She Was a Refugee From Afghanistan. She May Soon Enter the New Hampshire Legislature.
She’s a 27-year-old refugee from Afghanistan who won an upset victory in a New Hampshire state house primary. “There can be change, yes. Why not?” said Safiya Wazir.
Safiya Wazir, whose family fled the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1997, won the Democratic primary for a state house seat in Concord, N.H., on Tuesday.CreditCreditElizabeth Frantz for The New York Times
By Katharine Q. Seelye
Sept. 13, 2018
It was a mere state house race, below the radar, with fewer than 500 votes cast. But Safiya Wazir’s upset victory in New Hampshire on Sept. 11 is yet one more striking example of how nontraditional candidates are upending expectations in this extraordinary election season.
Ms. Wazir, just 27 and a refugee from Afghanistan, toppled a four-term incumbent in the Democratic primary for state representative in a blue-collar neighborhood of Concord, the state capital.
Her opponent was Dick Patten, 66, a former city councilor and former police dispatcher who was first elected to the state legislature in 2010. His campaign focused on immigrants, whom he blamed for “getting everything,” such as welfare benefits, to the detriment of people born and raised in New Hampshire.
She beat him, 329 to 143.
It was a stunning upset, not just because Ms. Wazir is so young, a woman and new to politics — not to mention relatively new to this country — but because New Hampshire is 94 percent white. Its neighbors, Vermont and Maine, are 95 percent white, making northern New England collectively the nation’s whitest region.
Immigrants have been making their way to these states slowly, in part because they have felt unwelcome. Several groups and businesses, concerned that anti-immigrant attitudes are harming their bottom lines, met in July in New Hampshire to discuss how to diversify the state.
Although younger women of color have been upsetting incumbents in other elections across the country this year, virtually no one expected Ms. Wazir to join that club.
Her family fled the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1997, when Ms. Wazir was 6. They lived for 10 years in Uzbekistan, before relocating to Concord. She graduated from Concord High School in 2011, became an American citizen in 2013 and in 2016 earned a business degree at NHTI, Concord’s Community College.
She is married with two children, 5 and 2, and is pregnant with a third, who is due in January.
Mr. Patten has said he plans to support the Republican candidate, Dennis Soucy, in November because Mr. Soucy and his wife had lived in the district for more than 50 years.
Mr. Patten did not return calls seeking comment.
The Times caught up with Ms. Wazir on Thursday morning. The conversation was lightly edited for clarity and condensed.
Q: Congratulations on your win. Were you surprised by the outcome?
A: That was surprising! I was shocked at first when I heard the numbers. I was like, “What?”
Why do you think you won?
It was the people who were behind me, especially the [New Hampshire] Young Democrats. I’m pregnant, and it was my first trimester, so that was hard, but I was out knocking on doors. I was talking to people and making calls. And if I received any questions I couldn’t answer, I would go find out the answers and then come back and tell them. It helps people know who they are voting for.
It sounded like a pretty tough campaign. Your opponent, Mr. Patten, blamed immigrants for taking benefits away from people in New Hampshire. How did you counter that?
I just let it go. I was running for everyone in the district.
Did you feel attacked?
I don’t take that personally. When you’re in politics, you just face it. I’ve lived here 11 years, my kids are in school, I love being in New Hampshire. This is my home, and I’m proud to say I am a refugee American.
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You left Afghanistan at age 6. Do you remember much?
I have memories of the Taliban shooting and bombing and everything getting crazy. I would hide myself in a dark place so they couldn’t find me. When I moved to Uzbekistan, it was peaceful.
But in Uzbekistan, didn’t your classmates call you a terrorist?
Yes, but I kept it to myself. I never said a word to anybody and I focused on my education. I thought education was important to be successful.
Tell me about your family and coming to Concord.
UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, sent us to Concord in November 2007, my mom and dad and me, and we decided to stay. We had seen too much violence, and New Hampshire was peaceful. My father had been an engineer in Afghanistan, and here he got a job as a laborer. My mother was studying English. I was 16 and had zero English. I was helping my parents, going to Concord High School, studying English and working at Walmart and Goodwill. A friend brought me English dictionaries and I sat down every night and studied the vocabulary so I could communicate. I couldn’t make a sentence, but I could use my vocabulary.
How did you meet your husband?
It was a prearranged marriage, through my mom and dad. I went home [to Afghanistan] in 2012 to get married. In 2013 I became a U.S. citizen. In January 2014 he came to the United States.
