As a young Muslim growing up in post-9/11 New York City, Najet Miah ’25 was looking for a way to distance herself from her identity as her people faced discrimination. She moved from one school to another, confronting the same physical and verbal hostility toward her for being Muslim. Whether she attended public schools or predominately white private schools, it was clear that people thought Islam cancelled out her American identity.
Gang violence ran rampant in her Queens neighborhood. She comes from a very loving, supportive, and educated family, a background that seldom comes to mind when many consider a stereotypical gang member. Nevertheless, the challenges that she faced from the outside world made the decision to join more appealing. At age 12, Miah had joined one of the most violent Latino gangs in the country.
In her young mind, she believed that it was safer for her to be affiliated with that group than with her Muslim identity. While she was relieved that people started to associate her with the Latino gang, and not Islam, her life quickly became complicated and dangerous. Drinking and participating in extreme forms of violence became regular activities. When she realized how uncomfortable she was with the lifestyle, she found it nearly impossible to make a safe exit.
Eventually, at 16, and a few days before she was slated to go away for college, she was charged as an adult and sentenced to eight-years for attempted murder. She had stabbed another gang member.
While her victim was on life support with less than a five percent chance of survival, her lawyer, anticipating the victim’s death, alerted her that she was possibly facing a possible 25-year sentence.
Everything changed when she received that news.
After spending her formative years at Rikers Island and Bedford Hills maximum-security prison, Najet admits that she is still trying to figure out who she is and contemplating how she can make a positive impact on the world.
She is always mindful that she would probably not be alive if she were not isolated from society and offered a chance to constructively think about her conduct.
“Truth be told, incarceration was a saving grace for me,” she said. “I had time to separate myself from the streets and society and think about the nature of my existence and all the time I had wasted not offering the good that I had to offer.”
Although days in prison were brutal, she was able to focus on her college education without the distractions of gang violence or Islamophobia. She was fortunate to have her parents pay for a correspondence degree while she attended the college programs within the prison, she said. In her free time, she prepared for the MCAT (the medical school entrance exam). She eventually earned an Associate in the Natural Sciences from Ohio University and attended Marymount Manhattan College and Bard College before completing her BA in psychology, upon release, at Queens College.
While incarcerated, she recognized her passion for language and educating. She found herself translating for non-English speaking inmates and also tutored inmates for their college courses and GED preparation. However, for her, the most fulfilling role she had in prison was her leadership role in the prison mosque; that role offered her an opportunity to help others find something to believe in. Her faith and spirituality remain central to her life today.
“I did a little soul searching. I went to different services, and I found myself falling back in line with Islam. I felt like this was the truth for me – this makes sense, and it feels very natural to me,” she said. “I found myself relearning Islam, and I was attracted to its peaceful nature and roots in truth and justice. I also valued the elevated status women in Islam enjoy. This was the Islam few people took the effort to learn. It was also the Islam that I foolishly worked so hard to distance myself from in the past.”
While the Muslim community was important to her development and change inside, today, Albany Law School has brought her another support system.
“Even after all these years, I still have this looming sense of guilt and it does interfere with my life sometimes. I also feel a lot of pressure because I see my academic performance as redemptive and a reflection of the potential of the formerly incarcerated and other marginalized communities.” Thankfully, “Here, many of my professors and peers know me and my history and express their appreciation for my ability to contribute, not in spite of my history but because of it," she said.
One of her favorite courses so far has been Professor Mary Lynch’s Multicultural Lawyering seminar. The course had a relatively small group design and the assignments gave her the opportunity to write and speak on issues related to racism, Islamophobia, and mass incarceration’s disproportionate impact on communities of color.
“The class was different than first-year doctrinal classes which, although important, didn’t offer me the same latitude for meaningful on the issues I cared most about,” she said.
“Professor Lynch has been so supportive and has played a big role in my career trajectory and my self-confidence as a legal actor," she said.
At the moment, Miah hopes to use her legal education to work on juvenile and criminal justice reform as well as immigration and asylum law. This summer, she will serve as a legal intern at Harvard Medical School & Massachusetts General Hospital's Center for Law, Brain & Behavior.
”I see my success as a lawyer as a win for my predominantly Asian and Latino immigrant community. Because I harmed a lot of people in the neighborhood, I feel a great sense of indebtedness. I can’t undo the damaged I’ve done in my community, but I can make an effort to speak to the youth and improve the quality of lives there with my legal education. And I intend to do so.”
At 28, Miah is grateful that Albany Law is part of her second chance. She looks forward to using her resources and education at Albany Law so that vulnerable communities can feel the safety and security that she wished she had from society during her youth.