In the midst of my daily scrolling of social media while looking for the latest Afghan developments, I came across a tweet from a friend who wrote that Zainab Mohsini, a first-generation Afghan-American, is a U.S. congressional candidate from the 11th district of Virginia.
Each and every word of this tweet caught my attention and painted a picture in my head of a woman who lived a life full of hardships, inspiration and hope.
It made me think of a person who had overcome trials because of her ambitions and morals, and this was proven true, when I spoke to Zainab for an exclusive interview with Reporterly.
Zainab is standing for elections on June 23 to enter the U.S. Congress – a body of authority that holds great sway in our part of the world. But, her determination to enter Congress is equally powerful.
Two decades ago, Zainab fled from the war and devastation in Afghanistan, to go through the hardships of emigration until she was able to fulfil her great dream of equality and the fight against discrimination in the U.S.
The representative of Virginia District 11
Zainab’s competitor for the seat in the 11th district is someone who has been the incumbent congressional representative for the district since 2009.
However, Zainab believes that she can overcome that 11 year-experiential gap after her work as a social activist for equality and justice. Her background as an immigrant will also give her the chance to connect with and draw the votes of other Afghans and minorities.
She decided in January last year to run for the elections. After that, she passed the Democratic Party’s training programmes and went through all the steps required for her to be considered for the candidacy.
Finally, on November 18, she officially announced that she will be running for the Democratic seat from Virginia’s 11th Congressional District.
As a teen, Zainab had already chosen her political party and when she became eligible to vote, she became a member of the Democratic Party.
She believes that her values, ideas and thoughts are very close to the belief-system of the party and its leaders. According to her, the party values human equality and seeks to eliminate discrimination and help all human beings achieve equality in the U.S.
But how did Zainab Mohsini, an immigrant girl who went to the U.S. about 17 years ago, dream of representing the people of her adopted homeland?
Daikundi is the heart of Afghanistan
Zainab has risen from the foothills of central Afghanistan. Although originally from Daikundi province, she was born in 1988 in Ghor province.
The first historical even she remembers is the rise of the Taliban when she was eight years old. As a targeted ethnic minority, the family was especially vigilant and ended up immigrating to Pakistan.
Her childhood and adolescence were spent in camps where the family of seven sought refuge from the ongoing war. Zainab, like many other camp children, went to a primary school set up by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Her mother worked as a tailor while her father was unemployed.
She remembers those times of difficulty while they were living in exile in Pakistan, ever hopeful that the conflict in Afghanistan would end soon and they would be able to go back to the land they called home.
That day never came and when she was 14, in 2003, the UNHCR placed their family in the U.S. state of Oregon.
America, another world
The family settled in the idyllic community of Aloha which barely had over 12,000 families. It was just miles from downtown Portland, the largest city in the state.
But this was not the end of the family’s problems.
They had all relocated to a distant country where they barely spoke the language and clearly stood out within the small community. In fact, the only difference Zainab felt, was that now she could put down some roots and pursue her big dreams without being judged.
Her first job was working as a courtesy clerk at Safeway, a grocery store. She was in high school then and her job consisted of collecting shopping carts and helping customers carry and load their groceries in their cars. At the age of 16, she also taught English part-time. She then went on to work as an accountant in shops and restaurants.
But she never cursed the hardships she faced while studying. Her life in the U.S. was all about getting an opportunity to change her life, the lives of her family members and later to the lives of Afghan-Americans – people who had all trodden a similar path.
“I’m happy with life now because I’ve learned so much and I can understand where I’m standing and what I want,” Zainab told Reporterly.
However, in the U.S., she was also exposed to the divide that exists between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, those who belong and those who are seen as outsiders.
She saw they were not receiving equal opportunities and not facing the same starting line.
The family then moved to Northern Virginia, where she worked her way through community college.
“Minorities and people who come to the U.S. from other countries or those with weak finances all have difficulty studying and living, and I am part of that. I went to school here and borrowed for higher education,” she said. She had to borrow $50,000 once she transferred to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).
“To continue my education, I needed higher education and a better degree for a better job. This is one side of the issue,” she explains.
“The other side is that no one can get health insurance until one has a job, and I have tried to work all my life.”
The challenge of living with a student loan and the gap between different social classes became more evident when she graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in communication. She was the first person in her family to go to college.
She had started attending functions of the Democratic party when she was in school because they would talk about issues that affected her – student loans, unemployment, access to health insurance, minorities.
All this paved the way for her to begin her political journey in search of social change and equality.
Zainab’s political beliefs
Zainab believes she has a fighting chance of winning the upcoming elections because there are many younger people who are dissatisfied with the way minorities and other citizens are treated. The recent #BlackLivesMatter movement proves her point.
“I want the government to create an equal society for all. Right now… [there are] cases of inequality in tax payments. For example, the rich don’t pay taxes, but the poor pay more. I think that by changing this law, the government will receive more taxes from those who have money, depending on their situation, and will pay more attention to the people who need their help. The government should act as a defender of minorities and work in this area.”
But Zainab’s rival is no small matter. Gerald Connolly has been a member of the U.S. House of Representatives since 2009. He has worked in the Committee on. Foreign Affairs and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He has already spent $750,000 on his campaign.
Zainab, on the other hand, has managed to raise and spend only $20,000, but it has not stopped her from believing in her success.
“I have real-world experiences that are the basis of my progressive platform,” she says.
Her key to success is being able to personally connect with the experiences of the people in the district as she worked many jobs and was involved in volunteering with the community.
She is facing challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown measures have prevented her from canvassing as much and has minimized her live events where she could talk to people.
However, she says she will definitely win if she can get 11,500 votes in the primary. According to her, her Republican rival, Manga Anantamula, will not be able to win the election this year either, as the party has not won even once since 2008 and the district sways Blue.
Why the U.S. Congress?
Zainab is looking forward to Congress because she believes the coming decade will be of prime importance to the U.S. identity.
“Fighting for immigrants, refugees, racial equity, and educational reform are the keys to building a world where everyone has the opportunity to be free and thrive.”
Coming from an ethnic Afghan minority background, she believes that social equality is a fundamental principle in a modern collective life.
“My goal is to live in an equal society free of class and racial differences and being in Congress is one way to achieve my goals sooner with the programs and efforts I can make in this position.”
Although Zainab has never worked as an elected official, she has been a social activist in Virginia in the fields of minority law and human rights.
For her, most of these issues arise from education inequity and can be addressed by eliminating discrimination. This prompted her to work full-time in the field of women’s rights and childbirth. At the same time, she is constantly looking for an opportunity to return to her local community through voluntary activities in organizations active in the field of immigration.
These experiences have taught her that she must choose a new path in the U.S. that would make her a person whose voice matters, an important decision and change-maker.
What is her back-up plan? “If I don’t win this round, there are other ways to achieve that goal, which I will certainly pursue, because Congress is one of the thousand options.”
And if Zainab succeeds, it will be considered a win for Afghan-Americans in the field of U.S. politics.
Contributed by Zackaria Noori; Edited by Anugya Chitransh