[Oral History] | Making Moves, by Beenish Ahmed | Harper's Magazine

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[Oral History]

Making Moves

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Muslim Americans on pursuing political careers in the age of Trump 

[Bonus track]

Muslim Americans share their reasons for getting involved in politics.

Think about your mother’s cooking,” political trainer Monica Perez tells a group of nearly 30 people as they toss around ideas for stump speeches. The workshop, at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, is part of a weekend-long training for immigrant and first-generation Americans considering running for office. Founded by Sayu Bhojwani in 2010, the New American Leaders Project organizes at least four sessions a year in an effort to make American democracy more representative of the country’s changing demographics. Most applicants cite some integral part of their identities — their religion, race, ethnicity, or immigrant background — as the main obstacle they’ll face on the campaign trail. But Bhojwani encourages them to capitalize on those differences, telling them: “You bring something unique to the American experience.” Even during an election where religious and racial vitriol fueled Donald Trump’s successful presidential bid, two Muslim Americans won state house seats — and Bhojwani says she expects to see more Muslims win elections in 2018 and beyond. The number of Muslim-American applicants to NALP trainings has doubled in the last year. “What we’re seeing,” Bhojwani says, “is not people going underground but people standing up even firmer and taller and saying, ‘I am not going to let this happen to my community again.’” I talked to several Muslim Americans who attended the April training about why they’re getting more involved in politics.

Ghida Dagher, 28, works at the United Way of Southeastern Michigan and was helping train participants at the NALP workshop. She served as campaign manager for Abdullah Hammoud, who became the first Arab-American to represent Dearborn in the Michigan State House in 2016.

I moved to Detroit when I was nine as a refugee from Sierra Leone. Both of my parents are Lebanese by heritage. My mom taught English to immigrant moms and was a salesperson at Macy’s and Hudson’s. My dad runs medical clinics. Although he is a medical doctor, he can’t practice with his French degree in the U.S.

One of the things about being an immigrant and a refugee is that you have to grow up very quickly. I felt like I had to step up in my own way to help with the family. Growing up I always wanted to be a doctor like my dad, because I thought that’s what security and stability meant. In college, I realized that wasn’t the right path for me. I remember calling my family and saying, “Mom, Baba, I’m not going to be a doctor.” I expected a really negative reaction, but they were like, “Okay, that’s fine. Now what are you going to be?”

I started telling them about the kind of work I wanted to do and they didn’t get it. I had to phrase it this way: I want to see change in the world and in order to see change in the world I don’t want to just help one or two people, I want to help on a large scale. I think the most effective way to do that is through policies.

I was never somebody who grew up saying, “I’m going to be a politician.” But in times like this there is a sense of responsibility that all of us are feeling from underrepresented communities. We don’t have elected bodies that are reflective of our communities. I think that’s why a lot of us are stepping up now. It’s completely unacceptable to say someone can’t be an American or be a part of American society because of their religion. My immigrant experience and my Muslim experience ground me, but it’s really my American experience that propels me. The future that I want for America is one that many others want as well.

Hanan Yahya, 23, is a community organizer and educator living in Detroit. She moved to the U.S. from Yemen with her family when she was three.

I’m number eight out of nine siblings. My mom is illiterate. My father didn’t go to school either but he does know how to read and write. When we moved to the U.S., my older siblings had to sacrifice their opportunity for school for the rest of us.

I always wanted to do more than anybody I know has ever done. It wasn’t even an ego thing, it was like, “This is for my family, this is for my community. I have to do it for them.”

I went to a small charter school with limited resources that focused on standardized exams rather than the real potential of its students. It took a substitute teacher noticing me from the crowd and saying, “You are going to be someone and I will help you” to make me realize that there was so much that needed to be done in my community. I want to be able to advocate for schools that create an environment for students to thrive academically and intellectually, to be challenged in various fields, to be involved in extracurriculars, and in the community, and to provide leadership development. This is not a revolutionary idea. But it’s not happening for the children of Detroit.

My family is definitely cautious of supporting me, knowing how risky running for office is to my reputation, to my family’s reputation, and to my personal safety. I think there’s a fear that every move I make and everything that comes out of my mouth will be representative of my family, of my community, of Islam. To some extent I get it. There are so many risks. But at the end of the day it’s still a job.

It’s not something new for my identity to be thrown in the mix and be used as fuel. From the everyday glances and glares, people who belittle me and think I’m inferior, I know what’s coming. Being negatively stereotyped on the campaign trail is definitely a fear, but it’s also a driving factor in why I want to do this. Most of my work is in the realm of representation — teaching and inspiring the next generation. Getting elected would be the epitome of this work.

Maytham Alshadood, 32, is a registered nurse in Denver, Colorado, who also helps resettle refugees through the International Rescue Committee. He immigrated to the U.S. after working as an interpreter for American troops in Iraq.

I was born and raised in Baghdad. In 2003, when the invasion happened, I graduated high school and went to the College of Veterinary Medicine in Mosul. I was only able to finish two years because violence there escalated. I decided to postpone my studies and go back to Baghdad. My best friend and I decided to work for the U.S. Army as interpreters.

I was a part of an advisory and training team that helped to establish the New Iraqi Army. After doing that for three years, I came to the United States through a special immigrant visa. I had already been screened and cleared to work in a very sensitive position. I proved my loyalty more than once. I experienced IEDs, firefights, and constant threats. But I still had to go through the rigorous vetting process. It took me almost two years to get through the process and be granted a visa.

I’m very proud of the work that I have done for the United States. I was in a unique position where I served my old country and my new country simultaneously. I want to continue serving my community here. The United States is a global force, and our actions have ripple effects. I work in refugee resettlement, and I think we can take more responsibility and refine the work that we do. We receive families one at a time. I think there are things that can be done at the city, county, and state level so we can help more than one person at a time. A lot of people see refugees and immigrants as burdens. However, they usually become productive members of our communities. I think we can do a better job of showing people what refugees have to offer.

If we restrict the entry of refugees and immigrants, we’ll be less exposed to other culture and ideas. I want to run for office because of that lack of representation, to bring more diversity into the political process. There is a perspective that’s missing, and I feel like I can bring that perspective to the forefront.

Fatou-Seydi Sarr, 42, is a community organizer based in Detroit. She is a single mother who grew up in Senegal.

As a community organizer, I know that there is only so much you can do in the trenches. For example, Michigan voted to take away driver licenses from undocumented people in 2008. Detroit approved a municipal ID, but it doesn’t allow them to drive. To further the work I’m doing, I have to be able to impact the legal side of things, to think about what legislation is needed and how it is being written. Are we really thinking of the people that live in our district or are we just thinking about money or simple ideology? I think we need to go back to the basics — understanding social welfare as something that we all aspire to, regardless of where we come from, regardless of the color of our skin, regardless of how much money we make.

I am an African immigrant and I am a woman. I am a single mother. I’m a Muslim also. I know that rhetoric can be used against me. People might say I’m just newcomer, I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe my values don’t align with what some people would call “American values.” Maybe some people will think, because I’m a Muslim I might be a liability. People equate Muslims with terrorists.

Negative stereotypes are always going to exist. But I believe that people also see beyond bias. They know when you are lying, and they know when you are being authentic. I think the key is being authentic and being who I am and showing that I care about the issues — about folks that look like me and those who don’t but are encountering the same struggles. At the end of the day, we are living under the same system, and we all want the same basic stuff for our families.

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