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, 5-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,” Khairullah said.
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. 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 New York City’s 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 firefighters, 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.
Now in his third full term, Khairullah represents a town with an approximate 15 percent combined Arab and Muslim population.
His Instagram profile perhaps synthesizes who he is best: “An American mayor who happens to be a Muslim.”
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 Syrian 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, a foundation that has treated 2.6 million patients in the region, including 320,000 refugees.
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.”