Ghandour aims to be Oregon's first Muslim, Arab woman judge
Rima Ghandour's childhood lullaby was the sound of explosions.
Though it has been decades since she traded the Mediterranean shores of Beirut for a law practice in a city with the same nickname, her first memories will always be the chaos of the Lebanese Civil War and, later, the distress of living as a refugee in battle-scarred Iraq.
Ghandour, 48, and a resident of Southwest Portland, now has a shot at making history: as the first woman Arab American and Muslim American judge in Multnomah County — and the state of Oregon.
She says her experience of the Iran-Iraq war and Saddam Hussein's dictatorship underpin her appreciation for liberty, justice and the freedoms promised by the Bill of Rights.
"Living through two different occupations," she told Pamplin Media Group, "you did not have the right to free speech, the right to free assembly. This was ingrained. You always worry, 'if I say something, are my parents going to be arrested?'"
Armed gangs assaulted several of her cousins, but there was no recourse to be found from local courts, which were easily swayed by money and power. At 18, she traveled to America for college, and was soon studying U.S. jurisprudence — and the lofty goals it strives for.
"We have the basis to achieve greatness in our legal system," Ghandour said.
After passing through a six-way gantlet during the May primary, Ghandour will face federal Civil Rights attorney and U.S. Air Force veteran Adrian Brown in the runoff election for an open seat in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
An article on Brown's candidacy will be published next week.
Ghandour stresses that church and state must always remain separate, but believes "representation matters," and that diversity on the bench can improve outcomes.
Some defendants might be put at ease in her court, perhaps thinking: "She's got a funny sounding name and a darker complexion, maybe she'll understand," she said.
The lawyer knows what it's like to be on the other side of a translator, too, after she traveled to the U.S. for surgery with her mother, who did not speak English, at an early age. She also has faced discrimination because of her faith from clients who canceled contracts after learning she is Muslim, as well as in hateful messages on social media.
"A lot of BIPOC people will experience prejudice or comments like that, or biases in everyday life, because of who they are. I've lived through that. Not once, but many times," said Ghandour, using an acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color.
Judicial races can be a bit of a rarity in Oregon, as many judges retire midway through their six-year terms and let the governor pick their replacements. Both candidates in this campaign have racked up long lists of endorsements from local elected leaders.
Ghandour's supporters include Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner and Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan, while Brown has been endorsed by Multnomah District Attorney Mike Schmidt, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and the SEIU and IBEW unions.
There are just a handful of Muslim American judges across the United States, and most are men. Oregon's first male Muslim American judge, Mustafa T. Kasubhai, served in Lane County before becoming the nation's first Muslim American federal judge. He was appointed to the U.S. District of Oregon in 2018.
The nation's first Muslim American woman judge, Sheila Abdus-Salaam, was elected in New York in 1991.
A co-founder of the Arab American Cultural Center of Oregon, Ghandour hopes her campaign will inspire other underrepresented groups to run for office, and help others see past their prejudice against those from the Middle East.
"We're no different," she said. "We have the ambitions, the same desire, the same love for family, community and country that everybody else has."
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