Refugee running for state rep looking to make history

  • Safiya Wazir and her daughters Aaliyah, 2, and Mahwash outside their home on Friday, August 31, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Safiya Wazir and her daughters Aaliyah, 2, and Mahwash outside their home on Friday, August 31, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Safiya Wazir and her daughters Aaliyah, 2, and Mahwash outside their home on Friday, August 31, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Safiya Wazir and her daughters Aaliyah, 2, and Mahwash are shown outside their home in Concord.

  • Dick Patten is a life-long resident of Concord and was a police dispatcher for nearly 30 years. He lives in Crestwood Jensen Communities off of Manchester Street. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Dick Patten is a lifelong resident of Concord and was a police dispatcher for nearly 30 years. Photos by GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Published: 9/7/2018 5:56:05 PM

Safiya Wazir’s road to what she hopes will be a seat in the State House included bombs and bullets.

Wazir was born in Afghanistan, but her parents grew fearful of the Taliban, which was gaining strength and threatening the central government before the War on Terror broke out. Her father was educated, an engineer, her family progressive, two things the Taliban did not like.

Now, after living in a refugee camp, enduring grade-school bullies who labeled her a terrorist, and coming to the United States with parents who knew no English – none – she’s living on The Heights, with an education, a family, her third child on the way, and a laser-sharp focus on early education and fair housing. Issues she connects with.

That’s why Wazir is running for the House seat representing Concord’s Ward 8, a slot currently held by lifelong Concord resident Dick Patten.

“We need more representation from younger people to stay in New Hampshire,” Wazir said. “A lot of young people are moving out of state.”

Secretary of State Bill Gardner said in an email that he’s “not aware of any refugees who have held office in New Hampshire and I have checked among the office staff as well.”

On Tuesday, the 2,500 or so voters in Ward 8 will choose between these two candidates with a titanic contrast – a newcomer to the city that reflects the ward’s growing diversity, versus a man who has lived in Concord all his life and is serving his fourth term in the House.

Patten – the former city councilor who’s held the House seat since 2010 – doesn’t appreciate references to the dinosaur label he’s heard from people, including me. He thinks oodles of experience and deep roots here give him the edge over Wazir, who’s just 27.

“No,” Patten, 66, said sharply when asked if he thought it was time for new blood in the House. “I’m just as capable of coming up with new ideas, and I already know what people need and can use. You cannot just promote youth over seniors.”

Rep. Steve Shurtleff, ever the diplomat, praised both candidates, calling them “good people, both with interesting stories to tell.”

Then Shurtleff added a nugget about Wazir, hinting that he might relate more to a 27-year-old immigrant woman than a man in his own age bracket from his own backyard who’s long since established his passion for community service.

“(Safiya) has a compelling story,” said Shurtleff, 70. “As the son of an immigrant from Ireland, I have a lot of admiration for what she has accomplished in a short period of time.”

The challenger hopes her youth and gripping story as a refugee from Afghanistan will swing the vote her way.

During an interview in Wazir’s living room, she was flanked by Lucas Meyer, the president of New Hampshire Young Democrats, and Paula DelBonis-Platt, an English teacher at New Hampshire Technical Institute who had Wazir in a class. They were ready to jump into the conversation at a moment’s notice, serving as a support system to make sure I had every detail connected to Wazir’s amazing journey.

She and her parents feared the iron hand of the Taliban. “I remember hiding in the darkest places,” Wazir told me, “to not hear the bombing and shooting.”

They fled to Uzbekistan in 1997, when Wazir was 6, then lived in a refugee camp before settling into a UNICEF-sponsored apartment. Wazir went to school and said she was bullied.

“ ‘Taliban kid,’ they called me,” she said. “ ‘Terrorist kid.’ They laughed at me.”

Wazir was 16 when she and her parents moved here in 2007. Politics wasn’t on her mind. Getting an education was.

“On my mother’s side, no one had any education. None,” she said.

She attended Concord High School. Her native tongue was Dari, so she absorbed a Dari-to-English dictionary, learning common and necessary phrases to navigate through life, jotting them down in a notebook, acclimating herself to a new life, a new world.

