The senator from Satwa: Dubai-born Indian American keen to take UAE culture to New York

Kevin Thomas aims to build a bridge between people and promote understanding

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The most famous pupil of Dubai's St Mary’s school tells how speaking up for the less fortunate has shaped his journey to being elected the first Indian American senator of New York.

Democrat Kevin Thomas is in the UAE this week for a five-day visit with a group of US state senators.

The senator who was born in Satwa is also exploring how to get New Yorkers to adopt the UAE’s example of referring to people with disabilities as "people of determination".

His meetings with government ministers, experts on sustainability, visits to Masdar and the Expo 2020 Dubai site have encouraged him to be more proactive on furthering cultural exchanges between the UAE and New York.

I’m who I am today because I can represent both my Indian heritage and being able to say I was born in Dubai
Kevin Thomas, New York State Senate

“Here [UAE] we don’t see the word disabled. This is something we can try and do in New York,” he told The National.

“Here we see people of determination. That word disabled has a lot of stigma to it.

“I’m discussing with other senators who are on this trip and we might be making some changes in New York based off ideas we have got here.

“Making the change in New York can help change the stigma behind the word.”

His Indian background along with the years spent in the UAE have guided his choices to be advocate for diversity and inclusion.

“I’m who I am today because I can represent both my Indian heritage and being able to say I was born in Dubai.”

Meetings with Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Youth, and other officials sparked ideas of a reverse cultural exchange.

“The way we do it right now, we bring Broadway shows from New York to Dubai. We should do a cultural exchange where Emirati culture and music is highlighted at our opera houses and in our cultural venues.”

Kevin Thomas was born in the working neighbourhood of Satwa in Dubai. Ruel Pableo for The National standalone

The 37-year-old was 10 when his family immigrated to the US.

The Thomas family are from Kerala, India’s southern state and he studied until Grade 5 in St Mary’s school in Dubai.

Mr Thomas has visited the UAE over the years with his wife and on official business.

Elected in 2018 to represent the 6th District in Nassau County, he became the first Indian-American in New York history to serve in the State Senate.

His background as an attorney influenced his decision to make the move into public service.

“Fighting for the little guy it means a lot to me,” Mr Thomas said.

“After law school I started working in one of the poorest Congressional districts in the country, the South Bronx.

“When you think of an attorney, you think of individuals who make a lot of money. I didn’t want that life. I wanted to be in court every day to fight for the little guy.

“That transformed me into who I am today because fighting in the trenches for someone who cannot repay you for a better life is what I want to do for people when I represent them as their senator.”

Mr Thomas plans to encourage more government officials from the US to visit the UAE to deepen communication.

“There is a lot of misinformation about this region because of not understating the culture and heritage here,” he said.

“That’s what I’m trying to do — bridge the gap and so we will have more individuals from the US specifically from New York go to the UAE.”

He introduced a resolution last year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UAE by declaring December 2 as Emirati day in New York state.

“There is so much change here and sustainable change,” Mr Thomas said.

“I grew up in Satwa but when I came back in 2010 I couldn’t recognise it.

“Just a couple of years ago the site at Expo never existed. It’s because of vision of the UAE leaders and their thinking decades ahead.”

Updated: February 24, 2022, 7:13 AM