Azrin Awal, a candidate for Duluth city council, all but ruled out a career in politics by the time she was in third grade. Originally from Bangladesh, she had just discovered that she could never be president, since she was not born in the United States.
“I was a little irritated, considering that I’ve been here since I was three,” said Awal, 25, laughing. “Any child who comes to the United States before the age of five is our home.”
Over the years, she has found other ways to stay active, while pursuing a degree in public health at the University of Minnesota at Duluth. She never considered running for city council at such a young age, until she started getting calls urging her to run for a vacant position in Duluth.
“The first call I got I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this’“Awal said.” And then boom, all these calls started coming from mentors and peers. “
Awal is a youth advocate and undergraduate public health student running for a seat on Duluth City Council as a progressive candidate endorsed by the DFL. Two other candidates are vying for two seats open on November 2: incumbent Terese Tomanek, chair of the board of directors of the Lake Superior College Foundation; and Joe Macor, owner of a foster care business in Duluth.
Awal, an immigrant from Bangladesh who moved to Duluth to attend college, received the most votes in the August primaries (at 24 percent). If elected, she will become the first Asian American and Muslim city councilor in Duluth’s 165-year history.
Just 0.4 percent behind, Tomanek received 23.69 percent of the vote. Macor won 21%. Tim Meyer, who became the fourth candidate in the primaries with 8% of the vote, withdrew from the race in August. His name will always be on the ballot.
Duluth, known as the San Francisco of the Midwest for its similar topography from the top of the hill to the water, is located on the shores of Lake Superior in Minnesota. The population of about 85,000 is 88 percent white and 10 percent colored. The Asian community represents just under 2%, according to Minnesota Compass, a population research agency. About 3 percent of Duluth’s residents were foreign-born, according to the US Census Bureau.
Awal said she has had success in the race so far by building a diverse coalition of supporters in Duluth. Yet she struggled with the pitfalls of running for office as a Muslim woman who wears the hijab. She experienced feelings of tokenization as well as Islamophobic memes attacking her on Facebook.
“I understand why gays, immigrants, blacks, people of color, natives don’t show up,” Awal said. “There are so many hurdles to overcome and for us to be professional in this area. That being said, my team is working very hard and we are running an amazing campaign.
Growing up in the Twin Cities
Awal’s father, Mohammed Awal, immigrated to New York from Bangladesh in 1996. Awal and his mother, Tobassuma Bari, followed soon after, as the family moved to Minneapolis. Awal grew up in the Maple Grove area.
“My family in Bangladesh, they were merchants, they were spiritual leaders, they were freedom fighters,” Awal said. “They fought for their independence and the right to speak their language and to be present, authentically, like themselves. It’s something that I pursued when I got here.
Awal describes his family as belonging to the working class. They previously owned an Indian restaurant in Maple Grove called Kabob & Curry, which they had to abandon during the Great Recession. Like other immigrant families, Awal noticed early on that his parents had left behind their families and their support systems for the American Dream, “whatever that American dream is,” Awal said.
Awal’s cousin, Mahzabin Khan, describes Awal as “passionate” and “selfless”. Khan hadn’t spent much time with Awal growing up, having lived in Bangladesh until 2013, when she began her studies at Winona State University as an international student. Khan spent weekends, summer vacations, Eid and other holidays with Awal’s family.
Khan said she felt welcome and safe in Awal’s home, despite not knowing the family well at first. She remembered that the house was always open because Awal’s parents often hosted friends. Awal, who is close to Khan’s age, took special care of her.
“I have a hard shell. But she’s got such a sure and forgiving aura that she could’ve cracked me overnight, ”Khan said of Awal.
Khan also remembered that Awal was the type of person who “likes to sign up for things” like presentations and volunteer opportunities. She easily connected with people. Khan was not surprised to learn that Awal would run for office.
Awal’s childhood friend Nawshin Sharif agreed: “It’s something I expected. I no longer wondered when this would happen.
Sharif was always anticipating a call from Awal saying she was running for something or other.
“She called me and she said: i finally do it. Of course, Azrin can be super dramatic, ”Sharif joked. “The way she said it made me think she was offered.”
