Ahlam Jbara lives in Chicago, Illinois — six hours away from Detroit, Michigan — which means she can’t vote in the state’s primary election.
But the race for Michigan’s 13th Congressional District was too important, and personal, for Jbara to miss. So she packed her car, and drove six hours to volunteer for former Michigan state lawmaker Rashida Tlaib’s Congressional campaign on election day.
“As a Muslim American, as an Arab American, as a Palestinian American… I’m her, she’s me,” she told VOA during a break in distributing Tlaib’s campaign literature outside a polling station.
Across the country, about 90 Muslim Americans like Tlaib are on ballots for elected office during midterm elections this year, many running as Democrats hoping to be part of a “blue wave” that shifts control of the U.S. Congress. Tlaib is among 13 Muslim candidates running for office in the state of Michigan alone. A Detroit Free Press review of all the candidates running in Michigan’s primary election August 7 revealed that 24 of them, Tlaib among them, were immigrants or children of immigrants.
Although it’s an election in Michigan, Tlaib’s campaign for the U.S. Congress has historic, nationwide implications, particularly for Muslim American women, who view her candidacy as a door opening.
“Just getting text messages from young girls,” Tlaib explains, showing her phone, “I just got one from New York, like ‘Hi you don’t know me, but my name is Homa, and I just want you to know I’m watching this in New York.’ It makes me emotional… just thinking… ‘Oh my god, this is so wonderful.’”
From her vantage point outside the polling location, it was clear to Ahlam Jbara just how much of an impact Tlaib’s relentless door to door campaigning the last year was having on voter turnout.
“She’s built a new generation of young people who want to run for office as well…. she’s turning out first time voters, not just youth, but others who are first time voters who’ve been American citizens for a long time, even those who are born here but have never voted before because they didn’t have faith in their government.”
Those voters may have made the difference for Tlaib, who admits she had little name recognition when she started earlier this year.
But personally connecting with voters — by Tlaib’s estimation she knocked on more than 50,000 doors during her campaign — helped propel her across the finish line in a successful campaign that was, until the end, a close race.
Though overcome with emotion upon hearing the final outcome, Tlaib paid tribute to those who stuck it out with her to the very end, and took the opportunity to recognize the importance of her historic moment for her family when addressing the media and her supporters at her campaign office just before 3:00 a.m.
“I want to thank my Mom, who is from the West Bank, they are literally glued — it’s like 5:00 in the morning and now it’s more than that — they are glued to the TV… my grandmother… my aunts and uncles in Palestine are sitting by [sobbing] and watching their granddaughter win this election.”
Since there is no Republican challenger in November, the primary election is the only close race Tlaib will face before being sworn in as a freshman U.S. congresswoman — a role many Muslim Americans across the country are now watching with eagerness and hope.
“They feel like Rashida is them,” Ahlam Jbara explains. “Rashida is going to be their face, their voice in Congress. And Rashida being in Congress, is like, we’re American just like you are.”
There could soon be more like her. Somali American Muslim lawmaker Ilhan Omar is running for a Congressional seat in Minnesota on August 14, and could eventually serve alongside Rashida Tlaib in the U.S. Congress.