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10 Arab Americans Urging you to Vote: Vivian Khalaf

posted on: Oct 21, 2020

By: Diala Ghneim/Arab America Contributing Writer

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Vivian Khalaf, 54, attorney at law

Drums of the next US presidential elections are sounding, and America holds its breath as it anxiously waits for its four-year future. Major news outlets have started their daily election coverage and political analysts began their weekly predictions on which candidate will win. And while numerous studies have confirmed the major determinants of a successful election, it is clear that the Arab American community is rarely mentioned as a voting bloc. The core reason for such a gap stems from many factors – it could be Islamophobia, self-marginalization, or simply sheer indifference. But why not hear from ordinary Arab Americans themselves on what voting means to them? As a community, Arab Americans have been portrayed in a heavily politicized lens. It is about time to listen to their voices. So, who are Arab Americans? What are their stories? What are their viewpoints on the upcoming elections?

We spoke with ten Arab Americans about voting. These individuals come from different age groups, industries, and political orientations. They are teachers, lawyers, students, stay at home mothers, IT professionals, etc… They are active members of American society and they are all voting on November 3, 2020. This article is Vivian Khalaf’s interview, and one of a series of ten articles (one for each interview).

Whether you already voted or not, take a look at what members of your own community are saying, and see how their stories resonate with you. 

AA: Tell me about your background, career, and immigration story. 

VK: I am an immigration attorney based in the Chicago area with over 30 years of experience. I identify as a Palestinian American as my life has been divided between the US and Palestine. 

I was born in Jerusalem, Palestine back in the 1960s. My father left for the US a month before the 1967 war to complete his doctorate degree in education. For the next 12 years, we lived in Ohio and Colorado before returning to Palestine. I graduated from the Friends Girls School – Ramallah and earned a scholarship to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago. I came to Chicago in 1984 and have been here ever since. 

During those days, it was uncommon for a young Palestinian woman from my village to leave and continue her studies in the United States. But my parents were very progressive for their time. My father held a Ph.D. My mother was one of the first people to leave her village in Palestine and pursue a bachelor’s degree in Cairo. You subconsciously follow in the footsteps of your parents; they play a pivotal role in what you do. 

The life I lived led me to immigration. I came from an immigrant family, the immigration community in Chicago was large and diverse and I was being exposed to many of their issues. There were no women immigration attorneys whatsoever from our community at the time. It was mostly just male lawyers. 

After law school, I worked in law firms for a few years before establishing my own private practice. My current practice serves clients in three offices across the Chicago area with additional offices in Ramallah and Beirut. 

Why are you voting? What are the issues you care most about? 

I vote because I believe it is the easiest form of action I can take to accelerate change. Look at what has happened to this country since the current president took office. We are more divided than we have ever been and there is a race war going on as we speak. I don’t identify 100% with any political party, but I historically vote Democratic because I agree with most of their positions on domestic issues. As for political orientation, I lean towards progressive. 

I don’t directly work in politics but ever since I was a teenager, I was very interested in politics in general. I grew up under Israeli occupation and I witnessed the first and second Intifadas. I saw Israeli soldiers face to face. My friends were getting shot by Israeli soldiers during political demonstrations and injured before my eyes. These moments have become part of who I am.

 It was fearful for families to speak openly about politics with their children, especially with their daughters. The 1980s were a very volatile period in Palestine, and it was frowned upon for girls to be politically active or to be affiliated with certain parties. 

Naturally, US foreign policy in Palestine was the major component of my voting decisions. However, as you get older, you become exposed to different perspectives and opinions. I began to realize that I care deeply about other issues in addition to Palestine. 

I started to accumulate student debt and I had a hard time paying it off. I started seeing people around me getting sick and not being able to go to the doctor because they couldn’t afford it. As my kids began to grow, I started thinking about their education and the difference between private and public schools. It got me wondering, “why can’t all children have the same type of quality education regardless of their zip code?.” Gradually, my voting decisions were being shaped by different social issues and not just the US’s foreign policy in the Middle East. 

In your opinion, what are the challenges that face the Arab/Muslim community in the US?

The Muslim American community, which is much larger than the Arab community and entails other ethnicities, continues to face a high level of Islamophobia. Anti-immigrant sentiment has been raging in the country since the Iranian revolution. The War on Terror after September 11, 2001, followed by the rise of ISIL, created anti-Muslim sentiments that continue to this day. It is not getting any easier as no effort is being made to quell that sentiment from the highest level of government. Those in power need to remember that when they speak, people will listen to them. These days, people who are elected do not have a sense of responsibility to the people who elected them.  

Another specific challenge concerning the Palestinian American community is tied with the prevalent disconnect between domestic issues and foreign policy. There is  a lot of work that the Palestinian diaspora should do to link domestic issues and foreign policy because they are intertwined. Poverty, education, the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration, equal pay for equal work- this is all peace and justice. And if Palestinian Americans want work to get done on Palestine, if we want to elect officials to Congress who agree with us on our issues, we need to make that connection. You can’t demand peace and justice in one area and not in the other. 

What would you tell people from your community who believe their votes won’t make a difference? 

To be honest with you, when I first moved to the US I had a similar mentality. I would ask myself “What is my vote going to do? It will not make a difference,” but after a few years, I had a different realization. I realized I was self-marginalizing my voice. As Arab Americans, we have a role to play in breaking this self-imposed barrier and overcoming the process of marginalization. 

Go vote. Your vote will help advance issues that you care about.

For those who believe their votes won’t make a difference, I would remind them that many elections are won or lost by very few votes. There is strength in numbers. We had candidates lose by 100 votes or 20 votes or 1,000 votes. Those could have been our votes that made or broke that election. 

Go vote. Your vote will help advance issues that you care about. It could be taxes, student debt, health insurance, food stamps, etc… 

You can 100% identify with one candidate on the ballot that you agree with on at least one issue. Go exercise your constitutional right to vote. I never ask anyone to go vote for a certain candidate without a discussion with them on the issues. I would attempt to convince them that the candidate I believe in deserves their vote because of their position on the issues.  If I am successful, I trust that they will vote according to their conviction. I would never impose my beliefs on anyone and ask them to vote one way or the other unless my “ask” was accompanied by a sound argument. Bottom line is that they exercise their right to vote. Regardless of your political party or affiliation, you could be a Republican, Democrat, Independent, or even apathetic to this discussion, but you still need to vote because your vote does count. 

What are your parting words for all immigration attorneys on voting?   

We as immigration lawyers are the first in line to welcome immigrants as new citizens. I would tell all immigration attorneys this: the first step you should take once your client becomes a US citizen is to help them register to vote. After their naturalization oath ceremony, you should tell them “here is my bill, and here is an application to register to vote.”

We practice immigration law because we believe in what we do. What better position can you ask for in terms of meaningfully participating in the electoral process other than working with your own client base and making sure they are registered as soon as they become US citizens?

It is critical that we be a part of any formal discussion on comprehensive immigration reform and the only way we can do that is to exercise some pressure over these elected officials. How? With your power to vote. And what’s the best way to do it? Collectively, in numbers, and in one voice. 

You can find your state and register to vote here.

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