Ral Obioha ’08 remembers the exact day she knew she wanted to be a lawyer. She was five years old, on Christmas vacation from school, and tagged along with her mother, Theodora Oby Nwankwo, to work. Nwankwo presided as chief magistrate in the courtroom that day.
“I sat at the very back of the court with our driver when the court officer shouted ‘all rise!’ and majestically introduced her. She emerged from the chambers fully cloaked in her legal attire – elegant, dignified, beautiful, but confident,” Obioha recalled.
She looked like a lioness to her young daughter.
“Her very presence commanded magnificent attention and respect,” said Obioha. “Yet, she addressed the lawyers she was presiding over with firm poise and adjudicated the matters they presented with compassion.”
Her mother went on to represent Nigeria on the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) until her death in 2017. Obioha, as a private immigration lawyer and advocate for human rights and gender equality, has proudly carried on her mother’s legacy. She has been named Eastern Mennonite University’s Outstanding Young Alum of 2021.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology and history in 2008, Obioha was awarded a merit scholarship to Howard University School of Law. In addition to her juris doctorate, she also holds a masters of law in international human rights law from American University. After working in a Washington DC law firm for several years, she founded a private law firm in Houston, Texas, where she represents clients seeking permanent residency and citizenship in the U.S.
“Whenever a family is being reunited or a client naturalizes, I feel very truly fulfilled. I also enjoy the advocacy, especially ensuring that my clients’ rights are not being violated,” she said. “The smile on a client’s face knowing they have a second chance to pursue a better life is truly irreplaceable – it’s what keeps me going.”
She is also executive director of the NGO her parents founded: Civil Resource Development and Documentation Center, or CIRDDOC, which is based in Nigeria and works for the protection and promotion of human rights, women’s rights, gender equality, and good governance in the country and beyond.
“Our projects are typically aimed at eliminating gender-based violence of all forms,” Obioha explained, “campaigning for the end of female genital mutilation and cutting, enhancing government accountability through budget transparency, and increasing access to health information for vulnerable population.”
She also volunteers with multiple organizations, providing free legal services to low-income families, and is a guest lecturer at Columbia University.
Obioha’s ambition was apparent at a young age. She was born in Washington DC to Nigerian parents, and then grew up in Nigeria. She graduated high school at the age of 16 and immediately enrolled at EMU, a natural choice: All six of her siblings are alumni, as are two of her uncles, two aunts and “at least” seven cousins. “My family has always loved EMU,” she said.
Even so, starting college as a 16-year-old was “challenging.” At first she felt out of place. But friendships soon grew. By her senior year, Obioha was president of the Black Student Union and two other organizations. To her, the most valuable aspects of her undergraduate education were “the welcoming and inclusive nature of the people. The diversity. The celebration of different cultures. My professors. It was indeed an enriching experience.”
When she went directly into law school, the 23-year-old felt ready, both academically and socially.
In 2018, Obioha founded the “Vic & Oby Scholarship Fund,” named after her parents, to help other ambitious young immigrants go to college. College, graduate, and law students can also qualify if their parents are immigrants, or if they aspire to a career path that will improve the lives of immigrants in America. Thus far, the fund has awarded $5,000 scholarships to eight undergraduate and graduate students.
She was inspired to start the fund by her parents’ example of helping everyone they could, from adopting children to taking in family members to starting CIRDDOC. They even gave their children names steeped in this spirit.
“My middle name, Eziafakaego, means ‘being known for good is better than being rich,'” said Obioha. “My sister’s name, Ogomegbunam, means ‘may my good work not kill me – but instead bring me good.’ My other sister’s name, Obiageli, means ‘all who come to my home will be fed.’”
Now from her home in Houston, Obioha carries on the family legacy in so many ways. There is still much work to be done.
First published in Crossroads alumni magazine, Spring/Summer 2021, and EMU News 6/29/21