Posted by Rawan Elbaba on September 26, 2017 in Blog
As a young college student, Sam Jammal had dreams of going into business to support his immigrant family who worked tirelessly to raise him and his siblings. When September 11th happened, however, his plans changed. After seeing the response toward the Arab American community post-9/11, Sam quickly switched his major to political science and focused his sights on an eventual career in public service.
With working class, immigrant parents—who emigrated from Colombia and Jordan—Sam’s path was grounded in his desire to advocate for those who needed a voice. Sam’s parents immigrated separately to the United States in the 1970s, met and settled in southern California. His father, Samir, went straight to work at gas stations and fast food restaurants. Eventually he became a manager at the local Jack In The Box. His mother, Carmen, completed high school in the U.S. before going on to become a teaching assistant. Their strong work ethic made a strong impression on Sam.
“There was always that vision of ‘keep pushing forward for the next generation.’ The traditional immigrant experience of you work really hard so that the next generation can get ahead,” Sam said of his childhood.
Watching his parents’ struggle to succeed in America as working-class immigrants pushed Sam to work even harder. Throughout high school, college and law school, Sam bussed and waited on tables, worked retail, and cleaned cars to pay his expenses, tuition and rent. He admits, however, that like many Americans he still has thousands of dollars in student debt. His experiences are part of the reason he’s working to change Washington.
“DC is a playground for the rich and powerful and their children. There aren’t many people from working class families who can make the financial sacrifice to take an internship or low-paying entry-level position when they are burdened by student loans. Unfortunately, it creates an environment of a millionaire Congress, which means no one is looking out for the rest of us.”
A Career of Public Service Begins
Working his way through school didn’t stop Sam from starting a political career while at the University of Southern California. After creating USC Students for Kerry at age 22, he also ran for and won a delegate slot to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.
Embracing his Arab American and Latino heritage, Sam’s advocacy work spanned both communities. His unique identity even landed him a national TV debut on the “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” during a segment with Stephen Colbert at the 2004 National Democratic Convention. It was after meeting Sam that Colbert coined the term “Arabtino” which describes so many in our community today. During the hilarious segment, Sam managed to squeeze in arguments for responsible foreign policy and reform of the Patriot Act.
On being “Arabtino” Sam says, “What I mostly identify with is that these are both aspirational communities. They’re coming here to build something new and better but also to carve out their space in building what America is.”
After USC, Sam went on to attend law school at George Washington University. When he graduated in 2007, he turned away from working at the powerful DC firms, a position that would have helped to pay his law school debts, and instead chose a job as a civil rights attorney at the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund (MALDEF). There, he fought for the rights of immigrant students to receive a quality education.
In 2008, he won another delegate slot to the Democratic National Convention. After being awe struck the first time in 2004, Sam went into the 2008 convention looking for ways to engage the younger generation and ended up working in the Obama campaign and leading a voter protection task force for Latino voters. Following the election he headed to Congress where he served as counsel for Sen. Michael Bennet focusing on civil rights, labor and national security. Later, he became chief of staff to Rep. Tony Cárdenas as, one of only a handful of Latino and Arab American chiefs of staff. While Chief of Staff, he was named to Huffington Post’s “40 under 40: Latinos in Politics.”
With his civil rights background and time on the Hill, Sam also worked hard to advocate for the DREAM Act to provide relief to more than 800,000 undocumented young people who came to the United States as children. An issue he continues to support today.
“I know how hard it is, and I also know the politics of it, and I also have a deep admiration for Dreamers because we let them down when we didn’t pass the DREAM Act,” Sam said.His Washington experience also earned him a coveted spot in the Obama administration as a presidential appointee to the U.S. Department of Commerce, serving as special assistant to the Under Secretary of Commerce for Industry and Security.
“My proudest time in DC, as well as in the administration, was when my parents actually got to go to the White House and go to an immigration ceremony of all things. And they got to meet the President. And it was one of those things where, given my parents’ immigrant story and the struggle they had to go through, where their son could go work for the President, it’s only in America,” Sam said.
After leaving Washington Sam began a career in clean energy at SolarCity and then Tesla, returning to his home state of California. Throughout his career, however, Sam has taken on another significant responsibility, being a voice for Arab Americans and Latinos. And in some situations, he’s found he may be the only Arab American or Latino voice at the table, something he would like to change.
“Right now, given all the challenges we face, our country needs new voices to step in. It’s a financial sacrifice to run for Congress and it’s a big personal and professional risk. But allowing the status quo to continue is even more of a risk. This is our country too and we can’t continue to have a government that is out of touch and unresponsive to what people are actually going through. This is why I am running. I want to be a voice for the neighborhoods I grew up in.”
Growing up in and around California’s 39th District, Sam plans on taking on the district’s 24-year incumbent Ed Royce. With a district that’s 35% Latino, 30% Asian, 2% African American and 2% Arab American, Sam believes Royce’s Trump-approved voting record no longer “fits the district.”
His plan for taking on an entrenched incumbent? Sam says he’ll do it the “old fashioned way.”
“You go to folks, you tell them your story. You connect, and you focus on the issues they care about. My campaign is going to be built on making sure young people want to get engaged and want to run because it’s our generation of Americans at stake,” he said.
Throughout his campaign, Sam has been focusing on what he calls “kitchen table issues,” including student debt, cost of childcare and the failing job market. As one of the youngest and most diverse districts in the country, Sam warns that the American Dream of his parents’ generation is at risk.
“We need to make sure we’re telling our story, now more than ever, that’s important. The more we can get engaged, the bigger difference we’ll have,” Sam said. “We should tell our side of the story. People want to hear from us.”
At a young age, Sam Jammal turned to a life of public service so he could be a voice for his neighborhood and he’s never looked back. For Arab Americans, there’s never been a more important time to follow his example and be at the table, fighting forward.
*photos courtesy of Sam Jammal