Posted by Rawan Elbaba on October 23, 2017 in Blog
Born in southern California to a Mexican mother and a Palestinian father, Ammar has lived at the crossroads of cultural identity: half Latino, half Middle Eastern, and an all American boy.
He spent some of his formative years in Gaza, reconnecting with his estranged father. Living in Gaza as a young boy, Ammar admits, was a menacing and gut-wrenching experience at times.
“I saw war and violence and a lot of loss and death—just things better left imagined than described,” he said.
Life in Gaza gave Ammar thick skin “because words don’t hurt anymore when you see what you’ve seen in Gaza.” He also credits his time in Palestine as one of the reasons he got into civic life.
His Palestinian childhood emboldened him to speak out against violence and to put his life in America into perspective.
After four years in Gaza, Ammar, along with his mother and younger brother moved back to San Diego County just one month before September 11, 2001.
“Our intentions were to flee war, and war followed us like a disease. It was very hard to be an Arab American in a post 9/11 world, it still is. I often struggled and always wondered if this country would ever give an opportunity to someone like me. And in 2008, in a way the country said 'yes we can',” he said.
"I was a young, brooding, biracial man trying to find myself and my place in America. All of this, while adjusting from West to East Coast culture and reconnecting with my Muslim father, whose absence was ever present. President Obama went down an almost identical path, giving me both the road map to navigate through my own journey and the destination itself — a role in his administration. It is because of him that I finally found my place in America."
Four years in Gaza taught Ammar to be very socially aware, encouraging him to study psychology and philosophy at San Diego State University. With plans to become a therapist, Ammar ultimately felt that he’d serve people better as someone in public office.
The 28-year-old began his political career as the Deputy Regional Field Director for the Obama campaign in 2012, eventually serving as a California delegate to the Democratic National Convention that same year.
After the campaign, he went on to serve in the Obama White House, handling the President’s official correspondence with world leaders, veterans, and everyday Americans.
He attributed the most rewarding moment of his career to this very coveted spot at the White House.
“I remember when I actually got into the White House, tears that I've held in since childhood were finally set free,” he said. “America is not perfect but it’s the only place where someone like me, the son of a woman from the barrio and a father who is from Jaffa, have the freedom to reimagine his life and pursue his dreams."
He left the White House in mid-2013 to serve as the Director of Communications and Public Affairs at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a position he held for nearly three years.
Over the past year, however, Ammar served in the Department of Labor as a public affairs officer throughout the 2016 election cycle.
He described the 2016 election as a “where were you moment?” Years from now, he believes, people will ask if we fought for our constitutional and civil rights when they were at risk. For Ammar, it’s mainly about having a stake in the future, fearing that the American Dream his parents came here for will skip a generation.
“There are political moments that we have to seize on. And I think young people, it’s our moment. People of color, it’s our moment. And we don’t get a lot of moments,” Ammar said.
Jumping on “this moment,” Ammar launched his campaign to represent California’s 50th District. Since the beginning of his campaign, he’s worked tirelessly to connect with people and tell them his story as a child of immigrants who came to America to seek opportunity.
In our conversation, Ammar regularly praised his mother and attributed his work ethic to her experience as an immigrant, single mother in Southern California.
“My mom taught me that everything in life is earned and nothing is given to you. And my life has taught me that too,” Ammar said. “Nothing is ever given to us, most of its taken and we have to earn crumbs. Hard work has been the equalizer in my life.”
California’s 50th District, largely San Diego County, is a growing diverse community with one of the largest Chaldean communities outside the Detroit area. In one the few Republican districts in California, Ammar hopes to sway where he calls the “heart and soul of America” left.
To connect with his community, Ammar is utilizing the power of social media. He’s written op-eds, has done countless interviews, and has even performed a song (guitar in hand) for a Buzzfeed video.
Although being a young Arab and Latino politician generates fervor and attention, Ammar admits it could be a distraction, choosing to focus on the issues he cares about instead.
Coming from a job leading the Office of Public Affairs for the Employment and Training Administration at the Department of Labor, his main priority is focusing on jobs. Other issues on his priority list are systemic reform of campaign finance and elections, a single payer healthcare system, immigration, and energy policy.
As a young politician, Ammar has strongly encouraged young people to run for office. In his experience, young people are “unbridled,” and “not averse to taking risks, dreaming big and being idealistic.” He says we need more young people to be involved and be vocal about issues they care about.
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. So, you might as well go out there and be at the table and have a voice,” he said.
For the Arab American community, Ammar says we still have work to do in terms of advocating for ourselves in politics.
“We don’t believe that we have actual influence. You can’t be what you can’t see, so that’s why I’m running,” he said. “If we could just be a convening force and work together, it’s a ripe opportunity for us.”