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The first time Moez Kaba said his aim in life was to practice law and become president of the United States, a high school teacher back in a poor district of Chicago replied, “It’s not going to happen.” Soon thereafter, Kaba told the same to a student adviser at Cornell University, where he read labor history and became class valedictorian. The earnest son of Pakistani immigrants was told, “I hope you have a backup plan.” A few weeks ago when interviewing for desperately needed tuition money for his studies at Columbia Law School, where he is chair of the Muslim Law Students Association and the Youth Justice Association, Kaba persisted — this time with senior partners at the firm of Reed Smith. “They said, ‘Go for it!’” Kaba is pleased to report. “Then they said, ‘By the way, we have some people here who could help you.’” At some point in the future, the 22-year-old Kaba, now in his second year at Columbia Law, said he will have a U.S. Department of Justice to staff. Meanwhile, he has been awarded $15,000 as recipient of a Reed Smith Fellowship. Offered for the first time by Reed Smith’s New York office, the fellowship is awarded to law students who overcame adversity and demonstrate commitment to community service. In his fellowship application, Kaba told his hard luck story: “I was an unwanted child born to parents who were young immigrants in a country they could not yet call home … They came here without a plan and without money, but with ambition and a passion to succeed. “They lived in the homes of kind strangers they met at a mosque. They worked in a furniture factory where my father lifted boxes and my mother swept the floor. “Having few resources and becoming pregnant for the second time, my mother made the difficult appointment to have an abortion. But when the doctor spoke to her about the emotional ramifications of giving up a child, she could not go through with it. So there I was, the uninvited child, the burden. “Today, my parents are still on their quest to live the American dream. My father is a cab driver and my mother is a receptionist. I am no longer the burden. I am the first Kaba to go to college, the first to receive my bachelor’s degree, the first to even contemplate law school.” LAW AS INFLUENCE In a recent interview, Kaba explained why he decided to go to law school: “You have to be able to speak the language of influence, and that’s what the law teaches you. You must speak the language of critical thinking, not judgmental thinking — Sorry. Now I feel like I’m giving a campaign speech.” After talking to dozens of candidates for the fellowship, Jonathan Young, managing partner of Reed Smith’s New York office, was especially impressed by Kaba. “I won’t say he came from the most dire of circumstances,” said Young. “Actually, to get him to talk about the extent of his poverty growing up is hard because he is so respectful of his parents. The thing is, Moez has got the objective criteria to surmount any obstacle,” Young added. “He gets everything he’s got on merit. “By the way, did he tell you about how he raised $1.5 million to build a sports facility for poor kids?” Back in Chicago, Kaba became youth director for the Midwest chapter of the Aga Khan Foundation, which oversees educational and economic development programs in Pakistan and other third-world nations. Kaba convinced approximately 3,000 teenagers to forego such things as new sneakers and instead donate the money to the Aga Khan Sports Center in Karachi. “He just went out there to schools and made these deals with kids,” said Young. “It was all on his own initiative. He didn’t have anything like corporate matching funds.” Perhaps with the idea of a future rainmaker in mind, Young said of Reed Smith’s plans for Kaba’s eventual summer internship with the firm, “I like to joke that we’re going to make him a summer associate-slash-partner.” James A. Gross, a labor law professor at Cornell, is a man Kaba says he admires “second only to my father.” The two became friends, and remain so. “When he was here at Cornell, developing in this Ivy League environment, Moez never lost contact with his family, he never lost respect for them,” said Gross. “Sometimes, I run into that with students from modest backgrounds. He talked a lot about his father’s influence, and how man-made obstacles shouldn’t exist — discouragement being one of them.” Not that Kaba always appreciated his father’s sensibilities. “I’m a bleeding heart liberal Democrat, my father is a Republican,” said Kaba. “I once said to him, Look, you’re a working man, you’re not rich, so why are you a Republican? He told me, ‘Because you’re going to be rich someday, Moez, that’s why.’ “ Conversely, his father advised, “You must get used to being poor. If you want to be an honest politician, you should be poor.” Among the many things Kaba has learned at Cornell and Columbia — “I love them both to death” — is how to be a poor student on a rarified campus. “It’s hard, I must save my money,” he said. “Sometimes when everybody goes out together someplace, I have to say, ‘Quite honestly, I don’t have the $20 in my pocket that I would need.’ “ INTERNSHIPS Instead, he busies himself with other matters. Such as the summer internship he just completed at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; the two internships served in Washington and Chicago through the offices of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; and the national “Summer of Service” program he directs, whereby mosques of his own Shia Ismaili community each contribute 500 hours of public service to their cities. When he leaves Columbia, Kaba said he intends to pursue corporate law at a major firm in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, a firm that demonstrates to him a genuine interest in staff diversity and public service. He would also like to draw a big fat salary for a number of years before taking up politics. “I have an obligation to my parents,” he said. “My father never had a new car, only used taxicabs. He and my mother should have some nice travel in their lives, a bit of the good life.” When he thinks back to a not so good day in high school when a teacher offered him discouragement in the face of enthusiasm, Kaba had a politician’s soothing explanation, “Perhaps he had the problem of being too pragmatic.”

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