My parents immigrated to the United States in 1980 in pursuit of the American dream. Like all immigrants who come to this country, whether through Ellis Island or at our southern border today, her parents wanted to provide a better, more stable life for their family. Despite being educated professionals in their native countries, they had to take a variety of low-paying jobs when they arrived in order to provide for our family. My father drove taxis and delivered pizzas, and my mother washed dishes in a cafeteria.
When I was in middle school, my father became disabled and could no longer work. The hospital bills from my father’s surgery drained our family’s savings. My mom took a second job, but with my father’s menial Social Security Disability Income, we were barely scraping by. We had to sell our home and I began working part-time sweeping floors at Great Clips at the age of 15 to help chip in with the bills.
On September 11th, 2001, I returned from school to find my parents on the couch sobbing, watching the carnage on TV. Despite our empathy for the unspeakable attacks that took place in our nation that day, our Muslim background made us neighborhood scapegoats. Our garage became a mural of graffiti and racial slurs, and our front lawn a receptacle for neighborhood trash.
I will never forget the morning where I looked outside and saw my disabled father limping around the front yard, picking up trash. It was gut-wrenching things I had ever witnessed, but also the first time I had ever truly appreciated the enormity of the sacrifice they had made for us by immigrating to the U.S. They wanted us to have access to the world-class education, equal opportunity, and unassailable rights that America was known for, and were willing to do just about anything—whether it meant picking up trash or being treated like it—in order to make that happen.
Law school and politics were not part of my original plan.
My original plan was to be a doctor. I couldn’t imagine a more fulfilling career than saving lives, taking care of people, and easing their pain and suffering. But, this dream was cut short midway through my third-year of medical school when I was in a serious car accident. I woke up in a hospital with multiple broken bones—including a compound fracture of my right ankle that required multiple surgeries to repair. My doctors prescribed various opioids for my physical pain. The addictive potential wasn’t discussed, and idea of becoming addicted had never crossed my mind. I would end up learning the hard way that I had a genetic predisposition to the disease of addiction. In the end, it wasn’t the car accident that killed my dreams—it was my addiction and the criminalized that followed.
In just two years, my addiction took me from a classroom at a top medical school to a cell in one of the worst jails in the country—the Cook County Jail. While in jail, I was sexually assaulted, beaten, stabbed, denied medical care for my injuries—all of which took place with the knowledge and complicity of the correctional officers. After jail, the punishment wasn’t over. The stigma of having been incarcerated made it impossibly difficult to reintegrate back into society in any sort of meaningful way. Even with a college degree and three years of medical education under my belt, I was rejected from every job I applied to that paid at least $14/hour—which, based on my calculations, was the bare minimum I needed to survive without having to sacrifice utilities for food. But, I could only find work at a convenience store making $8.25/hour. I could barely afford a roof over my head, or basic living expenses—healthcare was out of the question.
All I wanted was to get back on my feet—to find meaningful work and finally live a normal, productive life. But the obstacles were endless. It was difficult to reconcile how a mistake from my past—one where I had harmed nobody but myself—could amount to such a crippling degree of punishment, or how a disease could even be criminalized in the first place. I could not fathom having to spend the rest of my life pushing through endless barriers just to live some semblance of a normal life—and I did think it was fair for anyone else to have to either. I knew that something had to change. But after years of waiting and hoping for something to change or someone to step up to the task, I finally had to ask myself: if not me, then who—and if not now, then when?
That’s when law and politics became my plan.
Studying the law in the context of my personal experiences revealed a massive disconnect between what America is and what it is supposed to be. America is supposed to be grounded on equality, justice, and liberty. These principles are enshrined in our Constitution and governing bodies of law, and every law and policy is supposed to reflect these principles. But, our laws and policies do not reflect them; they are in fact fundamentally at odds with them.
But, we didn’t get here by mistake. This is what happens when representative democracy fails—when those who craft the laws and policies that shape society don’t actually resemble the people in that society—and this is exactly what’s happening now. There is a massive divide between the interests of those who create and enforce our laws, and those on the receiving end of them. The end result is a society that caters to an elite few, instead of to all of us.
I am running for Congress to help close this divide, and to fight for people like me and families like mine. The American people deserve a leader who is one of them—someone who they can count on to fight for their best interests. We cannot continue to rely on leaders who have never walked ten feet in our shoes and are not familiar with the brutality of our day-to-day struggles. At the end of the day, sympathy from our leaders is not enough; the American people need someone at the table who can empathize with their hardships, because with empathy comes understanding—and one can only fight passionately for what they truly understand.
I understand the horrors of not having access to healthcare and losing everything because of an unexpected medical setback. Because I understand this, I will fight passionately to ensure that every American has not only access to healthcare whenever they need it, but also economic protection during times of illness, accident, disability, or old age.
I understand the exhaustion of struggling to make a decent living and keep a roof over my head, and living in constant state of distress because of financial insecurity—which is why I will fight tirelessly to guarantee every American a job with at least a $15 wage, a decent home, and economic protection during unemployment. I will also fight to cancel student debt so that young people like myself can graduate and have the economic freedom and security to enjoy the lives they’ve worked so hard for.
I understand the sacrifice my parents made for my family by immigrating to this country. They came here to build a better life for us, and I will fight to ensure that other families can do the same. I will fight to no end to close inhumane immigration detention centers at our southern border and reunite families immediately. I will champion legislation that incudes a path to citizenship, decriminalizes border crossing, and is consistent both with our international obligation towards refugees and basic standards of human decency.
I understand the trauma of being locked in a cage, and I am certainly not alone. America is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. Our practice of hyper-criminalization and mass incarceration must end—and I will fight fiercely to see to it that it does. We cannot champion ourselves as an empire of liberty when we incarcerate more people than any other country in the world—much less, let corporations do so for profit. Mass incarceration is unsustainable on both human and fiscal terms; it has sparked a deadly overdose crisis—one that kills 130 people every single day. It is also extremely cost prohibitive—to the extent we spend more money caging people than we do educating them.
I am running for Congress because I envision an America where education is valued over throwing people in cages; where we invest in building bridges—not walls; where second chances are the norm, not the exception; where the disease of addiction is treated as a public health issue, not a crime; where nobody is discriminated against on the basis of race, religion, gender, gender identity, disability, or immigration status—especially not at the hands of our government; and where science and experimentation is preferred to failed, rigid ideology.
My vision for America is one that recaptures its’ own grounding principles of freedom, equality, justice; where the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not for sale; where the welfare and wellbeing of the people are prioritized above all else; where everyone has a chance, a voice, and a seat at the table—the formerly incarcerated, disabled, LGBTQ+, people of color, and children of immigrants; a diversity of voices that reflect the diversity of the people and, together, form a true representative and unyielding democracy.