Jewish-Iranian refugee who fled the Middle East for the U.S. is now running for Congress - and she could make history

Posted July 6

Anna Monahemi Kaplan, a Jewish-Iranian refugee who has lived in America for nearly 40 years, will make history if she secures the Democratic nomination and proceeds to win the battle for New York's third congressional seat in November.

If that happens, Kaplan, a Democrat, will become the first-ever Iranian-American elected to Congress — a possibility that has attracted a fair amount of media attention in recent months.

Kaplan currently serves as a council member for the town of North Hempstead in Long Island, New York, and is running for a seat that is set to be vacated by Rep. Steve Israel, who is also a Democrat.

Citizens will vote in the primary on Tuesday, with Kaplan among five Democratic candidates aiming to secure the nomination, according to the Forward.

But it is Kaplan's personal background that is drawing attention to her candidacy, as her biography notes that she left Iran as a 13-year-old child to "escape revolution and the threat of persecution."

Briefly detailing some of her experience, the text goes on to note that Kaplan initially lived separated from her family in Chicago and New York after arriving in the U.S.; she was later reunited with her parents and brothers.

The politician attended the Stern College for Women and the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law and became a U.S. citizen in 1995; she was later elected to the town council in 2011 and won re-election in 2015.

As a refugee who attended school and built a life and family in America, Kaplan proclaims in her official campaign biography that she is immensely grateful for the opportunities that she was afforded in the U.S., juxtaposing the American experience to that of her childhood in Iran.

"Persian Jews stayed out of politics in Iran. My parents and community were afraid of being noticed — they were a small, vulnerable minority in a conservative part of a conservative country," she explained. "But here in the United States, we have been given so much opportunity and I am so grateful to this country for opening its arms that I’ve had to give back."

While buzz is surrounding the potential historic nature of her congressional candidacy, she already became "the first Iranian-American to be elected to municipal office in New York State," with her 2011 win leading Lifetime TV to profile her as part of its "Remarkable Women" campaign.

The Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), an umbrella group that serves as a voice for Iranian Americans, released a January 2016 statement noting that a potential congressional win for Kaplan would also be historic.

Kaplan has praised the diversity that she sees in her Long Island community, heralding it in an announcement earlier this year about her candidacy.

"I am running for Congress because that is the position where I believe I can be the most effective advocate for the issues that matter to Long Island and Queens families," she said in an email, according to PAAIA. "We are blessed to be living here. What makes our community so wonderful is the fact that it’s so diverse. This is what America is all about."

She continued, "This is the foundation on (which) America was built on, people coming from all over and bringing all their assets and attributes and sharing them with everyone."

Kaplan's noteworthy congressional fight comes as the Middle Eastern refugee crisis has become a common theme in U.S. presidential campaign rhetoric. Republican candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly warned about threats that he believes are inherent. The presidential contender even told a crowd last September that he would send Syrian refugees back if elected president.

"I'm putting the people on notice that are coming from here from Syria as part of this migration," he said during a rally at the time. "If I win, they're going back."

He has repeatedly called for restrictions on Muslim individuals and families immigrating to the U.S., expressing fears earlier this month that allowing too many people from Middle Eastern countries could be a "Trojan horse" of sorts.

Kaplan has taken aim at some of Trump's rhetoric, releasing a campaign video accusing the businessman's supporters of launching "a sustained campaign to intimidate" her into silence.

"I'm no longer a teenager. This time I will not run," she said of her electoral efforts. "The stakes are too high."

As the debate over immigration forges on, some individuals are taking extra effort to try to show the value that refugees have had on American society and culture.

As the Deseret News previously reported, Lidiya Yankovskaya launched the Refugee Orchestra Project last year, an effort that uses music "to demonstrate the vitally important role that refugees from across the globe have played in (America's) culture and society."

Yankovskaya, whose family is Jewish, told Newsweek about her own personal experience growing up in Russia in the 1990s before her family fled to the U.S. and later settled near Albany, New York.

"I remember passing by a major square in the middle of the city where fascists would fly large swastika flags and hand out pamphlets that said ‘Kill all the Jews’ on them," she said of her experience in her native land. "Russia, in general, at the time was in economic and political turmoil, so there was a lot of hardship overall."

Read more about what she's doing to try to make a difference.

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