Colorado's first Muslim politician on how she 'elevated' her parents' lessons

Iman Jodeh was elected in 2020 as part of a wave of Muslims and Arabs who have been running for political office in the US

Iman Jodeh gives the commencement speech at the University of Colorado Denver in December, 2021. Courtesy of Iman Jodeh
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Growing up with Palestinian immigrant parents in the US taught Iman Jodeh how to bridge people of different faiths and cultures.

It is a lesson she has since “elevated,” after she became the first Muslim elected representative of the state of Colorado more than two years ago.

At the age of eight, Ms Jodeh started helping out at the family delicatessen during school holidays, operating the cash register and chatting with customers.

And her father, Mohamad, co-founded the local mosque in their neighbourhood, which became the largest and oldest in the Rocky Mountain region. Her mother, Siham, started the Sunday school there.

“I was very conditioned from an early age to know what it's like to be that liaison and how to do it,” Ms Jodeh, who spent her summers visiting relatives on the outskirts of East Jerusalem, tells The National.

“Watching my dad do it for so long, I was able to take his message and elevate it a little bit.

"Having been born and educated in America, that advocacy was always there."

Ms Jodeh, 40, joins a growing number of Muslim and Arab Americans who have been elected to local, state and federal offices in recent years. Many of them are second-generation Americans; most are Democrats.

They say having grown up in the shadows of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the anti-Muslim sentiment that followed, taught them the importance of representation and participation.

“For decades, decisions were being made for us, without us," Ms Jodeh said.

"And so having the ability to influence policy that directly impacts our communities is vital to the future and success of Arabs and Muslims in this country.

“We need to have representation."

In 2020, Ms Jodeh, a progressive Democrat, was elected to represent the 41st district in the Colorado House of Representatives, becoming the first Muslim legislator in the state's history.

She defeated her Republican opponent by winning nearly 65 per cent of the vote.

That year, 71 Muslim Americans across the US were elected into office – a record at the time.

The midterm elections two years later set a new record, with 82 candidates elected into local, state, judicial and federal seats.

Those banner years for Muslim representation came after two Muslim women were elected to Congress in 2018, including Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American congresswoman.

Ms Jodeh, who was re-elected in 2022 and then selected as majority co-whip of the state House, credits the change to shifts in realities for many immigrant families.

Unlike her parents’ generation, who had to focus on surviving and raising their children in a new country, she says this generation is better equipped to take on more prominent roles.

“Especially for people who are refugees, coming to a place like America, they are looking for safety and security, economic prosperity – things that were not afforded to them in their home countries,” Ms Jodeh says.

“For them, the way to do that was to keep their heads down, and it worked. But they laid the path, they laid the foundation, so the next generation doesn't feel like we have to do that any more.”

Since taking office, she has focused on a wide range of topics that affect her community in Aurora, a city she describes as one of the most diverse in the US.

This past session, Ms Jodeh passed a bill that allows US permanent residents to sponsor an immigrant, even if that permanent resident is on public benefits. It is legislation that Republicans have long opposed.

“There have been a lot of opportunities for me to advocate for other people who share my identity, and who we share an unfortunate kinship with when it comes to marginalisation," she says.

“And so it doesn't just have to be Muslims and Arabs, it is the black community, it is the immigrant community, it is all of those communities that share those unfortunate realities.”

Also high on her agenda is access to health care, as well as climate change, affordable housing and criminal justice reform.

Ms Jodeh is up for re-election next year and she says she intends to run.

“I love what I do, it is incredibly rewarding,” she says.

“I have this opportunity to advocate for people in a way that not many other people do, and I want to continue that.

“But whatever that path looks like, whichever way it reveals itself, it's kind of out of my hands.”

Updated: July 03, 2023, 3:00 AM