Had you known him before?
Did that bother you?
Being a teenager and living in the U.S. with all this freedom, I had some concerns. I was debating with my mom. I said, “Mom, I’m still young. I don’t want to get married til I’m 30 or 35. I want to get my education first.” I wanted to be a police officer or a lawyer, but [mom won and] I got married. I came back pregnant with my first child and went to school for business. My two-year degree took me five years; I was also working at Walmart and the campus library and taking night classes. My husband became a citizen last year and has a job here now. This was the first time he could vote, and he was able to vote for his wife.
Did you feel unwelcome here, even before Mr. Patten began his overt campaign against immigrants?
The community was good to us, but the problem was younger people at high school. I was older than others in my class and didn’t speak English, and I didn’t have friends to welcome me or introduce me or give me guidance. They didn’t want to have anything to do with me. I would just say to people now, when you see someone juggling things and trying to fit into the community, they should step in and not hold themselves back.
Mr. Patten questioned your ability to be a state legislator and a mother at the same time. What did you think of that line of attack?
I said, “I can do it!” Being a mother and working two jobs and going to school — it’s almost the same as being a state rep. I have support from my mom, who is willing to watch my children. That was her endorsement. She said, “I will watch the kids. Go for it!”
How did you respond to it?
I don’t really respond to those comments. Just to say, women are capable. I was at college, worked two jobs, raised kids, helped out with my parents and am pregnant — I have faced many situations.
What do you want to accomplish in the legislature?
Everyone should have affordable health care, and education is one of the biggest priorities in my life. I want to be an advocate for people who can’t do that for themselves. And New Hampshire is a place where younger people are moving out a lot. I want to make changes for younger families that are working so tirelessly, to show them they don’t have to leave the state.
Do you think these things are politically possible?
It’s possible. You just have to have the better message and be able to face the issues. There can be change, yes. Why not
At just six years old, Safiya Wazir fled from Afghanistan as a refugee of the civil war. Wazir lived in Uzbekistan for a decade before arriving in the USA as a high school student. At the age of 16, she had to master a new language, and become familiar with a new culture - and lots of snow.
Despite these challenges, Safiya was on the honor roll of her high school, ran track, and graduated from college with an Associate Degree in Business Administration. A decade after arriving in the USA, this intrepid woman has taken steps on a journey few have attempted, let alone on which to have claimed success.
In November 2018, the Hon. Safiya Wazir was elected as a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, making her the first Muslim woman and one of the few refugees to be sworn into that august body. This is an accomplishment she, and other women in her home country, could not have imagined.
Safiya ran in a district of Concord, in a state that is 94% white with some new immigrants, although with very few Muslims or Afghans. She was encouraged to consider running for office by people she had met through her work on children’s issues, including Head Start, where Safiya pushed for all-day kindergarten in Concord, and by others who appreciated her energy and passion. “Having somebody young, new blood in the system, I think it would be really helpful for all, from seniors to immigrants and refugees. That really gives a new perspective,” said Safiya.
Safiya Wazir with Lucas Meyer, President of the New Hampshire Young Democrats.
Safiya Wazir with Lucas Meyer, President of the New Hampshire Young Democrats.
After she filed to run for office, Safiya received a lot of support and encouragement from the New Hampshire Young Democrats and from residents of her district of all ages and ethnicities. Many, young and old, came out to knock on doors for her. Safiya’s husband and parents looked after her children while she canvassed door-to-door with friends and supporters. Soon, her family was also accompanying her. People from more than 20 states reached out to her with support upon hearing of her bid for office, and she also received encouragement from some in other countries.
Safiya’s supporters and her family were ecstatic upon learning of her election victory, which was all the more impressive as she defeated a four-term incumbent Democrat and veteran politician in the primary, and a Republican in the election. She also overcame much negative and ill-informed opposition to her campaign.
Running on a platform of education, affordable and accessible health care, paid family leave, Medicaid expansion, and equal housing opportunities, seemed to resonate with the voters. Safiya could speak from experience, being a mother of three, having worked at Walmart and Goodwill, serving on the Board of Directors of the Community Action Program, and as Vice-Chairwoman of the Head Start Policy Council.
Safiya was the people's choice and is intent on serving her constituents. "I work hard, and I’ll be the voice of everyone in my district,” she says.
As a member of the Boston Jamat, Safiya has inspired many in her community in Concord and around the country, as well as Ismailis everywhere, by her commitment, tenacity, and desire to serve.
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