Fayrouz Saad could be the first Muslim woman ever elected to Congress, and she makes us proud to be American
The November 2018 election is coming up, and more women than ever are running for Congress. In our She’s Running series, HelloGiggles is highlighting some of the young, progressive women candidates who are reshaping the face of politics just by campaigning—and could have a hand in reshaping our future. Still need to register to vote? Do it here.
To be American is to resist. Think about it: The United States came about because a bunch of Brits who lived in America called B.S. on an English government that taxed them to death but refused them representation in Parliament. Today, in the age of Trump, many Americans still appear unwilling to resign themselves to the status quo and are (thankfully) fighting back. And in this year’s midterm elections, American women have seized the opportunity to resist in one of the most powerful change-making ways possible: running for Congress.
From Stacey Abrams to Sharice Davids to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, women—and women of color especially—are leading The Resistance to lasting representation (we hope!) in state and federal government. And unlike many of their very white, very male counterparts who currently occupy congressional seats, these women are standing up for access to affordable health care, human rights, and immigration reform.
And for Fayrouz Saad, a progressive Democrat running in Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, an issue like immigration isn’t just political—it’s personal, too. Born and raised in Michigan, Saad learned firsthand the value of hard work and determination from her parents, small-business owners who immigrated to Detroit from Lebanon over 40 years ago.
FYI: The name Fayrouz means “precious stone” in Arabic.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Saad went on to work in the Obama administration at the Department of Homeland Security. In 2015, she became the first director of Detroit’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, where she helped immigrants just like her parents integrate into the city, find jobs, and start businesses.
Did we mention that Saad could be the first Muslim woman ever elected to Congress? We’re beginning to think “Fayrouz” might also mean “badass.”
With Michigan’s August 7th congressional primary less than a week away, we asked Saad about breaking new ground (and busting stereotypes) for Muslim American women in Congress, her career-long fight to keep the American Dream alive, and how her Lebanese parents inspired her to run for office as an immigration advocate in the Trump era.
HelloGiggles: Come November, you may be the first Muslim woman ever elected to Congress. What excites you most about potentially being the first?
Fayrouz Saad: Well, as you might imagine, I’m not running to be the first Muslim woman in Congress. Certainly [it’s] not my intention to be the first anything. [I’m] really just running as a progressive to fight for and protect a number of values that I’ve been very vocal about on this campaign. But I think with anything like this, there’s opportunity to really change the narrative that’s out there about women, about women of color, about people of different faiths, ethnicities, and races, and really begin to inform the narrative in a more positive way.
It’s important we change the face of leadership in this country, that we redefine what it means to be an elected official, and that we redefine what it means to be electable in this country. [Because] it should be based on values. It should be based on what people stand for, their experience, their qualifications, and not their gender, race, or ethnicity. We need a Congress that looks, sounds, feels like the people it represents. So, hopefully, [we can] break down some stereotypes and some misconceptions that are out there so we can get on track about what’s important, like Medicare for all, minimum wage, and immigration reform.
HG: You’re a first-time candidate running as a Democrat to represent Michigan’s 11th Congressional District. Why is it important to you to run for Congress right now?
FS: It’s really because of the time we’re in. My parents have been in the country for 40-plus years now, and as the daughter of immigrants, sometimes it really scares me to think that in a Donald Trump era, they probably would not have been allowed in this country.
I have grown up really believing in the American Dream, really believing that I am a product of the American Dream, and this is the first time in my entire life that I have felt that American Dream being threatened. And it’s being threatened very directly by our president, by a Republican Congress that enables him, and by an uninformed narrative out there about what it means to be American. I was traveling around Southeastern Michigan after the ’16 election, doing emergency town halls, and people kept asking me, “Are we going to be okay?” When I found that I couldn’t look them in the eye and tell them, “Yes, it’s going to be okay,” I knew that I had to step up and run for office, in a position where I could do something about it.
HG: Your parents immigrated to the United States from Lebanon nearly half a century ago. Growing up, what values did you learn from them that you now take with you into this year’s congressional race?
FS: I always grew up believing and hearing from both my parents that we are very much American and that we are fortunate to be here, to be in this country, [and] to have the opportunity that we only have by being in America. Also, I learned from them the value of hard work, determination, and the hustle and grind of Detroit as well. My parents are also small-business owners. We have a family wholesale meat business [that has operated] for over 40 years now in Detroit’s Eastern Market. My parents really taught me—and showed me—that as long as you work hard, as long as you continue to be determined, and at the same time you are serving your community, you can find success here in this country, you will be accepted in this country. And that there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be the case.
