Miriam Abaya stands alone on stage. She gazes out at the empty seats of Temple University’s Performing Arts Center – there is no audience for this performance. She sings Christmas carols and Adele, with a voice that is matched only by her wide smile and enthusiastic laugh.
Abaya can still remember the moment she first fell in love with music. She was in the car with her family, on a 12-hour car ride into the mountains for a family vacation. “We listened to Paul Simon’s “Graceland” the whole way,” says Abaya. “I now know the version of “Graceland” as the old cassette tape with the weird click outs.”
Her love of music intensified throughout her childhood. She sang in a choir and performed in musicals, and played the piano and saxophone as well. It is singing, though, that truly appeals to Abaya. “I feel like it’s the most emotive thing about being human at times,” she says. “Because it doesn’t really require you to find words to express anything. You can just put notes into some kind of sequence and play them with some form of expression and they can express something that you don’t even know. And it’s probably something that the composer didn’t even mean to communicate to you, but it just comes out to you that way. That is an incredible thing to have happen. Music transcends language and culture. Everyone understands music.”
Although Abaya was born in the U.S., she grew up in Nigeria, attending an American mission school, with students from Korea, Syria, Lebanon, New Zealand, and Australia, as well as kids from local Nigerian towns. “My parents are Nigerian, and they came to the United States to get their PhDs,” says Abaya. “While they were here, I was born, and they had always planned to go back, and so when I was two, they decided to be missionaries and move back with my siblings and me.”
It was an incredibly diverse and enriching environment, though Abaya originally struggled to fit in. Most missionary kids lived in their own compounds and spent time with each other, while Nigerian children spent time in their own neighborhoods. Abaya, as a Nigerian missionary, wasn’t sure which group she fit into.
Growing up as a missionary was an overwhelmingly positive experience for Abaya. She credits her parents for showing her what it meant to be selfless and the value of hard work. “My parents work very hard,” says Abaya. “And I think it’s taught me about the importance of when you’re doing something important to keep going on and keep working and not forget what the end goal is.”
“What they do is not about trying to sustain their own lives or trying to achieve a certain quality of life for themselves,” she continues. “It’s more about empowering other people to do that instead, and that applies to us as well.” Indeed, Abaya’s parents broke with traditional Nigerian parenting methods in raising her and her two older siblings. “Most typical Nigerian parents are very much about pushing their kids to be lawyers or doctors or engineers. My parents really didn’t force that on us,” says Abaya. “I think they figured out that if they left us to our own devices and just focused on working hard that we’d end up somewhere where we’d pursue careers that were good for us.”
Living in Nigeria has given so much to me. It gave me a sense of community, world-view, and culture. It gave me an understanding of what it is to be joyful in times of trial. And I feel like walking away from that is irresponsible and it feels wrong to me.
Abaya’s high school years were filled with frustration. Riots and violence were regular occurrences in her city, at one point threatening her senior year of high school, which struggled to meet the required number of school days due to closures and 24-hour curfews. “It just felt like after years of that happening that nothing was getting done. At some point it just clicked for me that I could work to make things better,” says Abaya. “Most people tell me that’s an overly lofty goal, but it’s important for me, and I feel like I wouldn’t feel comfortable not pursuing that and not making whatever difference I can however small it is.” Abaya ultimately followed her parents’ lead, as well as her older siblings, by moving to the US for college. She majored in music at Haverford College near Philadelphia, but knew her ultimate destination was law school.
Since arriving at Temple Law, Abaya has engaged in advocacy through awareness, shedding light on important legal developments in Nigeria through scholarship. It’s not enough, says Abaya, but it’s what she can do for now. “For others, clinics expose you immediately to the issues you’re trying to advocate for,” she says. “But when what you’re trying to advocate for is across the sea, it’s hard to do. I think for me, having conversations with people about these issues has been a new form of advocacy.”
She credits Temple’s Law & Public Policy Program for helping her find her path. “Before the program I had a very narrow view of what being a lawyer is and what I could do with my degree, and that was being in the courtroom.” When Abaya realized that she wasn’t interested in that type of career, it was the Law & Public Policy Program that opened her eyes to new opportunities and helped her meet others with those same feelings of uncertainty.
While participating in the program during the summer following her 1L year, Abaya wrote a policy paper on Boko Haram, an ISIS-affiliated terrorist group in Nigeria that has grown from a small regional terrorist group to a regional West African force. “The United States could play a role in helping Nigeria counter this threat,” says Abaya, “and not just immediately, but in the long run.” Abaya was able to connect with a former US Ambassador to Nigeria to discuss the paper, a meeting she claims she never would have strived for without her “fairy godmother” Professor Nancy Knauer, who leads the program and strongly emphasizes networking.
Currently, she is working with Professor Meg deGuzman on her International and Comparative Law Review comment about the African Court of Justice and Human Rights, which has proposed the addition of an international criminal chamber to the court. The addition would allow the court to hear charges that currently plague the African continent, such as human trafficking, trafficking and drugs, and corruption crimes to already established cases about genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes of aggression. The problem, says Abaya, is that the same heads of state who want to prevent the new crimes want immunity from prosecution for those crimes until they leave office. “That seems ridiculous to me,” says Abaya, who says her comment is about why the immunity clause should not be included in the expansion proposal.
There is a raised degree of emotion in Abaya’s voice as she talks about what plagues Nigeria. She is steadfast in her plan to return to her home after graduating law school. “Not once,” she replies when asked if she’s thought about just staying in the United States. “There is no option in my mind.”
“For others, clinics expose you immediately to the issues you’re trying to advocate for,” she says. “But when what you’re trying to advocate for is across the sea, it’s hard to do. I think for me, having conversations with people about these issues has been a new form of advocacy.”
In many ways, it’s personal to Abaya. “I think because I feel like I’ve had opportunities that many other Nigerians haven’t,” she says. “Living in Nigeria has given so much to me. It gave me a sense of community, world-view, and culture. It gave me an understanding of what it is to be joyful in times of trial. And I feel like walking away from that is irresponsible and it feels wrong to me.”
“That’s what this aspect of advocacy is for me. It’s giving back to this culture and this country that’s given so much to me and in a way doesn’t know how much it’s given and how much it can give to itself.”
Still, Abaya struggles to figure out the best path toward that goal. She could focus her work on human rights treaties, or help Nigerians learn to advocate for their rights. She could work for Nigerian organizations or United States organizations or for the government.
It can quickly become daunting, which is where music comes in. Abaya says that music has become an outlet for her since she began law school. “I realized after my first year that [law school] was really stressful and I had no real way to get out of my own mind,” says Abaya. “Singing allows me to just not think about any of those things, and renews my strength for when I have to focus again.”
And so Abaya stands on stage and gazes out at the empty seats in front of her. She sings, she smiles, and she laughs, until her strength is renewed and she is ready to get back to work.