For Mariyam Cementwala, a policy adviser in the Middle East Unit of the Office of International Religious Freedom in the Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, people should find common ground, even if they don’t agree with each other’s policies.
There are still reasons to find common ground.
As a child, Cementwala was a very curious individual and “never took information at face value.” Since the age of 9, she wanted to become a lawyer. She even argued her own age with her sister.
During an early conversation with her family, Cementwala’s sister would tell her, “You’re 10 years old, you should act like it.”
“No, I’m 9 years, 5 months, a week, a day, an hour and 15 minutes old,” she’d explain.
Politics intrigued her at a very young age. She reflected on the time when she was with a friend listening to the news on the radio in the sixth grade and hearing of the first attacks in the Gulf War. The coverage, she remembers, was led by Wolf Blitzer on CNN.
“I knew early on I had this interest in world affairs, and it always intrigued me; politics intrigued me, but I didn’t like politics as much as I liked what came out of it – the policy.”
Cementwala, 38, was born in India and early on resided in Florida and Wasco. She was also born blind. But she grew up “formatively in many ways” in Bakersfield and attended Actis Junior High and West High School.
It was at West High school where her interest in the law started to formulate. She was involved in “Teen Court,” an alternative resolution program – where teenagers who committed a misdemeanor offense would be tried by a jury of their peers. She took speech and debate and became a part of the academic decathlon; all extracurricular activities that in turn would contribute to becoming a lawyer.
She attributes a lot of her success to her high school teachers and counselor.
“Intellectually, I had an amazing set of teachers from Gwen Anderson to Dave Brewer to Troy Mehlhaff, my counselor, to Don Vettel, my speech and debate coach,” she said.
After high school, Cementwala attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she graduated with her political science degree with a focus in international relations and a minor in English. Shortly thereafter, she became a recipient of the George J. Mitchell scholarship program, which is a national, competitive scholarship sponsored by the US-Ireland Alliance and named to honor former U.S. Senator George Mitchell.
Cementwala was one of 12 recipients to travel to Ireland and study Human Rights Law at colleges and universities and to “be ambassadors of young America and American values.” She traveled during the time of the Iraq War, and it was in Ireland where she experienced a discomforting feeling being an American in another country.
“This was a space that really made me feel ... made me want to do something,” she said. “Sometimes the lack of understanding about a policy, or the lack of agreement on a policy, can destroy relationships or even obstruct them from starting, and I was fascinated by what I was seeing and the tone and the shift in tone was so dramatic, and that had an impact on me.”
She, then, went on to work on the drafting of the U.N. Treaty of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
She attended law school and graduated from UC Berkeley and received her Juris Doctor degree. A top-tier Washington law firm picked her up, and it was while practicing law that she realized it was not her true calling.
“The path that I had set out for myself, thinking what I want to do is practice law and be in the legal space was probably not the right place for my interests and my passion,” she said.
So, she took the Foreign Service test, passed and has been in her current position as a policy adviser for six years and worked in Abu Dhabi, New Delhi and Riyadh.
“I think that if you can keep your integrity and make hard choices and do the best that you can do to serve your country in the best way possible, that’s the victory in this job,” Cementwala said. ￼