Aisha Wahab knows what it means to stand up for yourself, especially when no one else is doing it. After her father was murdered and her mother died at a young age, she was placed in a foster care system.
Sometimes she felt alone.
“For kids in the foster care system, every adult around them has pretty much failed them,” Wahab told HuffPost. “That’s why they’re in the system.”
Wahab considers herself one of the lucky ones after being adopted by a Bay Area couple. As a foster child, she learned to stand up for herself, she said.
“I really want people to believe in themselves when nobody believes in them,” Wahab told HuffPost. “I really want the majority of people, especially young children, to know that you are not alone.”
She used that same persistence when she chose to represent California’s Senate District 10 against Fremont Mayor Lily Mei. She said she was surrounded by naysayers who claimed she didn’t stand a chance. But Wahab won, making her the first Muslim and first Afghan-American to be elected to the state Senate.
Wahab is among dozens of Muslim Americans who made historic gains in local, state and federal races during the 2022 midterm elections by racking up more electoral victories than ever before. More than 80 Muslim American candidates won seats in more than 20 states, according to a report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Jetpac Resource Center, a nonprofit organization working to increase Muslim representation in US government and politics.
In 2021, 71 Muslim Americans were elected, according to the groups.
“A lot of people didn’t necessarily believe in our campaign,” Wahab told HuffPost. “The fact that we can hire a mayor, that we’re from a smaller town where… you were first this or first that, or you’re too young. We have a lot of that.”
Wahab and her sister were adopted by an Afghan family in Fremont, home to one of the largest Afghan communities in the United States. But her family struggled with the rising cost of living. In 2011, her parents lost their business and their house was foreclosed on.
After being released from Fremont, Wahab and her family moved to Hayward, where she became a community organizer and advocate for affordable housing. That same year, she was elected Commissioner of Public Health for Alameda and served as Chair of the Alameda County Personnel Commission. In 2013 she was selected to join the White House Roundtable of Afghan-American Leaders and served as a board member of the Afghan Coalition for 10 years. In 2018, Wahab made headlines as the first Afghan-American woman elected to public office in California when she won her seat on the Hayward City Council.
Thousands of new Afghan refugees have relocated to California, where there is already a thriving Afghan community, particularly in Fremont, where an industrial park is commonly known as “Little Kabul” has become a cultural center. Wahab’s victory, she said, was for her too.
“I am very proud of the legacy. I think the culture is wonderful in many ways. I also know it’s deeply misunderstood and very misrepresented in so many different ways,” Wahab said.
“We take great pride in bringing some joy into people’s lives and bringing value to the larger community,” she added.
But during her race, Wahab said her ethnic and religious identities were used against her. People made Islamophobic and racist comments on social media. When she campaigned and knocked on people’s doors, people told her they would never vote for an Afghan or a Muslim.
“It was very frustrating to see that, especially in the Bay Area,” Wahab said.
Wahab continued to receive support from government officials, including California Attorney General Rob Bonta, state Senator Bob Wieckowski, groups such as Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club, and the state’s Democratic Party.
Wahab will now travel to Sacramento, where she will be sworn in as a state senator in December. She hopes foster kids will be watching.
“There’s a lot to say and more to come, but I want to take this moment to speak directly to all the children in #care… our dreams are coming true,” she said tweeted shortly after their victory.
“I was born in this country. I will die in this country and continue to serve a country that is a big part of my journey,” Wahab said. “The meaning of the American Dream is to pursue your own dream.”