May 20, 2016

Local Orange County Political Leaders Break Barriers in the 2016 Elections

pasted image 0When debate over Obamacare was at its peak in California, civic engagement brought husband and wife, Iyad Afalqa and Samila Amanyraoufpoor, together. As president of the Irvine Democratic Club with a background in healthcare management, Iyad was helping lead efforts to implement Obamacare through the state of California. He met his future wife Samila at a speaking engagement at the Democratic Club.

“We broke a lot of barriers. We proved a lot of people wrong,” Iyad said, referring both to their multi-racial marriage – Iyad is Palestinian and Samila is Iranian – and their ability to move up the local Democratic ranks in a largely conservative Republican district.

As nominees to be national delegates for Bernie Sanders, representing California’s 45th Congressional district, Iyad and Samila are empowering and inspiring their local community to get involved in the 2016 elections.

After applying to be delegates online, Samila and Iyad created a slate of progressives to campaign, called the “Tim Carpenter Slate,” referring to the founder of the Progressive Democrats of America. With the help of social media and on-the-ground campaigning, Samila and Iyad appealed to voters and won a majority of the votes. California’s Primary election will take place on June 7 and depending on how many votes each of the Democratic presidential candidates receive, a certain number of delegates will be allocated to each candidate for the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, PA in July.

If selected as national delegates, Samila and Iyad would pledge their support to Bernie Sanders at the convention. Democrats have a total of 4,762 delegates this election cycle. The candidate that earns the majority of those delegates will become the nominee for President.

All people should be involved in the policy making process,” said Samila, who participated in NIAC grassroots efforts last summer to ensure the U.S.-Iran Nuclear Deal withstood Congressional review. “Our involvement can actually impact some of those policies.”

Iyad also sees politics as an opportunity to make an impact and improve the lives of others. Born in Jerusalem, Iyad spent his formative years living in the West Bank under Israeli occupation, an experience that shaped his political outlook.

“For the longest time, I was deprived of that human right of choice,” Iyad said. “Being involved in social and racial justice – all of that stems from growing up under occupation. I wanted to be the voice for the voiceless.”

When the time came for Iyad to attend college, he did not have access to education, as the Israeli government had shut down numerous West Bank universities. Having already obtained his green card, Iyad headed for the United States in the mid-1990s, and soon earned his MBA in health management from the University of California in Irvine.

Today, Iyad holds multiple leadership positions within Irvine’s Democratic institution, including vice chairman of the Arab American Caucus of the California Democratic Party, chairman of the Democrats of Greater Irvine, and vice president of the Arab American Democrats of California.

Similarly, Samila moved to the United States in 1998. Having lived through the 1979 revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, she has always had a deep understanding and appreciation for politics. The recent U.S.-Iran Nuclear accord, especially, hit very close to home.

“That was very important to me because I have seen firsthand the impact of sanctions on people in Iran. I do not want to see that one more time,” she said.

Samila added that, regardless of the issues, she always strives to be more active in the civic process. She volunteered for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, at the local and state level, in 2008. And she became a delegate to the state of California in 2015.

While the husband and wife duo have always been deeply involved in politics, they both acknowledge that this election is particularly unique.

“There is a wave of xenophobia, candidates are courting voters based on marginalizing Muslims and people of color and refugees,” Iyad said. “I have to take advantage and mobilize my community … There is nothing wrong with having a hyphenated identity. But we have to move to a level where we’re not allowing others to tell our story.”

“[Iranian Americans] come from a background that you subconsciously think that whatever you do, you won’t be counted,” Samila said. “In our country, we were never involved or engaged in politics because it was always one party taking over the show.”

But if the Iranian American community wants to protect its rights, that mentality needs to change, she added.

“We’re not short on talent, only we need to be organized,” Iyad said.

This is the first of many profiles in a series highlighting civically engaged Iranian Americans, as part of NIAC Action’s Beshkan the Vote campaign.