Aisha Wahab knows what it means to stand up for herself, especially when no one else will. After her father was murdered and her mother died at a young age, she was placed in the 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. Being a foster parent taught her to stand up for herself, she said.
“I really want people to believe in themselves when no one believes in them,” Wahab told HuffPost. “I really want most people, especially young children, to know that you are not alone.
She used that same tenacity when she decided to run for California Senate District 10 against Fremont Mayor Lily Mei. She said she was surrounded by naysayers who said she had no chance. But Wahab won, making her the first Muslim woman and the first Afghan-American elected to the state senate.
Wahab is among dozens of Muslim Americans who made historic gains in local, state and federal races in the 2022 midterms, posting more electoral victories than ever before. More than 80 Muslim American candidates won seats in more than 20 states, according to a message from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Jetpac Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that works to increase the representation of Muslims in U.S. government and politics.
In 2021, 71 Muslim Americans were elected by number of groups.
“A lot of people didn’t necessarily believe our campaign,” Wahab told HuffPost. “The fact that we can take the mayor, the fact that we come from a smaller town where… you were the first one or the first one or you’re too young. We have a lot.”
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 Wahab and her family were kicked out of Fremont, she moved to Hayward, where she became a community organizer and advocate for affordable housing. That same year, she was elected as Alameda’s Public Health Commissioner and served as chair of the Alameda County Human Relations 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 became the first Afghan American woman elected to public office in California when she won a seat on the Hayward City Council.
Thousands of new Afghan refugees have resettled in California, where there is already a thriving Afghan community, particularly in Fremont, where the commercial area is commonly known as “Little Kabul” became a cultural center. Wahab’s win, she said, is for them too.
“I’m very proud of the legacy. I think the culture is amazing in many ways. I also know that it is deeply misunderstood and also very wrongly portrayed in many different ways,” Wahab said.
“We’re very proud to bring a little joy to people’s lives and win over the wider community,” she added.
But during her race, Wahab said, her ethnic and religious identity was used against her. People expressed Islamophobia and racism on social networks. 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, especially in the Bay Area,” Wahab said.
Wahab also received endorsements from government officials including California Attorney General Rob Bonta, state Sen. Bob Wieckowski, groups including Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club, and the state Democratic Party.
Wahab will now head to Sacramento to be sworn in as a state senator in December. She hopes foster parents will watch.
“There’s so much to say and more to come, but I want to take this moment to speak directly to all the kids in #foster care…our dreams are coming true,” she said he tweeted shortly after her victory.
“I was born in this country. I will die in this country and continue to serve the country that has been a big part of my journey,” Wahab said. “The whole point of the American dream is to chase your own dream.”