With two successful terms as mayor in Prospect Park, New Jersey, Mayor Mohamed Khairullah is a refreshing example of a Muslim-American politician. Never forgetting his Syrian roots, he has used his influence since the beginning of the Syrian revolution to rally public opinion, fund-raise, and personally bring humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, both outside and inside Syria. Khairullah’s faith in God and the principles with which he was raised continue to drive him to risk his life and political career to remain a source of support to the Syrian people yearning for the basic rights enjoyed in the United States. The mayor graciously shared with Al-Madina a few stories of his trips to Syria and his reflections on the ongoing crisis in that region.
Al-Madina: Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you became interested in politics and humanitarian work?
Mohamed Khairullah: I was born in Syria. In 1980 I had to move out of Syria because during the first uprising my father and grandfather were marked for execution by the regime. We moved to Saudi Arabia where I was raised for 11 years and received my formal education up to 10th grade. After the first Gulf War we moved to the United States. I became interested in politics…in every Middle Eastern house they discuss politics. I saw the devastating effect of politics in the Middle East and saw an opportunity to serve my community of Prospect Park and the larger community, as well as the Muslim community. One year after I received my citizenship—that was 2001. I became a councilman, and in 2005 I became mayor filling an unexpired term. Following that I ran for two full terms alhamdulillah and this year I intend on running for my third term.
What about humanitarian work in general?
Well the humanitarian work I became interested in after visiting Syria the first time after the beginning of the revolution. Being that I have a background in politics, I could see the writing on the wall and that the world was not interested in ending the struggle of the Syrian people. Given the state of the opposition, I knew we were in it for the long haul and my thought process was we need to help the people on the ground be fed, nourished, treated, while the struggle continues. I see it as a long term struggle and I wanted to help the people on the ground because they are the ones who are truly suffering.
How do you balance your career in politics with your work in Syria?
The truth is that it is very difficult. I try to be project based, but I can’t deny that it affects one or the other. Sometimes I have to slow down on one aspect of my life .in order for me to pick up where I am lacking in the other. I have family, work, politics and Syria. These are the four corners of my life and that’s what I work around.
As you see it, what is the humanitarian situation in Syria?
It is a very dire situation. It is a unique situation in that when you talk about humanitarian work you generally talk about a major disaster that might affects thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions but that disaster happens over a short period of time and then people start relief work and they start the rebuilding process. The Syrian crisis is an ongoing disaster. The problem is like a hole that keeps getting deeper and deeper. While we try to fill it, it keeps opening up, from the bombardment that is constantly happening due to the regime, a regime that has utilized hunger as a weapon against its own people, with no access to food or medicine for over two years. You have people who are eating grass and animals that we wouldn’t normally eat, just cats and dogs. It’s a very dire situation and it is not going to be solved unless there is an international will and it doesn’t seem like the world has that will at this point.
What kind of reception did you receive from the people of Syria and what are the people like?
The people of Syria are very hospitable and very appreciative of any help that comes their way. The problem is that there was not enough [help] that we could give them. When the regime stopped providing services they stepped up to the occasion and they were filling the place of the regime in terms of providing services to the people. They want the world to help them but they realize it is their struggle and they are determined to finish it all the way to the end.
What continuously motivates you to continue to go back to Syria amidst war? What do you feel when you go back to Syria?
The motivation is that my life is not more important than any person on the ground in Syria. If I can bring in aid because people know who I am by all means I should do it – it is my duty. And the fact I had to leave Syria and loved ones due to the same regime makes it personal that I do what I do despite the fact the regime or supporters of the regime have threatened my life or my family. It’s a message from me on behalf of anyone who supports the cause, that we will support the Syrian people’s struggle for freedom and dictatorship has no place in Syria. We support the Syrian people’s aspirations and I want my family in Syria to enjoy the same freedoms and liberties that I enjoy in the United States.
Is your community in New Jersey supportive of your humanitarian efforts and is there a large Muslim Arab population in your town?
The Arab and Muslim population in my town is between 10 and 15 percent. Yes, there is good support but my support doesn’t come entirely from New Jersey. I’d say about 30-40 percent of my online campaign is from New Jersey but we get support from all over the US. In New Jersey we have a lovely community. I’ve received donations from elected officials who are not Muslim or Arab or Syrian because they see what the Syrian people are going through and they see them as their brothers in humanity.
How has your role evolved as a result of your firsthand witnessing of the situation on the ground in Syria? I’m sure when you first visited Syria it wasn’t like your role now.
No. It became less political and more humanitarian. I am more conscious of working for a nonprofit organization that can be under scrutiny by the government so I have to be less political not because I can’t speak politics but because I don’t want any of my actions to taint the work that I’m doing as a humanitarian relief worker because I don’t want my organization or the other organizations that I’m working with playing political sides. The need is so important that I can put my political views aside and focus on the humanitarian work.
How do you see the role of the Arab-Americans or Muslim Americans in the American political sphere?
