from ideal, it could also be considerably worse in certain respects.
In your opinion, what are some of the most pressing issues faced by Muslim communities and what do you think needs to be done to challenge and raise awareness of such issues? First and foremost, this country needs to stop giving racists a platform. Government rhetoric aside for a moment, it boggles the mind that, as a recent example, it took as long as it did for Katie Hopkins to be permanently banned from Twitter. She had a radio column and a newspaper column for years; the sole purpose of it was to spread visceral hate and cause divide within the British population. We now find ourselves in a position where, regrettably, religious hate crime and the presence of far-right ideology is extremely prominent. For reasons that are plain, this will continue to be a real problem for Muslim communities unless and until it is tackled head-on. That can only be done by calling out racism whenever it is encountered. Many of those who hold such hateful opinions feel as though they can spout them without fear as a result of the prominence of such divisive rhetoric amongst our government and media. This cannot be allowed to persist; the discontent as to such rhetoric must be vocalised, with media institutions, as well as members of government, being held to account. Most importantly, it is not solely up to Muslims to tackle Islamophobia and other issues that may face Muslim communities. It is a societal responsibility.
One of the greatest MCs of all-time, who goes by the name of Akala, once said:
“When Marcus Garvey organised more than six million people, with no Facebook, or Twitter, why is it something we can’t equal?”
I often wonder what the answer is.
What are the key things you would like people to take away from Islamophobia Awareness Month? Islamophobia is very real and the way in which it impacts the Muslim population can be profound. It is not something that ought to be easily dismissed as only affecting a handful of individuals in the UK; it is widespread and it remains rife. For those who are affected by it, no matter how subtly, if there is one thing that I can emphasise, it is that you are not alone. There are organisations dedicated to giving you the support that you need. For those in positions of seniority within workplaces, educational institutions and so forth, whether Muslim or not, a real element of pro-action is required. Society can no longer remain passive and allow hateful narratives and bigoted opinions to fester within our institutions. The effort must be one of collaboration and co-ordination.
For students who are interested in pursuing a career in Immigration and Asylum Law, what are one or two key information sources you would direct them to? I would certainly refer students to the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, which can be found at https://ilpa.org.uk/ - this website includes training events, legal resources and a number of other useful sources of information for those who are considering a career in the sphere of immigration and asylum.
Can you share one or two of your fondest memories from your time at Queen Mary? For whatever reason, I did not think that I would feel the heightened sense of achievement that I ended up experiencing on graduation day. Being alongside my peers, with my mother and younger brother as guests, is a feeling that I do not think that I will be able to replicate. I come from a single-parent immigrant family and statistically, was far less likely than many of my peers to graduate. The culmination of my academic pursuits filled me with a real sense of pride and was certainly worth the amount of time, effort and persistence that it required.
What would your advice be to students applying to study Politics at Queen Mary? How can they make the most of their experience? From what I understand, tuition fees are three times higher than they were when I was a student. My advice, put simply, is make sure that you get your money’s worth! Ask as many questions as you possibly can; there are no stupid questions. Use every chance given to you in lectures and seminars to publicly address the room if possible – confidence is key. Make use of reading lists provided to you – they are there for a reason. Most importantly, approach the subject from the angle of intellectual stimulation and betterment; it really can change your understanding of the world… it certainly did for me.
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Nathalie Grey. If you would like to get in touch with Sheroy or engage him in your work, please contact Nathalie at email@example.com.