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

August 14, 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 is on the ballot in Minnesota 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.”


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