The race for first Muslim woman in US Congress

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Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, who is running in the Democratic primary for US Congress in Massachusetts’ First District, meets with her staff at campaign headquarters in Chicopee, Massachusetts, in this July 21, 2018 photo. (AFP)
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Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, who is running in the Democratic primary for US Congress in Massachusetts’ First District, meets with people at a Mt. Zion Church event in Chicopee, Massachusetts, in this July 21, 2018 photo. (AFP)
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Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, who is running in the Democratic primary for US Congress in Massachusetts’ First District, meets with people at a Mt. Zion Church event in Chicopee, Massachusetts, in this July 21, 2018 photo. (AFP)
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Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, who is running in the Democratic primary for US Congress in Massachusetts’ First District, meets with her staff at campaign headquarters in Chicopee, Massachusetts, in this July 23, 2018 photo. (AFP)
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Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, who is running in the Democratic primary for US Congress in Massachusetts’ First District, meets with people at a Mt. Zion Church event in Chicopee, Massachusetts, in this July 21, 2018 photo. (AFP)
Updated 03 August 2018
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The race for first Muslim woman in US Congress

  • I don’t always talk about religion because I don’t look to lead or serve from a religious perspective
  • It’s about better representing and improving lives in western Massachusetts, an area suffering from higher than average unemployment, where many work two jobs just to make ends meet

SPRINGFIELD, United States: It’s an incongruous sight, a woman in a salmon pink hijab standing on a Massachusetts traffic median, waving at oncoming cars and asking perfect strangers to vote her into Congress.
“Hey how are you? Good to see you!” hollers Tahirah Amatul-Wadud at a male pedestrian. A few cars beep their horns, the odd driver zaps down his window to say hello. Quite a few drive past, seemingly oblivious.
Amatul-Wadud is a mother of seven, a lawyer, a community activist and a Muslim, who rises before dawn, prays five times a day and fasts during Ramadan.
Now aged 44, she faces the biggest hurdle of her life: asking a majority white constituency, where Catholics are the biggest religious group, to make her the first Muslim woman elected into Congress.
But for her it’s about policy, not religion. It’s about better representing and improving lives in western Massachusetts, an area suffering from higher than average unemployment, where many work two jobs just to make ends meet.
“I don’t always talk about religion because I don’t look to lead or serve from a religious perspective,” she tells AFP at her campaign headquarters just outside Springfield.
She says her goals are secular, but her faith is “where I find my core strength.”
Indefatigable, armed with a warm smile and a lawyer’s mind, Amatul-Wadud is part of a groundswell of women and progressive Democrats running for office this year, motivated at least in part by opposition to President Donald Trump.
She’s one of five candidates vying to become the first Muslim woman in Congress in November mid-term elections — 12 years after Minnesota’s Keith Ellison became the first Muslim in the US House of Representatives.
If she’s successful, she would also become her district’s first woman and first African American in Congress.

Except it’s a long shot. Her opponent in the September 4 Democratic primary is Richard Neal, who has served in Congress since 1989. She has raised a total of $72,000 compared to his reported $3 million.
When she moved to Springfield aged nine, he was the city mayor.
Now she wants his job, championing progressive causes such as Medicare for all, affordable education and wider access to high-speed Internet, and eschewing donations from corporate and special interests.
Her team claims to have nearly 300 volunteers as they build a grass-roots campaign, knocking door to door to hear people’s problems.
If she beats Neal, she will repeat the triumph of 28-year-old political novice, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who trounced a Democrat grandee in a New York primary by running a similarly progressive and insurgent ticket.
That win gave her campaign a huge shot in the arm, boosting contributions. “It was wonderful,” Amatul-Wadud tells AFP. “If she could win, then hope is possible, here in our home.”
Dressed in a floral dress, black pants and platform heels, she powered through the sticky heat of a recent afternoon, trading pleasantries and soliciting votes at a church barbeque.
Ira Prude, a 28-year-old factory worker who worries about opioid addiction, homelessness and violent crime, says it meant a lot that she stopped by.
“She seems to care a lot about her community. You know, where she grew up,” she said. “So I think that’s good.”

