PROSPECT PARK, NEW JERSEY - When Syrian-native Mohamed Khairullah settled in the small American town of Prospect Park, New Jersey in 1991, he did not envision he would one day become its mayor. He was only in the 11th grade at the time.
Prior to the United States, Khairullah’s life was about escaping conflict. In 1980, during the first uprising against then-president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, five-year-old Khairullah and his family fled Syria to Saudi Arabia. Eleven years later following the first Gulf War, they moved again — this time to the U.S.
Each time Khairullah moved, he experienced culture shock. But his move to the U.S. was unlike anything else.
“I had to get accustomed to a non-Middle Eastern culture, learn a new language, so it was extremely challenging, but I think it helped shape me into who I am,” said Khairullah.
He remembers stepping into a classroom with girls for the first time. “That was... Oh my God! It’s amazing!”
There also were aspects of the New Jersey town that reminded him of home, too. One day, while walking to high school, he recalls passing a political sign with an Arabic name on it, a moment, he says, that “planted a seed” for the leadership role he would one day assume.
Entering American politics
Khairullah says Prospect Park — population 6,000, 35 kilometers from Manhattan — has long been a welcoming community for immigrants. When he applied to be a volunteer firefighter in 1994, the town changed its ordinance to allow non-U.S. citizens to become members.
“Being a volunteer fireman is something that I always wanted to do, but in Saudi Arabia if you are not a citizen, you just can’t do it,” Khairullah said. “So [here], I was able to do what I was always passionate about.”
The idea of entering local politics came from other volunteer firemen, who encouraged Khairullah to run. So in 2001, he did precisely that, exactly one year after becoming a U.S. citizen. “One thing led to another,” he said.
He wanted to give back to his community, a trait he describes as common among Muslim Americans, who are sometimes perceived more negatively.
And while the Muslim character has become a smear tactic on the presidential campaign trail, Khairullah says the residents of Prospect Park know better.
“When I first ran for mayor, a flyer came out calling me all kinds of things, and it made it to the local news networks,” he recalled. Soon thereafter, however, it backfired.
“People do not tolerate such tactics in this town,” he said. “Despite our differences, we don’t attack each other based on religion or ethnicity, you know? Our ethnicity is for us, for our families, for people we are raised with. And our religion is in the house of worship, that’s where it goes.”
Now in his third full term, Khairullah represents a town with an approximate 15% combined Arab and Muslim population.
His Instagram profile perhaps synthesizes who he is best: “An American mayor who happens to be a Muslim.”
Visiting campaign central
On North 8th Street — across from Al-Hikmah Elementary, a private Muslim school — a plain, fluorescent-lit room serves as Khairullah’s political headquarters. An American flag is vertically draped on one side, while signs to elect his allies for Prospect Park Council are posted on windows and walls, and stacked everywhere else on the floor. For the next five months, it’s local election season in town.
Although Khairullah is not up for re-election as mayor this November, two of the town’s six council seats are, and he is supporting Anand Shah and Adnan Zakaria: “The Hillary [Clinton] team.”
He says, the effectiveness of his leadership as mayor is dependent upon gaining the support of the council, where a slim majority hangs in the balance.
Priscilla Nuñez, from the nearby town of Clifton, a 20-minute drive by car, commutes to help Khairullah — a former teacher of hers — get out the vote. There are many reasons why she supports him, including his demeanor, which she describes as calm and respectful. He reminds her of her dad.
“He always treated us as adults,” said Nuñez, herself an aspiring teacher. “It’s something that I kept in mind. This is how I like to be treated, and that’s exactly how I have to treat my students.”
“He is a social justice advocate,” added Intashan Chowdhury, a 19-year old student at Rutgers University, who is also canvassing on behalf of Khairullah’s council team.
Returning to Syria
Khairullah has never forgotten his past. He has made a point to return regularly to Syria for humanitarian relief missions. Seven times since the war began, he has returned to provide food and supplies to schools and hospitals in need. Recently, he helped establish an underground hospital in Aleppo on behalf of the Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS), a foundation that has treated 2.6 million patients in the region to date, including 320,000 refugees.
“When I left as a five-year-old, there was nothing I could do,” Khairullah said. But now, he explained, he has to do it.
“It’s a challenge to the dictator and to people who support the dictator that despite all of the dangers, we are going to continue to support those people who have been abandoned by the international community,” said Khairullah.
Chowdhury calls Khairullah a “family-oriented” person representing a family-oriented community. Walking across the hilly borough, just over a kilometer in diameter, the mayor greets locals on the sidewalk, through car windows, and porches, switching with ease from English to Arabic and even Spanish. Some call him by his first name.
When there’s an issue, residents reach him on his cell phone or via social media. Being “reachable” is a trait he takes pride in.
“In all the other big towns, you have to go through a secretary,” explains council candidate Anand Shah. “Since we’re a small town, you can call the mayor directly.”
Cruising with the mayor
During our afternoon together — between canvassing for Shah and answering my questions — Khairullah deftly records a cell phone video introducing a new organic vegetable garden, and uploads it to three different Facebook accounts. Over the next 20 minutes, cruising through town, he takes a call by speakerphone, listening patiently as a resident explains his grievances about street parking.
“Is it hard balancing your work and personal life?” I ask.
“I have to beg my wife for forgiveness a lot,” he smiles.
Together with his wife — who he met in Syria — and three children, Khairullah’s family speaks Arabic at home and English outside, so his kids can be proficient in both languages. His goal for his children, he says, is to expose them to the world, both good and bad, and one day return to Syria with them, so that they may witness its “rich, beautiful history.”
“[There are] too many wars, too much hate. I don’t want that to come out of them,” he said. “I want them to be the positive agents in this world. But I want them to be tough … to be able to handle it if somebody attacks them.”
Khairullah’s greatest achievement, in his opinion, is that his children — aged six, seven, and 13 — possess goodness in their hearts.
“I think I have done a good job raising my children,” Khairullah said. “I hope they become productive members of society. That’s all I could leave for the world.”