South Asians On World Stage

The day Osman Salahuddin turned 27 was also the day he launched his political campaign. He announced his candidacy to run for City Council in Redmond, a city on America’s west coast where he grew up.

The city of Redmond, located 15 miles east of Seattle, in Washington state, with a population around 80,000, prides itself on its diversity and as a centre of technology – it is home to Microsoft, Nintendo, and AT&T, among other well-known companies.

Salahuddin is among a growing number of South Asians in the US taking up public office to serve their communities over the conventional fields of engineering, medicine, or law.  As a Pakistani-American, Salahuddin is well aware that he is going against the grain for the ‘desi’ (South Asian) community.

“This actually might not be popular amongst the parents,” he said at his inaugural campaign meeting, addressing the youth in the room. Inviting them to join him in pursuing a career in public service instead of going into tech or medicine he added, “Your parents will tell you otherwise, but this is really important work.”

Growing pattern

His situation reflects a pattern of first-generation immigrants working in traditional ways to settle in and establish themselves in their adopted country, while the next generation can explore and make independent life choices.

A similar example is the Ahmed family in Bowie, Maryland – father Shukoor, an Indian-origin tech entrepreneur, and his pharmacist Pakistan-origin wife Nabeela support their daughters Raaheela and Shabnam in running for local elections so that they can represent religious minorities and people of colour. After losing her first election at the age of 18, Raaheela has held public office since she was 23.

Another notable case is that of Bushra Amiwala, a Pakistani-American student who stood for elections in Skokie, Illinois, and became the youngest Muslim woman ever to be elected to the US government at age 21. She has since become the subject of two documentaries.

Like Ahmed and Amiwala, Salahuddin too found his calling in public service during his University years. While studying neurobiology at the University of Washington, Seattle, as a pre-med student, he ran for student body president and was elected to serve over 45,000 students. He found the work so enriching that he took on community leadership roles after graduating.

A particularly humbling experience as student body president, he says, was the time he helped pass legislation that helped undocumented students (HB1488 from 2017-18) gain eligibility for the College Bound Scholarship. This increased access to funding opportunities to help them attain higher education.

“I really quickly figured out my true passion was serving the community,” says Salahuddin. Guests enjoying lunch at Osman Salahuddin’s campaign launch on February 25, 2023. Photo: Shailaja Rao / Sapan News

Widening support base

Salahuddin’s top priority is empowering the youth “who are our future – by offering new programmes and ensuring that we are keeping them as engaged as possible.” He also aims to support small businesses and protect and improve public parks and open spaces.

At the festive, invitation-only lunch meeting at a hotel in Redmond on February 25, 2023, the gathering of over 200 comprised mainly leaders and members of the local Pakistani community, with a sprinkling of Indian-origin Americans, many in their ethnic wear. Some non-Southasian supporters also joined.

Salahuddin has garnered several endorsements from elected officials and community leaders and has substantial South Asian support beyond the Muslim and Pakistani communities. This includes his boss, King County council member Sarah Perry, for whom he works as a communications and community engagement manager. A strong ally of the local South Asian community, Perry calls Salahuddin “a gem”, someone with strong leadership skills and a strong drive to accomplish any task he takes on.

Another supporter is Hamdi Mohamed, Seattle Port Commissioner and the first Somali woman elected to serve in Washington state. She knows firsthand how difficult it is for someone “different” to run for public office. She received hate mail when she first did that, targeted for her race and ethnic background. Some supporters even advised her to change her name. “My identity was attacked, something I did not have control over!” she said at Salahuddin’s campaign launch, urging him to remain steadfast and not let things get to him.

Born in Seattle, Osman Salahuddin has lived most of his life in Redmond. His father, Kamran Salahuddin, a small business owner, grew up in Islamabad, Pakistan, and came to the US in the 1980s to pursue a Master’s degree at Oregon State University. Osman’s mother, Sania Salahuddin, a long-time special education teacher for autistic preschool students, hails from Karachi.

The younger Salahuddin says he owes his perseverance and entrepreneurial spirit to his father. He looks up to his mother the most, constantly awed by her patience, selflessness and compassion.

Pakistani roots

The oldest of three, Salahuddin, grew up in a multi-generational household. He learned about India and Pakistan from his grandparents, imbibing the importance of holding onto his roots in America.

Salahuddin believes that his home, America, provides the opportunity to bridge the divide left by a brutal Partition, ongoing Hindu-Muslim tensions, and the continual conflict between India and Pakistan.

He believes his grandparents’ emphasis on cultural values – food, festivals, traditions, family – helps him “meet and connect” with those of different backgrounds.

Salahuddin hopes to win a large number of votes from Indian-American citizens. His strategy is “to learn exactly what our Indian-American community members want from representation and incorporate these learnings with some of our shared cultural backgrounds.”

Prominent supporters among the Indian community include Lalita Uppala, executive director of Indian American Community Services; Rituja Indapure, a council member from Sammamish; and Rita Meher, executive director of Tasveer South Asian Film Festival, Seattle.

Strategising his path forward, he says, “There are many steps to ensure a win. Some initial steps include urging people to donate to the campaign, knocking on as many doors as possible to connect with the voters, and hosting and participating in various community gatherings.”

The final candidate’s list on May 19, 2023, will tell whether there will be others running against him. In that case, there will also be a primary on August 1, 2023. If not, Osman Salahuddin will head straight to the general election on November 7, 2023. (The author is the board president of Tasveer South Asian Film Festival and a contributing editor at Sapan News. By special arrangement with Sapan)

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