She worked at Walmart and Goodwill, worked on the high school yearbook committee, ran track, helped support her family after her parents became ill and could no longer work.

DelBonis-Platt couldn’t open Wazir’s Concord High yearbook fast enough to show me photos of her friend at the Homecoming dance and posing with the yearbook committee.

“Safiya is so capable,” DelBonis-Platt said. “You can see from all the things she’s done. She juggled so many things.”

A business degree from New Hampshire Technical Institute followed. That took five years because Wazir had a young daughter at home. She gave birth to another daughter before graduating, and she’s pregnant with her third child. Her husband works for a local nursery and landscaping company.

Elsewhere, she’s on the board of directors for the Community Action Program and is vice-chairwoman of the Head Start Policy Council. She was also presented with the New Hampshire Children’s Trust Unsung Hero Award earlier this year.

There’s a photo in her living room showing her family with Gov. Chris Sununu, who’s presenting the award to Wazir.

She said he was nice enough. She also said she disagrees with him politically on virtually every issue.

As a refugee and a mother, her focus is on anything and everything that has to do with children, education and assisting low-income families.

With Meyer and DelBonis-Platt leading the charge, Team Wazir has knocked on more doors and posted more signs than your usual State House campaign.

“I could not have created a better candidate with a machine,” Meyer told me. “This is a Renaissance, young people running for office. It’s an opportunity to do something unique, and not just on the city or state level, but for the country.”

Then Meyer got to the gist of the matter, telling me, “We need diversity in the State House. There’s a lot of old white dudes in the State House. There aren’t many pregnant women with two kids. What’s more important than that?”

Meanwhile, Wazir and Patten have never met. They don’t know each other. But there’s a competitive flavor that surfaces from both camps if you mention one candidate to the other.

“I know nothing about him,” Wazir told me. “I represent myself and the people of my community.”

There’s no doubt that experience counts in politics, and if that’s your thing, Patten is your guy.

He was born on The Heights and never left. He’s a walking history book when it comes to the area’s past. “I know the place forward and backward,” Patten said by phone, proudly.

He loves telling you that his grandfather built the first house there, on East Sugar Ball Road. He remembers places like Frank’s Market and Towle’s Market, and names like Chester Saltmarsh and Grace Hubert, the pianist for the Concord Grange No. 322, one of Patten’s favorite institutions.

“The Heights has changed drastically,” Patten said, and the historical perspective he owns has no doubt served him well since his first House victory in 2010.

Patten was a police dispatcher for nearly 30 years. He has championed the needs of people with disabilities, and in fact suffered a stroke in 2007. He’s proud that he was able to hide his medical emergency for a year. He uses a cane, sometimes a walker, and says he’ll never use a scooter chair.

“Some of the buildings are not handicap accessible,” Patten said.

He’s disappointed that his effort to restore rest areas with bathrooms and tourist information was voted down, saying nonprofits could have tended to them. He wants the only president from New Hampshire, Franklin Pierce, to receive more respect.

“He was looked at as a Confederate,” Patten said. “It’s sad. I’m not asking for a holiday, just a designated blurb for him.”

Elsewhere, Patten is well known for organizing the annual Christmas tree lighting at the State House plaza and the November holiday parade, on The Heights, of course. He also said he never accepts or solicits donations, telling me, “People have enough trouble putting food on the table and gas in the car.”

There’s also been scandal connected to Patten. He was reprimanded for calling a city cop about a traffic ticket issued to a friend in 2012, and a judge dismissed a stalking petition filed against him in 2013.

When asked if he’s worried those incidents could come back to haunt him, Patten said, “Everyone has made mistakes in life, and if they say they haven’t, they better check their closet.”

Tuesday, The Heights will check a box, voting to either support the status quo, or move the needle 180 degrees. A vote for the young Afghani woman, the refugee, would mean a seismic shift at the State House.

Patten says he’d like one more two-year term before retiring. He ran unopposed two years ago. He’s been challenged by the old guard before, for a spot in the domed-building that’s been resistant to change.

This time, though, he’s facing someone a tad different. This time, there’s a clear choice.

“I study and look at all the facts,” Patten told me. “People know deep down what someone has done. You do the best you can and people will vote for who they vote for.”

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