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'Live Free Or Die': From Afghan Refugee To U.S. Political Hopeful

Safiya Wazir hopes to make history in November.
Safiya Wazir hopes to make history in November.

"Live free or die" is the official motto of the U.S. state of New Hampshire.

It's a mantra that resonates deeply with Safiya Wazir, an Afghan refugee who fled Taliban rule in the 1990s, resettled with her family in neighboring Uzbekistan, and is now a U.S. citizen vying to make political history in her adopted state.

The 27-year-old won the Democratic Party primary for a seat in the state legislature on September 11, and should she defeat Republican Dennis Soucy in the November general election, she would become the first former refugee to hold public office in New Hampshire.

"Many people sacrifice for freedom," Wazir tells RFE/RL in a phone interview. "[I] had the opportunity to live freely or die."

Wazir seized the opportunity, moving to the United States in 2007. She graduated from high school and became a U.S. citizen in 2013. After three years of working low-salary jobs, she earned a business degree.

Now, she is campaigning to represent District 17, a blue-collar neighborhood in Concord, the capital of New Hampshire, a predominately white state.

In the Democratic primary, Wazir defeated four-term incumbent Dick Patten, a 66-year-old former city councilor. During the campaign, Patten reportedly accused immigrants of "getting everything," such as social benefits, at the expense of people born and raised in New Hampshire.

After his loss, he was quoted as saying, "She's from Afghanistan, so she was treated like the princess." He has reportedly said he will vote for Wazir's Republican rival in the November election.

Safiya Wazir with her family (undated)
Safiya Wazir with her family (undated)

Wazir was shocked when she won the vote in a landslide.

"The diversity of the population in the community is rising," she says. "I want to be the voice of everybody from native-borns to immigrants. I want to be an example to the new generation. You have the opportunity, with the freedom and democracy we have, to step up and do better."

Wazir has spent years involved in community activism and dedicated herself to education and family issues.

The mother of two -- who is expecting her third child in January -- has championed the causes of young families, campaigned for expanded health care and paid parental leave, and fought for more funding for childhood education.

A New Generation

Wazir is part of a wave of young people and minorities to enjoy success in primaries across the United States, defeating older and more established rivals, signaling what observers say is a desire among many Democratic voters for generational change.

Among them are Stacey Abrams, a 44-year-old black woman, who is the Democratic nominee for governor for the state of Georgia; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old first-time candidate who won a New York congressional primary in June; and Ayanna Pressley, the Boston city councilor who defeated a 10-term incumbent earlier this month and is now poised to become the first black congresswoman in the state of Massachusetts.

"It's finally the year for women to step up and run," Wazir says. "This is the year many of us have been fortunate to [be in] this position."

Her unlikely foray into New Hampshire politics began at the age of 6. Born in the Dushi district of Baghlan Province, in northern Afghanistan, her family moved to neighboring Uzbekistan in 1997. Ten years later, Wazir moved to Concord with her parents with the help of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

While she remembers little of Afghanistan and has only returned to the war-torn country once -- in 2012, to get married -- her birth country remains a source of inspiration.

Her focus, however, is squarely on her adopted home.

"Afghanistan is [facing] many difficulties," Wazir says. "But it's not just in Afghanistan. We face [some of] those situations in the U.S. and we have so many problems in New Hampshire. That's why I'm running."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.