She Was a Refugee From Afghanistan. She May Soon Enter the New Hampshire Legislature.
Safiya Wazir, whose family fled the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1997,
won the Democratic primary for a state house seat in Concord, N.H., on Tuesday.
Elizabeth Frantz for The New York Times
It was a mere state house race, below the radar, with fewer than 500 votes cast. But Safiya Wazir’s upset victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday is yet one more striking example of how nontraditional candidates are upending expectations in this extraordinary election season.
Ms. Wazir, just 27 and a refugee from Afghanistan, toppled a four-term incumbent in the Democratic primary for state representative in a blue-collar neighborhood of Concord, the state capital.
Her opponent was Dick Patten, 66, a former city councilor and former police dispatcher who was first elected to the state legislature in 2010. His campaign focused on immigrants, whom he blamed for “getting everything,” such as welfare benefits, to the detriment of people born and raised in New Hampshire.
She beat him, 329 to 143.
It was a stunning upset, not just because Ms. Wazir is so young, a woman and new to politics — not to mention relatively new to this country — but because New Hampshire is 94 percent white. Its neighbors, Vermont and Maine, are 95 percent white, making northern New England collectively the nation’s whitest region.
Immigrants have been making their way to these states slowly, in part because they have felt unwelcome. Several groups and businesses, concerned that anti-immigrant attitudes are harming their bottom lines, met in July in New Hampshire to discuss how to diversify the state.
Although younger women of color have been upsetting incumbents in other elections across the country this year, virtually no one expected Ms. Wazir to join that club.
Her family fled the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1997, when Ms. Wazir was 6. They lived for 10 years in Uzbekistan, before relocating to Concord. She graduated from Concord High School in 2011, became an American citizen in 2013 and in 2016 earned a business degree at NHTI, Concord’s Community College.
She is married with two children, 5 and 2, and is pregnant with a third, who is due in January.
Mr. Patten has said he plans to support the Republican candidate, Dennis Soucy, in November because Mr. Soucy and his wife had lived in the district for more than 50 years.
Mr. Patten did not return calls seeking comment.
The Times caught up with Ms. Wazir on Thursday morning. The conversation was lightly edited for clarity and condensed.
Q: Congratulations on your win. Were you surprised by the outcome?
A: That was surprising! I was shocked at first when I heard the numbers. I was like, “What?”
Why do you think you won?
It was the people who were behind me, especially the [New Hampshire] Young Democrats. I’m pregnant, and it was my first trimester, so that was hard, but I was out knocking on doors. I was talking to people and making calls. And if I received any questions I couldn’t answer, I would go find out the answers and then come back and tell them. It helps people know who they are voting for.
It sounded like a pretty tough campaign. Your opponent, Mr. Patten, blamed immigrants for taking benefits away from people in New Hampshire. How did you counter that?
I just let it go. I was running for everyone in the district.
Did you feel attacked?
I don’t take that personally. When you’re in politics, you just face it. I’ve lived here 11 years, my kids are in school, I love being in New Hampshire. This is my home, and I’m proud to say I am a refugee American.
You left Afghanistan at age 6. Do you remember much?
I have memories of the Taliban shooting and bombing and everything getting crazy. I would hide myself in a dark place so they couldn’t find me. When I moved to Uzbekistan, it was peaceful.
But in Uzbekistan, didn’t your classmates call you a terrorist?
Yes, but I kept it to myself. I never said a word to anybody and I focused on my education. I thought education was important to be successful.
Tell me about your family and coming to Concord.
UNICEF sent us to Concord in November 2007, my mom and dad and me, and we decided to stay. We had seen too much violence, and New Hampshire was peaceful. My father had been an engineer in Afghanistan, and here he got a job as a laborer. My mother was studying English. I was 16 and had zero English. I was helping my parents, going to Concord High School, studying English and working at Walmart and Goodwill. A friend brought me English dictionaries and I sat down every night and studied the vocabulary so I could communicate. I couldn’t make a sentence, but I could use my vocabulary.
How did you meet your husband?
It was a prearranged marriage, through my mom and dad. I went home [to Afghanistan] in 2012 to get married. In 2013 I became a U.S. citizen. In January 2014 he came to the United States.
Had you known him before?
Did that bother you?
Being a teenager and living in the U.S. with all this freedom, I had some concerns. I was debating with my mom. I said, “Mom, I’m still young. I don’t want to get married til I’m 30 or 35. I want to get my education first.” I wanted to be a police officer or a lawyer, but [mom won and] I got married. I came back pregnant with my first child and went to school for business. My two-year degree took me five years; I was also working at Walmart and the campus library and taking night classes. My husband became a citizen last year and has a job here now. This was the first time he could vote, and he was able to vote for his wife.
Did you feel unwelcome here, even before Mr. Patten began his overt campaign against immigrants?
The community was good to us, but the problem was younger people at high school. I was older than others in my class and didn’t speak English, and I didn’t have friends to welcome me or introduce me or give me guidance. They didn’t want to have anything to do with me. I would just say to people now, when you see someone juggling things and trying to fit into the community, they should step in and not hold themselves back.
Mr. Patten questioned your ability to be a state legislator and a mother at the same time. What did you think of that line of attack?
I said, “I can do it!” Being a mother and working two jobs and going to school — it’s almost the same as being a state rep. I have support from my mom, who is willing to watch my children. That was her endorsement. She said, “I will watch the kids. Go for it!”
How did you respond to it?
I don’t really respond to those comments. Just to say, women are capable. I was at college, worked two jobs, raised kids, helped out with my parents and am pregnant — I have faced many situations.
What do you want to accomplish in the legislature?
Everyone should have affordable health care, and education is one of the biggest priorities in my life. I want to be an advocate for people who can’t do that for themselves. And New Hampshire is a place where younger people are moving out a lot. I want to make changes for younger families that are working so tirelessly, to show them they don’t have to leave the state.
Do you think these things are politically possible?
It’s possible. You just have to have the better message and be able to face the issues. There can be change, yes. Why not?