Sharif, who has known Awal since they were both 12, said Awal never hesitated to speak out at school. Sharif said Awal was always happy to talk about Islam with people at school and that she wore her cultural clothes to the dances back home.
When Awal moved to Duluth for college, she found new ways to use her voice.
Courses in the countryside
Awal said she couldn’t afford to go to college outside Minnesota, but she “still wanted to leave the nest.” She entered the University of Minnesota Duluth and decided she would stay two years before transferring to another school. “Then I ended up falling in love with Duluth,” she said. She has lived there for six years.
Awal helped found the university chapter of the NAACP and now serves on the board of directors of Duluth NAACP. She worked as an advocate for the Campus Sexual Assault Program. As a student, Awal also helped advance the Homeless Bill of Rights in Duluth.
While Awal finished her classes last year, she can’t officially graduate until she pays her tuition. So she is currently working full time at Life House, a non-profit organization that works with at-risk homeless youth. She also works at Mentor North, an organization that connects young people with mentors in the community. On weekends, Awal cooks healthy meals at Individual Nutrition, a community meal delivery service.
Awal said the issues she prioritized on her campaign platform came from her personal experience living in Duluth as a college student. She couldn’t afford to live on campus and was struggling to find a safe apartment. She often dealt with water leaks and bed bug infestations.
“There was a time when I didn’t have a place to live because my landlord wanted to do renovations,” Awal said. “For three months, I had no accommodation.
She decided to sleep in her friends’ cars or on their sofas.
“We have a housing crisis in Duluth,” Awal said, noting the lack of single-family homes and housing for low-income people. “But there’s a lot of high-end housing coming in, it’s not helping our constituents.”
As someone who didn’t have a car in college, Awal pledged to expand transportation access by improving public transportation lines and creating neighborhoods that are more walkable.
Awal also called on the city to step up its role in the fight against climate change. If elected, she said she would push the city to better prepare for extreme weather events and work on reducing carbon emissions.
Awal said she looks at all of these issues through a “racial and class equity lens,” a concern central to her platform.
“You really put your body outside”
Engulfed in the nonprofit sphere, Awal was surprised to receive an increasing number of calls earlier in the year telling her to run for city council. Calls came from mentors, peers and former city officials, whose political views ranged from moderate to liberal to progressive.
Zack Filipovich, the youngest chairman of Duluth city council, was first elected in 2013 and won again in 2017. He announced in April that he would not stand for re-election. With a DFL-endorsed liberal council member out of the ballot, Azrin stood out as a potential progressive candidate the party could support.
“She’s running a very well oiled campaign,” Filipovich said. “It’s great to see his voice being heard in this election cycle.”
Filipovich predicts that building more affordable housing will be the top priority for the new council, one of the main issues for Awal’s campaign platform.
Awal was reluctant to run at first, and it wasn’t just because she felt too young.
“The majority of people who approached me were white,” Awal said. “There was a part of me that was like: “Am I symbolized here? ““
She brushed off the idea and said she would instead take the opportunity to push for gradual change, especially for immigrants and communities of color. The people who convinced her to come forward, she added, were her mentors who have known Awal for a long time. “They have my best interests at heart.”
“You really put your body in there,” she said. “Especially when you hold diverse identities that normative culture is not used to.”
The pushback was not easy for Awal. Since the announcement of his race, Awal has dealt with hate messages and Islamophobic memes circulating on social networks. Figures show there is support for Awal in Duluth, but Facebook posts suggest otherwise.
Awal shared some of the memes with Sahan Journal. In one, a photoshoped flyer reads “Vote Azrin Awal” with “Duluth Sharia City Council” written below. On the flyer, Awal’s face merges with that of US Representative Ilhan Omar.
Another post coined an image from a newscast, showing a photo of the recent Taliban takeover of the Afghan government. The poster was photoshopped in an old profile photo dug up on Awal’s Facebook account. The half title reads: “Celebrating with Friends. Azrin Awal makes history.
“I get a lot of hindsight,” Awal said. “But I also open people’s minds and force them to re-evaluate what fairness means.”