HG: In your opinion, what’s the difference between the immigrant experience of your parents’ generation and the immigrant experience today? How and why do you think attitudes about immigrants have shifted negatively in the United States?
FS: Every immigrant story is unique, but the common thread is the American Dream. That’s true across generations, whether it’s my parents arriving here from Lebanon in the ’70s with nothing but a desire to work hard and raise a family, or the immigrants from across the globe I worked with and welcomed as part of Mayor [Mike] Duggan’s administration in Detroit just last year. The difference between my parents’ generation and the current generation is that we have a president who’s trying to redefine the American Dream to exclude those immigrant stories.
HG: You mentioned Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. Under his leadership, you became the first director of the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs in 2015. As a child of immigrants, what does it mean to help immigrants in your community realize the American Dream?
FS: I give major credit to Mayor Duggan for recognizing that immigrants would be a cornerstone of Detroit’s revitalization. He empowered me to think creatively, and stood behind me when we were doing things like refugee resettlement that could have provoked a backlash. But because we brought stakeholders together from business, religious organizations, and neighborhood groups, there was zero backlash. That was a lesson in how, if you do the work and listen to people, you can overcome the brokenness that characterizes so much of our politics.
The economic development side of the job was such fulfilling work. My parents’ own immigrant success story hugely informed my confidence in the job. Because I knew, not only from them but from the whole community where I grew up, that when we clear pathways for immigrants to participate fully in society, they make immense contributions to our economies and our neighborhoods. And my first ever political volunteer work, as a teen, was registering new voters at naturalization ceremonies. So being present for a lot of those was a real full-circle moment.
HG: What issues activate you, personally? How do you hope to address them in Congress?
FS: Immigration is an incredibly important issue in our country right now. We definitely need to get on the right path in terms of how we talk about immigrants in this country. I think that there is [a narrative] being enabled and furthered by Donald Trump [and] there’s people [who agree with] him who think being an American only means one thing, [that] it can only mean the color of your skin [or] your religion. And they seem to have forgotten, or are choosing to forget, that this country was founded on immigrants, on immigration, on people of all backgrounds, faiths, races, ethnicities, coming here in search of the American Dream and a better future and a better life.
But more so than that, we need to talk about immigration. We need to find a pathway to citizenship, protect DACA, protect the DREAMers, and end our practice of separating families. From my work at the Department of Homeland Security and in Detroit, I can tell you that separating families, building a $25 billion wall, turning away refugees (the most carefully vetted immigrant group), unconstitutionally banning Muslims…none of this keeps us safer. We need to recognize our heritage as a nation of immigrants, and restore and uphold the values of fairness, compassion, and equal dignity when it comes to immigration.
Health care is also something that is incredibly important for a number of reasons. Really seeing how hard it is for people when they don’t have access to affordable health care, having seen people in my own life really struggle with being sick. Growing up, I had an aunt who was very close to me who was diagnosed with cancer. She was able to qualify for Medicaid and because of that, she was able to get the treatment that she needed. Unfortunately, she did eventually pass away from cancer, but had she not been able to access Medicaid, she probably would’ve died much sooner, and it’s heartbreaking for me to think of the number of people out there who have to make the decision between paying their bills or getting the treatment they need to stay alive. We hear about these stories every single day and hopefully, when I get to Congress, we will be able to come together on and find real solutions for people and families.
HG: What urgent issues concern people in District 11 most? Are your concerns shared by your constituents?
FS: People in this district are worried about being able to afford quality health care and pay for their prescriptions. They don’t like the rising costs of higher education, or the disconnect between higher ed and good-paying jobs. They’re afraid of losing people they love to our epidemics of gun violence and opioids. They’re frustrated by infrastructure—roads, bridges, water and sewage systems, electrical and telecoms grids—that’s outdated and crumbling. And they’re horrified by the inhumane and brutal policies being enacted at the border.
I share each and every one of those concerns, because [my husband] Chris and I love this community, and want to raise a family here. [That’s why] I’m committed to getting to Congress and fighting to solve these problems. Because, in a generation, I want Southeastern Michigan to remain a place where the American Dream is alive and well.