Avalos Campaign Sparking More Civic Engagement from Arab Community in SF
BY: Suzanne Manneh/Contributing Writer
When Thaer AlHasnawi, 26, came to San Francisco from Jordan at age 14, he didn’t foresee taking on the role of political organizer for the Arab American community.
Yet over the past three months, AlHasnawi has done just that, joining dozens of other Arab Americans from San Francisco who have become active in the mayoral campaign to elect Supervisor John Avalos in Tuesday’s municipal election.
“When I came here, I didn’t know about any of this,” he said. “I got involved with (the local Arab community organizations) Arab Youth Organizing (AYO) and Arab Resource Organizing Center (AROC) [where] I learned about the importance of voter engagement.”
AlHasnawi said he decided to join the Avalos campaign after seeing the supervisor reach out to the Arab community.
“I’ve seen Avalos at events that AYO and AROC have organized,” he said. “Just the way he talked, the way he is involved in the Arab community… It encouraged me and inspired me.”
Avalos and the Arab Community
Avalos told New America Media that his connection to Arab community organizers in San Francisco goes back to 2003, when he worked on the Justice for Janitors Campaign of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 1877.
In 2008, Avalos was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to represent District 11, a victory he said was possible in part due to support he garnered from the Arab community.
But the supervisor’s unapologetic stance on political issues of importance to the Arab community, he admits, has raised some eyebrows in the city.
Avalos spoke earlier this year at a solidarity event for demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square who were pushing for regime change in Egypt. The suprervisor has also made no attempt to hide his support for the Palestinian cause on different occasions, once after violence erupted in Gaza between Israel and Hamas in 2009 and again when a flotilla carrying aid to Palestinians was raided by the Israeli military in 2010.
Avalos seems unfazed by any blowback he may have gotten from colleagues or constituents who don’t share his political views.
“If you care about justice, you care about justice for everyone,” he said. “I believe in seeing communities standing together and working together. Asian, Latino, African American, AMEMSA, (Arab Middle Eastern Muslim, and South Asian), etc.”
Lily Haskell, a San Francisco resident who is of Moroccan descent and played a key role in the campaign to have Arabs recognized as a distinct ethnicity, as opposed to being categorized as white, on the 2010 Census, said she too has been inspired by Avalos’ embrace of the city’s Arab community.
“We know Avalos has supported the Arab community,” she said. “Usually Arabs are left out, but he takes our issues to heart, (and) he has for a long time.”
Haskell also addressed the phenomenon of public figures being unfairly labeled once they voice their support for Arab political causes; the idea that “if you’re pro-Arab, by some stretch you’re anti-Jewish.”
“That’s a distraction and [Avalos] sees that falsity. All our community wants [is] equitable living,” she said.
According to Avalos, his stepfather – whom he lived with for 6 years – is Jewish. “I understand what the pain is,” he said, referring to the discrimination Jews have experienced.
Haskell points out that Avalos is “different candidate.”
“He has a history of working with all communities and it’s easy for people to get behind him,” she said
Arab American Civic Engagement Increasing
Rama Kased, co-founder of AYO said this “is probably the first (mayoral) campaign to get so much support from the Arab community, on a grassroots level.”
According to Kased, AROC went so far as to translate Avalos’ campaign literature into Arabic and created a flyer – “Why should the Arab community support John Avalos?” – that they distributed widely to community centers and mosques. They’ve also created a Facebook page called “Arabs 4 Avalos,” organized various fundraisers, done phone banking on Wednesday nights and have gone door to door canvassing at Arab residences and small businesses.
Kased and Haskell hope these efforts will not only help their candidate, but will increase the visibility of Arabs as a community and voting bloc in the city.
“Our first goal is for Avalos to get elected, but our second goal is that we’re building a movement,” said Kased.
It’s important to “get our community interested in how we can make changes in electoral politics,” Haskell said.
While Haskell, Kased, and many other San Francisco Arabs support Avalos, they also recognize that, “like other communities, it is not homogenous”
One small business owner in the city’s Mission district, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he planned on supporting Ed Lee. He also admitted he was “so busy,” he “didn’t have time to follow the candidates,” and that he’s “not very politically active in the first place.”
The attitude expressed by the small business owner is a perfect example of why the political organizing work in so important, said Thaer AlHasnawi.
“It’s especially important to the older Arab generations who are scared to express themselves and not letting their voices be heard,” he said. “Some say, ‘No, no, we shouldn’t be involved.’ But I think that’s wrong. We should change this,” he said.
A lack of in-language outreach and city services for Arabic-speaking voters or potential voters, said AlHasnawi, is part of the challenge.
San Francisco only maintains information on registered voters who speak English, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese, according to the city’s database of registered voters. Approximately 900 registered voters in San Francisco, however, were born in an Arabic speaking country.
AlHasnawi estimates that he alone has reached over 100 Arab speaking registered voters and at least 80 percent have been supportive of his campaign to elect Avalos.
“I doubt that a lot of these voters would have been reached (otherwise),” he said.
And what happens if Avalos doesn’t win?
“At least I know that I’m letting my voice be heard,” said AlHasnawi.