In fourth grade, her teacher asked the class to draw pictures of what they were going to be when they grew up.
There were firefighters, police officers, ballerinas.
“And I drew a girl surrounded by books,” said Agnieszka Fryszman, now 59.
Which one of these kids do you think grew up to be a slayer of corporate giants, an avenger who has confronted Nazi profiteers, genocide, human traffickers and unscrupulous military subcontractors, from Tulsa to Rwanda? Who made the world reconsider Switzerland’s position in the Holocaust?
Who just brought ExxonMobil to its knees after two decades of fighting torture allegations against its hired security forces in Indonesia? The bookworm.
If you see Fryszman on the streets of Washington, D.C., she looks like someone who drew that picture 50 years ago — an unassuming woman with an overstuffed L.L.Bean bag weighing down one shoulder, keeping her gray hair, wearing comfort sandals, a lilac top, glasses.
The former hockey mom, camera-shy and averse to attention, is among the most feared and celebrated human rights lawyers in the world.
“Brilliant,” the Human Trafficking Legal Center said about her “cutting-edge work” when it gave her the advocate of the year award in 2020, noting that her “leadership in the anti-trafficking strategic litigation field is unmatched.”
Her most recent win came outside a D.C. courtroom in May, a week before a trial two decades in the making was about to begin.
This one began in 2001, when 11 villagers in the Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra came forward with horrific allegations of rape, murder and torture by Indonesian military units hired to guard the precious assets of the Arun gas fields.
This region rich in natural gas generated huge profits for ExxonMobil.
One of the villagers said guards hired by ExxonMobil shot his leg three times, then “took him to a camp and tortured him for several hours while he continued to bleed from the gunshot wounds. The security personnel broke his kneecap, smashed his skull, and burned him with cigarettes,” according to a 2006 complaint Fryszman and lawyers from her human rights team at Cohen Milstein filed in the U.S. District Court in D.C.
It’s a gruesome document, with allegations of rape, electrocution, a pile of human heads, graffiti carved into one villager’s back. For two decades, it was a story followed by the world’s media. And it ended quietly eight days before the trial was set to start, with some tears from the exhausted villagers — to whom Fryszman gives the credit. ExxonMobil settled for an undisclosed (but probably huge) amount.
The girl with all the books didn’t know she wanted to be a human rights lawyer. But she was in America as a political refugee, an emigrant from Warsaw whose parents escaped communist Poland to find work and freedom outside the oppressive regime. She knew something about persecution.
Her father died early, and childhood was about work and survival. She learned to speak English from TV — cartoons, mostly. And from all those books.
After graduating from Brown University, she worked on Capitol Hill. She wanted more, and sacrificed to get it, attending law school at night because that’s what she could afford.
She walked because the bus was too expensive.
Fryszman didn’t really want to do this interview. Her law firm was excited to promote the ExxonMobil settlement, but when we had coffee in a park and I started probing her childhood, she wasn’t all that into it.
One of her cases was turned into a book — “The Girl From Kathmandu: Twelve Dead Men and a Woman’s Quest for Justice.” She hasn’t read it — she doesn’t want to see herself in print. “But my husband did,” she said. “He said it was good.”
But her story is worth telling, and not just because of the stunning things she has achieved. These victories across the globe were won by a woman who is otherwise everywoman, signing her sons’ school paperwork while doing field interviews in Nepal, racing to hockey games, juggling the family schedule. Her career is inspiration for all the bookworms.
Without fanfare or outsize ego, Fryszman:
- Squared off against German and Austrian companies accused of profiting off Nazi labor camps, winning settlements in the billions of dollars. Yale Law School said the litigation “led academics to revise their assessment of Switzerland’s relationship with Nazi Germany and exposed the extent of business participation in the Holocaust.”
- Represented families of Nepali laborers killed on the way to U.S. military bases in Iraq and settled the world’s first cases of fishing-boat slavery in Thailand, shedding light on human rights abuses in the seafood industry.
- Helped Paul Rusesabagina — the man who during the 1994 genocide famously ran the hotel dramatized in the film “Hotel Rwanda” — return to the United States after he was kidnapped in 2020.
- Secured the release of two brothers held in Guantanamo Bay for 20 years who never had any criminal charges. She also won one of the largest settlements for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack in New York.
- Filed one of the first cases — which was not successful — on behalf of victims of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre.
Not all lawyers get to do such meaningful work. Fryszman convinced her firm to start a human rights division, and she likes to remind young lawyers that getting pro bono work at the white-shoe firms isn’t impossible.
“There’s so many kids going to law school who want to do this; a lot of them are siphoned off into big firms,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean they can’t do good work there. You can always look for opportunities.”
She tries to stay in touch with some of her clients, seeing the ripple effect one court win can have on an entire village. There’s a woman from the trafficking case in Nepal who now owns a big house in Kathmandu; her kids go to an American school. Another client bought a sock factory with his settlement, employing the village. He gave Fryszman a giant bag of socks as a thank-you.
“These are all the victims of forced labor and trafficking,” she said. “I think one of the things is so enraging to me, they’re terrific people who just wanted to make life better for their families.”
Like her family did.
“I always thought I, like, do this out of love,” she said. “But I think I do it out of rage.”
Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things.
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