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For Rashida Tlaib, Palestinian Heritage Infuses a Detroit Sense of Community

posted on: Aug 21, 2018



DETROIT — The family was standing outside the black iron fence of Detroit’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement center, named after Rosa Parks, to protest news of their father’s sudden deportation, when Rashida Tlaib appeared and took up a bullhorn.

It was barely 48 hours after Ms. Tlaib had been elected the family’s likely next representative in Congress, and the small group supporting the American children and their detained father, Banny Doumbia, was moved to tears as she spoke.

“I wanted to be here, because I needed to be where my roots are,” Ms. Tlaib told them. “Papa Doumbia is why I ran for Congress. Why the injustice? It kills me and pains me every single day.”

She hugged her son as she continued.

“Inshallah, inshallah, my being here and supporting all of you helps you,” Ms. Tlaib said as if in prayer, repeating an Arabic phrase that means “if God is willing.’’

“I love you all. Keep up the fight.”

In November, Ms. Tlaib (pronounced ta-LEEB), a daughter of Palestinian immigrants, may become the first Muslim woman to serve in Congress. Her victory in the Democratic primary last week, though narrow, all but guarantees her election, as she is running unopposed in a very blue district that Representative John Conyers Jr. held for more than half a century. (She could be joined by another Muslim woman, Ilhan Omar, who won the Democratic primary in her Minneapolis House district Tuesday night).

An attorney and single mother of two boys, Ms. Tlaib, who was a state representative in Michigan for six years, plans to take up Detroit’s civil rights heritage in her own way. She champions progressive policies like Medicare For All, a $15 minimum wage and abolishing ICE, and is both a Democrat and a democratic socialist, though she said she eschews labels.

Already, her story offers a remarkable counterpoint to anti-Muslim policy and sentiment rising around the country, and especially to President Trump, who has banned travel from several majority-Muslim countries. Ms. Tlaib drew national attention when she confronted Mr. Trump during his 2016 speech to the Detroit Economic Club.

In a year when a record number of women are running for Congress, and races across the country include gay, lesbian and transgender candidates and many people of color, Ms. Tlaib, 42, represents a new addition to the mosaic of American politics.

“I knew the win would be uplifting so many people with me,’’ she said. “It feels like a lot of weight on me to give them a voice.”

The symbolic importance of her new role was only starting to sink in as Ms. Tlaib walked into the women’s entrance of her family’s mosque on Friday for afternoon prayers.

“There’s an Islamic saying: ‘After you take care of your family at home, you take care of your neighborhood,’” she said, pinning on a red and white head scarf. “What brings me close to faith is community organizing.”

Inside, Ms. Tlaib joined her mother and other women to form a single line at the front of the room. For the first time, an American almost certainly on her way to Congress stood shoulder to shoulder with her Muslim sisters and bowed toward Mecca.

“Today I was being thankful, embracing how incredibly blessed I am to grow up here, to have this tremendous opportunity,” said Ms. Tlaib, who usually attends prayers for holidays. “Sometimes I say, ‘Thank her,’ because my Allah is She.”

As she crisscrossed Detroit last Friday, after joining the Doumbia family earlier that morning, Ms. Tlaib credited her community for inspiring her to a victory that many at first doubted was possible. Riding in the back of a car with her son Yousif, age 7, she opened her arms wide, as if to hug her district. “This is Southwest Detroit,” she said. “These are the people who believed in me before I did.”

She passed her old high school, Southwestern, now boarded up and empty because of budget cuts, and cried out in delight when she noticed someone had put her campaign sign on the fence. Down the road, she pointed out the mural she helped paint years ago beneath a bridge, and the sidewalk where she vomited after a girl beat her up at age 9 or 10 because she was scrawny and poor.

As the oldest of 14 children, she remembers driving her siblings to school along this route in a cargo van her father, who worked for Ford Motor Company, had purchased so they no longer had to walk. It had no rear seats, leaving everyone bouncing around, trying not to hit their heads.

She went on to become the first member of her family to graduate from high school, and then from college and law school.

