‘A better life is something you build’: Iowa City Council candidate Mazahir Salih hopes to create a more inclusive community

Mazahir Salih, a candidate for one of two at-large seats on the Iowa City Council, is focusing her campaign on building a more inclusive community in Iowa City by addressing affordable housing, building partnerships with local businesses and improving public transportation.

In 1997, she came to the United States from Sudan with a degree in civil engineering. She started over, got her citizenship, met her husband with whom she had five kids and rented a two-bedroom apartment in Richmond, Virginia. Her first job was at McDonalds. Since then she has worked in telemarketing, customer service, at a bank and even started her own business as a Medicaid contractor. Then, in 2011 she decided to get a degree in Electroneurodiagnostic Technology from Kirkwood Community College in Iowa City in order to work with people suffering from epilepsy.

She planned to come to Iowa City only for her degree before returning to Richmond. Since living here, Salih said she will never go back to Virginia. The pace of life in Iowa City has given her a chance to spend time with her family, she said.

“Virginia, no one has time for anything. It is so busy and I never even had time to get to know my kids,” Salih said in an interview with Little Village.

While working as needed at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics’ epilepsy center, Salih became a founding member of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa (CWJ) in 2012. She rose from a volunteer, to the vice president, to the president and is currently a full-time community organizer for the CWJ, where her job is to bring people together. Now, she hopes to continue to bring community members together as an elected official.

Salih said she has always been interested in helping people, and that is part of what drives her campaign for city council.

“Helping families and helping neighbors is something in my blood. I just like to help everybody. I’m that person in Sudan, Virginia, Iowa,” she said.

Salih’s campaign manager Shawn Harmsen said she is fearless, describing her reaching out to businesses to make sure employees who said they haven’t received fair wages are given a voice.

“Every other time I talk to her she is in the middle of helping somebody,” Harmsen said.

Once, directly after a meeting, Salih left to help a friend with car trouble who was passing through Iowa City, he said. (Salih asked to reschedule her interview with Little Village because her cousin was undergoing an emergency cesarean section, during which Salih stayed overnight in the hospital by her cousin’s side.)

“Mazahir is a giver,” Harmsen said. “And it doesn’t matter where you’re from. I grew up in Iowa, and that’s an Iowa Value.”

Salih said that she hoped to focus on improving affordable housing in Iowa City if she is elected. She referenced census data that shows that more than 11,000 Iowa City renters and homeowners spend over 30 percent of their income on housing, including nearly 7,000 who spend over 50 percent.

“For me, Iowa City has a crisis of affordable housing,” Salih said

She has worked in the past to help lower income residents fight for housing availability, including working with Forest View Mobile Home Court residents who were on the verge of being evicted to make way for a new development. Salih and members of the CWJ brought residents and the developer together to find solutions. She said they found a way for the residents to get better, more affordable and safer homes, while allowing the developer to move forward.

“This is the kind of creative solution we need in this town where both the developer and the residents will benefit,” Salih said.  

Salih also said she hoped Iowa City could spread affordable housing throughout the community, creating a town with people from different income levels living as neighbors.

As a full-time community organizer with the CWJ, Salih has worked to establish relationships with local businesses, something she said she would continue to build on.

On March 26, 2017, after a ban on higher minimum wage ordinances was introduced in the Iowa Legislature, she approached local businesses with navy blue $10.10 minimum wage signs. She started to get businesses to commit to continued support of Johnson County’s $10.10 minimum wage before the bill to abolish it was signed.

After getting help from community volunteers, she said nearly 150 businesses joined the cause.

“We must make sure that everyone has a livable wage and workplace conditions that allow them to support families and grow our economy to make the table even larger, more inclusive,” she said.

As a city council member, she said she would also focus on transportation. She said the city should allocate public funds to make citywide transportation more reliable and accessible.

“We have a great community with a lot to offer, but they cannot participate because they do not have transportation,” she said.  

Salih said she doesn’t expect working with the city council to be easy, but said she is ready to work hard to help improve the community.

“I know the hard work it takes,” Salih said. “Like many immigrants, I came looking for a better life, but I learned that a better life is not something you find. A better life is something you build; You have to fight for it.”

Salih is one of three candidates for two at-large seats on the Iowa City Council, running along with current council member Kingsley Botchway and Iowa City Downtown District nighttime mayor Angela Winnike. The election is coming up Nov. 7.

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