Our state’s first Somali-refugee elected official, Zak Idan of Tukwila, says he was emboldened to run for office by the president’s travel ban.

Share story

When President Donald Trump signed his first Muslim-oriented travel ban in January, Zak Idan, who lives in the refugee-strong city of Tukwila, took it as a direct hit.

“It was chaos and confusion at first, but then I realized: ‘That’s me. Trump’s banning me,’ ” Idan says. “It was in that moment I saw I needed to put myself out there.”

Idan, 29, came here from Somalia as a refugee when he was 11. He is now a U.S. citizen and a project manager in King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division, so the travel ban doesn’t apply to him directly. What he means by saying “Trump’s banning me” is that it’s precisely his category of immigrant, along with refugees from five other mostly Muslim countries, that are barred from entering the United States.

So what did Idan do about it? He went out and got himself elected.

Sure, it’s only to the Tukwila City Council, a part-time gig in a town of 20,000. But Idan’s election this month is historic. It makes him the only Somali-refugee officeholder in Washington state, he says. And he’s believed to be one of just five Somali-American officeholders in the United States (the other four are all in and around Minneapolis).

He’s also one of the few Muslims to win office in recent years around here. Local Muslims have been rallying to get more politically active but have not had many breakthroughs. Until, counterintuitively, Trump came along.

“It’s huge, Zak getting elected,” says Arsalan Bukhari of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim advocacy group. “Winning the approval of the community, in a public vote, shows better than anything that Muslims really are an accepted part of American society.”

Idan won 55 percent in his first try for office. He becomes the only foreign-born member of the council in a city that is about 40 percent foreign born.

Tukwila is the most racially diverse place in the state. At Foster High School, students speak an incredible 45 languages. The main grocery store on Highway 99 (Tukwila International Boulevard), Saars Super Saver, is like an international bazaar, selling cactus leaves, halal meats, hominy, fresh injera bread and dozens of types of dates.

Idan landed there in the mid-1990s, when Tukwila was considerably whiter. He and his family had fled Somalia’s civil war and spent years in a Kenyan refugee camp. Tukwila embraced his family fully, he says, with neighbors driving him to school events. But at the same time, the booming immigrant population could feel a little cut off from official Tukwila. It was like a city in a city.

“Tukwila has really positive energy, but there was still a void there,” Idan says. “People were wondering when the immigrant part of the community would be represented and heard.”

Unlike in nearby Burien, which went to war this year over immigration issues, Tukwila stayed focused on sidewalks, housing and other local issues. A few times when he was out door-knocking, someone said something negative about his Muslim faith. But it wasn’t much part of the election.

His candidacy may have inspired some of the typically low-voting immigrant population to turn out. But the campaign wasn’t racially or religiously divisive, and, unlike in Burien, it didn’t attract fear-stoking outside groups. So he probably also won the white vote and the African-American vote and all the rest, he says.

These days, it counts as news when democracy works the way it’s supposed to.

In 2011, two Somali-American Muslims made news by running in council races in rapidly changing SeaTac and Tukwila. Both lost. But a political consultant prophetically told The Seattle Times: “The question is, are we ready for a Muslim in SeaTac? … History says it will happen eventually.”

It took six more years. And the provocations of a president.

“That travel ban emboldened me,” says Idan, who will be sworn in in January. “It made me want to show what the opposite of a banned people looks like. That we’re visible, that we can contribute, and that we’re not going to hide.”

Maybe America really is being made great again.