She stopped in front of an overgrown lot, the site of her childhood home before it was torn down because of blight.

“When we look on our neighborhoods now, we think you have to grow up in a certain environment to really make something like this possible,” she said, reflecting on her win. “That is completely false.”

Ms. Tlaib attributes her political vision and sense of justice to her Palestinian heritage. She often references checkpoints around her relatives’ homes near Ramallah in the West Bank and how they limit residents’ access to health care and education.

When she stopped by a Middle Eastern bakery for lunch, she refused to purchase a water bottle, in spite of the summer heat, because it was manufactured by Nestle, which has increased the volume of water it pumps from Lake Michigan.

“My community wants me to work on economic justice,” she said. “I am not for the privatization of water.”

When it comes to policy, Ms. Tlaib said she is mostly concerned with local issues, like Michigan’s high car insurance costs and creating “neighborhood services centers” — reimagined district offices that offer community resources like free tax preparation or energy grants. She plans to spend as much time as possible in Michigan, not Washington, and even wondered whether it was possible to move her swearing-in ceremony to Detroit. “If people want to meet with me, they can come here,” she said.

Asked how she proposes to pay for Medicare For All, she pulled up the Department of Defense website and read aloud from its daily announcements of new contracts, some earmarked for hundreds of millions of dollars. “This is unbelievable,” she said. “Oh and by the way, this was just for the Navy.”

She sees standing up for Muslims and Arab-Americans amid the rise of Islamophobia as part of her broader civil rights ambitions for all Americans. The morning after Mr. Trump won the presidency, Ms. Tlaib called her mother, Fatima Elabed, who was out shopping for groceries while wearing her hijab, to ask if she was O.K. A man was yelling at her to take it off, Ms. Tlaib remembered, and her mother replied, “You don’t understand, Jesus was born in my country.”

On Friday afternoon, as Ms. Tlaib boiled water for tea in her small Detroit apartment, it was her mother who called, worried, she said, “that America will start hating my daughter,” after she saw angry comments about Ms. Tlaib on social media.

It is the logic of the political system itself, not just of the electorate, that Ms. Tlaib wants to change. “When I say, ‘We need to come from a place of love,’ people roll their eyes and snicker,” she said of elected officials.

Her solution? “Outwork it.”

Ms. Tlaib, who voted for Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Michigan primary, is part of a new class of far-left candidates that has had some political successes so far — most prominently Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York — but that also has had many losses. In Detroit, the mayor and prominent labor unions like the U.A.W. supported Ms. Tlaib’s primary opponent, Brenda Jones.

“I was in this environment like, ‘You are not part of this dynasty,’” she said. “I didn’t realize there was a line.”

Her outsider approach will face an even greater test on Capitol Hill, which she has already criticized as being out of touch with many Americans. Should Democrats win control of the House, Ms. Tlaib says she will probably not support Representative Nancy Pelosi for speaker. “Trump got elected on her watch,” she said. “This is a new time, a time for a generational change.’’

Across the country, other Muslim women running for Congress share a similarly progressive vision, and see Ms. Tlaib’s victory as hope for their own success. In Arizona’s upcoming Democratic primary for Senate, Deedra Abboud is taking on Representative Kyrsten Sinema, who has the backing of the party establishment. “Voting is not going to turn the tide,” Ms. Abboud said. “People excited to vote for someone is going to turn the tide.”

In Massachusetts, Tahirah Amatul-Wadud is running to the left of Representative Richard Neal, the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee. “Most people don’t really understand the impact of just being in this race,” she said. “We are already altering the history books.”

When Ms. Tlaib takes her oath of office, she plans to wear her mother’s thobe, a traditional Palestinian dress that her mother had dry-cleaned for her even before she won, and to place her hand on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran.

She hopes at least one other Muslim woman will be there too. This weekend, Ms. Tlaib sent a dozen of her campaign workers to Minnesota to do a last minute canvas push for Ms. Omar, a state legislator.

“We both care deeply about where we come from, about how strongly we defend who we are,” Ms. Tlaib said. “Leaning on each other gives us courage.”