In late January, the morning after President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the United States, Zahra Billoo ’09 raced to San Francisco International Airport. Along with her team from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, she anxiously tracked the flights of visa and green-card holders who had lifted off just as the ban took effect. Billoo camped out until 3 a.m. offering legal services, then returned Sunday morning. She witnessed an elderly Iranian couple being detained for more than 30 hours, without being permitted to contact relatives waiting outside.
By Monday, most of the travelers Billoo was advocating for had been released. But her work was just beginning. As executive director of CAIR’s San Francisco Bay Area chapter, the civil rights group’s oldest branch, she has spent the past week fighting the travel ban by any means possible, from the courts to the airwaves. She’s averaging less than four hours of sleep a night, and it’s only the second week of the new administration.
“What does the rest of the month look like? The pace and intensity has definitely increased,” she says.
Billoo, who has held her position for nearly eight years, was busy even before the travel ban was announced. The day after President Trump’s inauguration, she spoke at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. “We are unafraid and will not be silenced,” she said, her voice full of conviction. “We cannot be free at each other’s expense or if any of us remains targeted.”
On January 30, Billoo joined 14 other named plaintiffs in suing President Trump and other top government officials in a lawsuit filed in the Eastern District of Virginia. One of many legal challenges to the travel ban, the complaint called the executive order unconstitutional and requested injunctive relief. “Yes, this is my first time suing a sitting president,” Billoo told reporters.
Outside of the courtroom, she has spoken out against the ban in the media, including appearances on CNBC, MSNBC and local public radio programs. Starting in early February, she’s been overseeing a series of emergency information sessions to educate community members about the order.
Her work continues behind the scenes. “Every waking moment has been a phone call from a concerned community member, an elected official or someone in the media. The fear isn’t just about this specific executive order, but that it falls in line with an attempt to ban Muslims from the United States. It starts the process of implementing a values test, which sounds like McCarthy 2.0.”
Billoo sees the events of the past week as the culmination of a surge in anti-Muslim sentiment over the past several years. In 2015, CAIR observed a record number of attacks on mosques and other Muslim organizations. That included Billoo’s own office in Santa Clara, which was evacuated that December after a staffer opened a letter containing hate mail and a substance resembling Anthrax.
For Billoo, the cause is personal. The daughter of Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, she had her headscarf pulled off by bullies as a kid. She remembers family members being detained at airports and getting visits from the FBI for no apparent reason. After 9/11, when she was a freshman at California State University, Long Beach, her dad urged her to stay indoors for her safety. To this day, people sometimes express surprise that she’s a lawyer or speaks English.
Billoo took up activism in college, where she studied political science and human resources management. She was president of the Muslim Student Association, got involved with student government and the Campus Progressives, and interned with labor rights groups. She also interned with CAIR, where she researched treatment of Muslims at airports. “To be up close and personal with government targeting of my community was really eye-opening,” she says.
Growing up Billoo had wanted to be a corporate lawyer, but by college she realized she wanted to use the law to help her community. At UC Hastings, she gained experience with direct service by interning with Bay Area Legal Aid, participating in a clinic through what was then the Legal Aid Society Employment Law Center, and volunteering with the General Assistance Advocacy Project.
Billoo joined CAIR-SFBA as a program director after graduating in 2009, then took over as executive director the following year. During her tenure, the chapter has successfully sued Abercrombie & Fitch on behalf of a woman who was fired for wearing a headscarf. It has also assisted several hundred community members who received visits from law enforcement and filed suits on behalf of those unfairly targeted.
“The work I’m doing is about protecting me and my community, but it’s not just about that. It’s also about my values as an American,” she says. “It’s about protecting those who are directly impacted today and preventing it from happening tomorrow.”
In her sparse spare time, Billoo bakes cakes for a charity that serves foster children.