I think that is your most important question. There is no political will in the US to solve the Syrian crisis. We have a few friends in Senate and Congress who have expressed their sympathy but the President is the ultimate decision maker. While I think he can, he hasn’t provided a case for the Senate and Congress and the American public that resolving the Syrian conflict is in the best interest of the US because we need to terminate the al-Qaeda that has come since Assad lost control of its borders. Syria is very strategic in terms of location for US allies and Syria can be economically a good market for the US. I think the Arab and Muslim American community can make a big difference this year especially because it’s a congressional election year in terms of making their voices heard for Congress to put pressure on the President and for them to put pressure on their members of Congress to make Syria a priority in the agenda of the next Congress.
Do you see the Syrian dilemma as a Sunni v. Shiite issue or one of democracy v. dictatorship and why?
The core issue is that of democracy. The Syrian people were fed up with the oppression of the Assad regime for over four decades. They wanted to live their lives in dignity. Due to the political alliance between Assad. Iran, Hezbollah – they have started the sectarian issue of Shiite v. Sunni. The Syrian people continue to fight to defend their country against the invasion of Hezbollah that is a Shiite militia and other militias from Iraq such as the Iranian Guard. So through his alliance Assad is making it into a sectarian Sunni v. Shiite battle but the Syrian battle is really a battle for freedom.
Is there any solution to the crisis in Syria and what are the short and long terms steps towards a free and democratic Syria?
The solution lies in the Syrian people. There is no international will. Countries that could finance arms are not doing so and these are countries that are supposed to be friends of Syrian people. They are not doing anything to change the balance and provide Syrian freedom fighters with weapons that would tilt the balance of struggle. The Syrian people have to become united. They have to unify their efforts. I think the key is what happens in the United States and I’m seeing after almost three years the efforts of unification starting to succeed between political groups and relief groups. I think these unification efforts will produce its fruits on the ground in Syria in the next few months. Unfortunately we’re in a position where nearly half the country is displaced. I hope that we’re not too late . At the end of the day I remain hopeful. We’re talking about a nation vs. one family that is trying to hold on to power.
What can we do in the West to help the suffering in Syria?
First, pick a reliable humanitarian relief organization and give them your zakat and donations. Second, political lobbying. Ask your elected officials and delegates in Congress that they must find a political solution to end the suffering of the Syrian people. We have to create a political will to end the suffering. It isn’t in the interest of the United states to remain out of the conflict. It is in the best interest of the United States to resolve this conflict for all kinds of purposes.
I think outside of these two points I want to point out that most killing on the ground is done through explosive barrels. Rebels have no advantage because they are dropped from 2-3 miles in the air and it destroys entire apartment buildings and kills dozens of people at a time. A no-fly zone is necessary to stop the killing.
On a personal level, do you ever get discouraged and what are the biggest challenges you face?
The biggest challenge is in maintaining the faith that I believe all disasters will end. As the Quran says inamal usri usra. I have no doubt that good times will come. Some times we question ourselves when will this end. We’re starting to see more of our friends get killed. Recently, I had a family friend get killed. You feel bad for them and you want it to end and the question is always when is it going to end? Our faith in Allah is very strong and we believe after difficult times there will be good times. We always face difficult situations with hope.
Do you feel that religion or spirituality has played a role in your work over the years?
Yes. I was taught that there is a purpose for my life on Earth. I don’t want to feel like I’m a person who just goes to work and comes home and goes to sleep and fulfills a cycle. I do what I do because I believe it’s my obligation to help mankind, not as a hobby. It is my obligation to help fellow mankind. From the time I came to US I started in ‘94 as a volunteer firefighter, in ‘93 I was a volunteer in the hospital. Pretty much my work as an elected official is almost volunteer because we get a small stipend. I have been doing it for 13 years. It is my duty to society and this was also taught to me by my religion.
What is your agenda for Prospect Park in 2014 if you win a third term?
The reason I’m running is I have been working for the past 8 years on bringing a major development into town that would bring new revenue into town and stabilize taxes. Finally last year a developer bought the land and they are submitting paperwork so we can move on with the approval process for this project. I want to see that this project kicks off correctly for the sake of the community for decades to come and I want to make sure that it kicks off correctly. Institutional memory is very important when it comes to things like this based on all the work we have done in the past.
What words of inspiration can you give to our young readers who are inspired by your leadership and aspire to a career in politics?
The simplest quote is a quote by Congressman Keith Ellison, who is the first Muslim congressman, which is “If you’re not sitting at the table, you’re part of the menu.” It is important to become doctors and lawyers and engineers like our parents like to push on us, but it’s just as important to give back to the community at large, not just the Muslim community but everybody. The US has given us liberties and freedom that we couldn’t even dream of where we came from. Just look at what is going on in the Middle East where people are just attempting to get their freedoms. Look what the regimes and the international communities are doing to them. We must give back. The only way we can change the impression people have of us is when they see us in action in the community. I can assure you that it is very rewarding when you make someone’s day when you help them with something, [like] for any kind of obstacle that someone couldn’t overcome without your help. It’s an obligation to participate and help the community. It’s rewarding for us individually and as a community because we let people know we are Americans who love our country. And if we want to have any kind of influence, even if you think about Middle Eastern policy, we need to be part of society and integrate. I don’t see a problem between values and involvement in government.
Bottom line, we all can help. And if we all do a little bit together we will all do a lot.
By ImanWire , 19 May 2014