In order to drive change, strong leadership is needed on all levels of government: federal, state and city. Ahmad Rafah is leading the way in Santa Clara, CA and is currently running for City Council as the first American Muslim and ethnic minority in the city’s 150 year history. Emerge USA’s Communications Coordinator Baura Zia recently spoke with Mr. Rafah about his campaign.
Mr. Rafah, please tell us about your background.
My family escaped from the Soviet-Afghan War in the 80s and were fortunately relocated to the United States. When we relocated, my family lost everything we had — we barely had money and my father, who was already a doctor, couldn’t practice here. We lived in poverty most of our lives, with my mom supporting us as a teacher while my father worked to become a licensed physician again.
That story is familiar to many of the Afghans who became refugees of war at the time. We were all devastated by what happened there, but it made us tough, resilient, and resourceful. I’m proud of the Afghan community and how far we’ve come together.
I graduated from university with high honors in Chemistry. I could have followed in my dad’s footsteps and become a doctor, but I wanted to pursue a form of public service that would make a wider impact — to one day be in a position to solve regional problems like disease, poverty, public safety, discrimination, and housing. So I chose to work in government and politics to figure out how to address our biggest problems.
Since then, I’ve been a teacher, community organizer, and Deputy Communications Director to Congressman Mike Honda, who represents Silicon Valley — including the City of Santa Clara, where I live. In Santa Clara, I serve as President and Founder of the City of Santa Clara Democratic Club, am an active member of the Santa Clara Rotary, and was appointed to the Santa Clara Charter Review Committee.
What inspired you to run for City Council?
I was inspired to run for City Council because I remember what it was when my family first came to this country as refugees of war from Afghanistan — we were completely alone and helpless. We only survived because the government and our local community helped us get on our feet and gave us the chance to build a better life.
My entire family was inspired by that experience to give back to the people that helped us, those who gave us a voice we never had coming from Afghanistan. Now, my dad is a doctor, my mother is a teacher, my sister is a social worker, and my brother is an anti-bullying advocate. I have dedicated my entire professional career to public service, as a teacher and most recently a Congressional aide, so that I could become someone who gives a voice to the voiceless, and hope to the hopeless.
What issues are most important to you and how do you plan on bringing change to those areas?
My top issues are fixing the traffic congestion, finding solutions to the housing crisis, and giving a voice to residents in Santa Clara who feel like they have no connection to the city government.
First and foremost, as a professional who lives and works in Santa Clara, I experience the extreme traffic congestion day-in, day-out. I know what it’s like to be stuck on El Camino or Lafayette during peak hours. This traffic problem is even spilling into residential areas as drivers try to find more and more ways to avoid traffic, which endangers children walking to and from their schools and pedestrians in general. This problem didn’t just come out of nowhere — it’s been here for years, decades. And yet the City Council has never even seriously put any effort into comprehensively planning how to ease the congestion. That’s the first time I’m going to do as a member of the Council, because too many working professionals that fuel our local economy are spending time in traffic rather than time with their families.
Secondly, I believe that once we focus our energy into creating a comprehensive transportation grid and solving that issue, more and more residents would feel comfortable with the intense development projects popping up in Santa Clara. The Council is seeing a lot of opposition to their developments because they haven’t shown they are capable of dealing with problems that their residents experience every day in relation to the traffic issue. We need to focus development in transit areas, like near the Caltrain station, and make sure we’re creating transit villages that encourage walking rather than driving.
Lastly, and most personally, I believe the Council needs a new perspective, one that is more relatable to most Santa Clarans. The Council, for so many years, has been made up of people from the same ethnic, economic, and age group. I believe working Santa Clarans, young Santa Clarans, and new Santa Clarans also deserve a voice on the Council, and I believe I can represent their concerns and make this a better place for them to live, work, and raise their families in.
What can you say about the nature of this year’s election, specifically touching on Donald Trump and the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric?
To me, the anti-Muslim rhetoric that is being tolerated and spouted by the media and other politicians is disgusting, reprehensible, and frightening. Donald Trump, and others like him, have given racists a platform to incite violence against innocent, peaceful Muslims and other ethnic minorities throughout the country. Even famous celebrities like Aziz Ansari have come out saying they fear for the lives of their parents, relatives, and friends.
A huge reason I’m running for City Council is to combat that hateful rhetoric and show the community that there is hope. No matter how hard they will try to cut us down and make us feel like second-class citizens, they can’t take away our voices and our right to serve the country — which is as much ours as it is theirs.
I grew up during 9/11 — I was always afraid of the first day of school, because the teacher always said my name wrong and kids always laughed at me and called me names, like “terrorist.” I’m running to end that cycle. I’m running so that Muslim kids won’t ever feel like I did on the first day of school — that they’d be proud to have a “funny” name like “Ahmad Rafah” or “Barack Obama.” I’m running to give those kids the hope they deserve.
What is your stance on the refugee crisis? Gun reform? The results of the Brexit referendum?
As Congressman Honda’s main advisor on Middle East and Muslim issues, I made sure that he did everything to make sure the American government supported the Syrian refugees during the height of their migration. The Congressman was on the forefront of advocating for helping the refugees because I was a refugee. I’ve been there. No one should turn their backs on people who are running from war, who are just looking to survive. I did everything I could to be there for them, as the government was there for me when my family came here.
With regard to the Brexit referendum, as a Muslim, I definitely felt that the movement to leave the EU was inspired by anti-Muslim hate in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. I think many people who voted to leave were uninformed of the consequences of that decision and that they let the hateful rhetoric of a prejudiced minority get the better of them. The campaign to leave the EU was based a lot on fear-mongering against the refugees and the Muslim community, and it led at least half of British voters to vote against their interest. Now, they are suffering from those consequences — and that’s exactly the danger of letting hateful, xenophic rhetoric have a place in society.
Why is this year’s election a historic one?
On the Presidential level, this election is historic because America may elect its first woman president — following the lead of many other successful, developed countries. It’s also historic because it will demonstrate how equality and diversity can overcome the hate, violence, racism, and discrimination that Donald Trump glorifies and represents.
My election will also be a historic one. If I’m elected, I would become the first ethnic minority and Muslim to serve on Santa Clara City Council in its 150-year history. I would likely become the only Muslim in elected office in the San Francisco Bay Area. And last, but not least, I would make history as the first Afghan to ever be elected in the United States.
What do you say to American Muslims on the importance of staying politically involved and civically engaged in this years’ election? And beyond?
I would say that, if this election year has taught our community anything, it’s that we need our own voices in government to defend our people, our faith, and our futures. If we stand any chance of being able to shape the discussions happening in the media, to combat hateful legislation being passed against us in the local, state, or federal level — we need to elect Muslim candidates.
I work for one of the strongest supporters of the Muslim community in Congress, but I can tell you that I have had to live with decisions he made that were not friendly to the Muslim community. Imagine if there was someone the community could count on to do whatever it took to make sure our voices were heard, that our community was treated equally in the eyes of the law, that fought openly against anti-Muslim bigotry. That’s the future I’m fighting to make reality for Muslims everywhere — to show the community that it is possible for us to directly shape the direction of this country.
We need to unify and solidify the power we hold in our vote, pockets, and voices, and use them to finally gain our rightful political power, to finally get a seat at the table.