As Amatul-Wadud makes her way through the picnic, a few look up surprised.
“There are times where I could see that people are surprised that I present the way that I do,” she tells AFP. “But have I had overt nasty racism right in my face? No, I’m grateful for that. I hope that that never happens.”
Despite increasingly overt bigotry in the country at large, the racism and Islamophobia she experiences lies online, forcing her to ask her teenage daughter to remove “vile things” that were “scaring” people.
While her decision to run is motivated primarily by discontent with the status quo in her community, she admits that Trump’s election “changed everything.”
“Some of his policy, some of his character was alarming to people... I had friends and neighbors, clients who told me that they were waking up feeling they had an elephant on their chest,” she said. “Their futures did not look bright.”
Deanna Williams, 56, joined the campaign after being laid off earlier this year. Amatul-Wadud was her divorce attorney — “she did me well and then we became friends,” Williams laughs.
“It’s time for a change. Western Mass is suffering and we just need more people to get into Washington to help out the cause,” she told AFP. “Too many people are struggling and don’t have a job.”
Back at campaign HQ, Amatul-Wadud declares herself “very” confident of winning her David-and-Goliath battle against Neal.
But if she doesn’t? “I am not going anywhere,” she replies.


UN: Nearly 71 million now displaced by war, violence at home

Updated 19 June 2019
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UN: Nearly 71 million now displaced by war, violence at home

  • The figures are bound to add fuel to a debate at the intersection of international law, human rights and domestic politics
  • UNHCR said 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of last year, up from about 68.5 million in 2017

GENEVA: A record 71 million people have been displaced worldwide from war, persecution and other violence, the UN refugee agency said Wednesday, an increase of more than 2 million from last year and an overall total that would amount to the world’s 20th most populous country.
The annual “Global Trends” report released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees counts the number of the world’s refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people at the end of 2018, in some cases following decades of living away from home.
The figures, coming on the eve of World Refugee Day on Thursday, are bound to add fuel to a debate at the intersection of international law, human rights and domestic politics, especially the movement in some countries, including the US, against immigrants and refugees.
Launching the report, the high commissioner, Filippo Grandi, had a message for US President Donald Trump and other world leaders, calling it “damaging” to depict migrants and refugees as threats to jobs and security in host countries. Often, they are fleeing insecurity and danger themselves, he said.
The report also puts a statistical skeleton onto often-poignant individual stories of people struggling to survive by crossing rivers, deserts, seas, fences and other barriers, natural and man-made, to escape government oppression, gang killings, sexual abuse, militia murders and other such violence at home.
UNHCR said 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of last year, up from about 68.5 million in 2017 — and nearly a 65 percent increase from a decade ago. Among them, nearly three in five people — or more than 41 million people — have been displaced within their home countries.
“The global trends, once again unfortunately, go in what I would say is the wrong direction,” Grandi told reporters in Geneva. “There are new conflicts, new situations, producing refugees, adding themselves to the old ones. The old ones never get resolved.”
The phenomenon is both growing in size and duration. Some four-fifths of the “displacement situations” have lasted more than five years. After eight years of war in Syria, for instance, its people continue to make up the largest population of forcibly displaced people, at some 13 million.
Amid runaway inflation and political turmoil at home, Venezuelans for the first time accounted for the largest number of new asylum-seekers in 2018, with more than 340,000 — or more than one in five worldwide last year. Asylum-seekers receive international protection as they await acceptance or rejection of their requests for refugee status.
UNHCR said that its figures are “conservative” and that Venezuela masks a potentially longer-term trend.
Some 4 million people are known to have left the South American country in recent years. Many of those have traveled freely to Peru, Colombia and Brazil, but only about one-eighth have sought formal international protection, and the outflow continues, suggesting the strains on the welcoming countries could worsen.
Grandi predicted a continued “exodus” from Venezuela and appealed for donors to provide more development assistance to the region.
“Otherwise these countries will not bear the pressure anymore and then they have to resort to measures that will damage refugees,” he said. “We are in a very dangerous situation.”
The United States, meanwhile, remains the “largest supporter of refugees” in the world, Grandi said in an interview. The US is the biggest single donor to UNHCR. He also credited local communities and advocacy groups in the United States for helping refugees and asylum-seekers in the country.
But the refugee agency chief noted long-term administrative shortcomings that have given the United States the world’s biggest backlog of asylum claims, at nearly 719,000. More than a quarter-million claims were added last year.
He also decried recent rhetoric that has been hostile to migrants and refugees.
“In America, just like in Europe actually and in other parts of the world, what we are witnessing is an identification of refugees — but not just refugees, migrants as well — with people that come take away jobs that threaten our security, our values,” Grandi said. “And I want to say to the US administration — to the president — but also to the leaders around the world: This is damaging.”
He said many people leaving Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador through Mexico have faced violence by gangs and suffered from “the inability of these governments to protect their own citizens.”
The UNHCR report noted that by far, the most refugees are taken in in the developing world, not wealthy countries.
The figures marked the seventh consecutive year in which the numbers of forcibly displaced rose.
“Yet another year, another dreadful record has been beaten,” said Jon Cerezo of British charity Oxfam. “Behind these figures, people like you and me are making dangerous trips that they never wanted to make, because of threats to their safety and most basic rights.”