Fayrouz Saad had just started university when two planes struck the World Trade Centre on 11 September, 2001.
The child of immigrants and a practising Muslim, Ms Saad grew up in the heavily Arab-American city of Dearborn, Michigan. Up to that point, she said, she hadn’t personally experienced much harassment or discrimination. But her parents, who had immigrated from Lebanon some 40 years earlier, were concerned.
“That day, my parents came and picked me up and they took me home, because they were worried about anti-Arab and anti-Muslim backlash happening on campus,” Ms Saad told The Independent.
“And I’ll be honest,” she added, “that was the first time that I ever even realised that this was a thing – that there was a stereotype against Arabs and Muslims in this country.”
Her parents kept her out of school for days. When she returned to the University of Michigan, she had no idea what to expect. And she certainly did not predict what she found waiting for her: a line of friends and neighbours outside her dorm room, waiting to welcome her back.
“I say that I‘came of age’ in the post-9/11 era, because of this experience specifically,” she said, “and really believing that this is what America is, and that this is what I want to be a part of.”
She added: “That’s what I want to fight for. That’s what people want America to be.”
Now, the 34-year-old is hoping to bring this fight to the highest levels of American politics. She is running for Congress in Michigan’s 11th District, hoping to replace the white, male, Republican representative in office – Dave Trott. If she succeeds, she will be the first Muslim woman ever to serve in the US Congress.
The milestone is particularly resonant now, under a President who previously promised to ban all Muslims from the country. Ms Saad often says that she doesn’t want to run “the anti-Trump campaign”, and prefers to focus on her policy proposals and values. But, she admits that, “a lot of the things that I’m fighting for, a lot of the things I want to see changed, and a portion of what pushed me to run, is to fight back against his agenda”.
A President that Ms Saad would rather talk about is former President Barack Obama. If elected, she will share with him the distinction of being a “first” – a member of a minority group who broke through a political glass ceiling for her community.
The two leaders also share similar political views, focusing on issues like expanding health care, supporting immigrants and boosting small businesses. They both have midwestern roots, at least one immigrant parent and a name that confuses most Americans.
“In Arabic, my name means precious stone. In English, it means at least 17 different spellings on my Starbucks cup,” Ms Saad joked in her first campaign video.
What makes the comparison even more apt is Ms Saad’s history within the Obama administration. Shortly after finishing university, she joined Mr Obama’s Department of Homeland Security to work on “community policing”: a fancy term for strengthening relationships between immigrant communities and their local law enforcement.
Ms Saad has even met the former President – three times – at White House events for Muslim administration members. At one event, Mr Obama gave her hardworking, immigrant family a shout-out. Later, he posed for a picture with the candidate and her mother.
While Ms Saad is undeniably a fan of Mr Obama —“I’m a groupie,” she admits — she resists the idea that they are the same.
“I think the great thing about our democracy is that we can love our elected leaders and respect them, but at the same time challenge some of the things that they’ve done or said,” she said.
One area where their politics differ is national security. After working with the DHS, Ms Saad said, she became convinced of the need for a more “whole of government” approach to community policing: – expanding the definition of “security” to mean things like quality healthcare and access to education, too.
“I often felt like it needs to be a more integrated approach and a broader approach,” she said. She found herself wanting to tell people: “Ok, this is great, but let’s build off of it as well.”
This desire for the government to do more, to provide more, is part of what makes Ms Saad, as she calls herself, “the progressive candidate”.
She readily supports expanding Medicare to provide health care coverage to all Americans. (“It just seems obvious to me, she says.) She advocates for creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. She has vowed to protect environmental regulations that the Trump administration says are “bad for business”.
These views might be perfect for someone running in California, but Ms Saad is not. Michigan’s 11th district has been Republican – with only one brief, Democratic interruption – since 1967. And the district was redrawn by Republicans in 2010, leading it to favour conservative candidates even more.
But Ms Saad declared her candidacy even before the current representative, Mr Trott, announced his plans to retire. She knew the incumbent was vulnerable, she said, because of the growing grassroots action in the district.
When Mr Trott announced his support for the repeal of Obamacare, residents of Michigan’s 11th turned out to protest. When Mr Trump declared his intention to end DACA, a programme that protects childhood immigrants, district members marched through the streets.
In February, when Mr Trott skipped a town hall and avoided his angry constituents, they brought a live chicken to take his place.
“I think that people are going to continue to demand change,” Ms Saad said, echoing a familiar Obama campaign line. “People want elected leaders who are going to fight for progressive values.”
It is almost a cliche these days to accuse progressive candidates of ignoring identity politics – of focusing so much on economics that they forget issues of race, gender, ability and sexual orientation. Senator Bernie Sanders was certainly accused of such, and has only solidified the criticism by opening his arms to anti-abortion Democrats.
Ms Saad, in many ways, borrows from the Sanders playbook. In speeches and interviews, she focuses on things like healthcare and small businesses, eschewing typical “women’s issues” like pay equality and maternity leave. She even frames her work with immigrant communities as an exercise in “economic development” rather than “immigrant affairs”.
Asked whether she plans to talk about identity politics during her campaign, Ms Saad demurred. “I think focusing on the issues is the most important thing,” she said.
But whether she likes it or not, Ms Saad’s campaign will unavoidably be tied to her identity.
Her Arab American and Muslim roots are, in fact, what pulled her into public service in the first place. In the wake of her positive experience after 9/11, she began to notice some negative changes in the country, too: increased surveillance; intrusive policies; unjust wars. She became convinced that the problem was a lack of diverse voices in policy-making.
“I needed to be a voice,” she said. “I wanted to be part of the policy making process. I wanted to understand how these decisions were made, how these things came together.”
Joining the DHS was only her first step in learning how the political pie is made. When she left the Obama administration, she went to the Harvard Kennedy school to study urban policy and economic development. Later, she served as director of immigrant affairs for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. She still enjoys organising political campaigns in her local community.
Ms Saad’s political philosophy can perhaps best be summed up by her favourite phrase: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
When discussing her faith, Ms Saad likes to bring up a research study that found the majority of Americans have never met Muslim. Her goal, she says, is not to educate all of these people on the details of her religion. Instead, she hopes to slowly change their ideas about leadership.
“My identity is who I am, but it’s not who I represent, or how I represent,” she said. “But it also means that I’m helping change, or at least get people to adjust, their idea of what the face of leadership looks like.”
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