When Mohamed Khairullah arrived in America at age 16, he had to carry around an Arabic-English dictionary to figure out what his teachers and classmates were saying. Today Khairullah is the mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, a township with 5,600 residents and a $4.5 million budget. “My work ethic and my values were developed early on in life,” Khairullah says. “As an immigrant, I bring these values with me.”
Khairullah was born into a middle-class family in Aleppo, then the largest city in Syria. He has unsettling memories of that time: The sound of gunfire; the sight of tanks in the streets. His father was a dentist, his grandfather an imam. His family’s prominence made them targets for the Syrian regime, and when the danger escalated, they sought safety in Saudi Arabia.
After 11 years there, the family moved to the United States, where Khairullah’s maternal grandfather had settled. Khairullah’s father fell ill soon after their arrival, making him unable to earn an income, and Khairullah studied hard to master English and earn a degree in business administration. He took a management job at Office Depot, but, upon realizing that he wanted to do more to give back to the community, became a substitute teacher and a volunteer firefighter. “It was something I always wanted to do, to help others,” he says.
America gave him that opportunity. One day he saw a yard sign promoting a political candidate with an Arabic name and understood then that he, too, could contribute to the public sphere. “It wasn’t possible for me in Saudi Arabia, and it certainly wouldn’t have been possible in Syria,” he says. “But here, there are open doors — opportunities and possibilities.”
Most immigrants are hardworking people who bring new blood, and new innovations and ideas, into our communities.
With the support of his colleagues at the fire department, Khairullah ran for city council in 2001 and won in an election that took place shortly after the September 11th attacks — a sign, he says, that even then people were willing to accept an office holder of Muslim faith with an Arabic name. “I was involved in the community, and they knew me for who I was,” he says. Khairullah served two terms on the council before he became mayor in 2005; he’s since been re-elected three times, citing such accomplishments as infrastructure improvements and upgrades to parks and recreational facilities.
Khairullah is also known for his humanitarian work: In his spare time, he has raised more than $1 million for humanitarian relief in Syria and has traveled to the war-torn country to distribute medical and school supplies. He also raises money for the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation and helped found an underground medical clinic in Aleppo, which often treats 250 people in a single day. For a time in 2016, as government loyalists launched targeted airstrikes on hospitals, it was the only functioning medical facility in the city.
Khairullah says it’s no surprise that Prospect Park elected an immigrant to be its mayor. The city was built by Dutch immigrants, and city council meetings were held in Dutch until the 1950s. Immigrants still make up 36.2 percent of New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District, a pocket in the state’s northeast corner that includes Prospect Park..“It’s constantly changing, but it’s a place that’s known to immigrants who move into northern New Jersey as being welcoming,” Khairullah says.
Residents understand that immigrants give far more to the town than they take, Khairullah says. “These are people who now have their own businesses, contribute positively, pay taxes,” he says. “Most immigrants are hardworking people who bring new blood, and new innovations and ideas, into our communities.” The township promotes its immigrant businesses to help draw visitors, Khairullah adds. “It’s extremely important to us.”
Khairullah believes national border security is important, but he’d like to see politicians do a better job of acknowledging the economic benefits that immigrants bring to the country. If leaders developed a more streamlined visa process, and thus promoted legal immigration, they could deliver communities like his a generous economic boost, he says. “In terms of bringing talent, it’d definitely be helpful to Prospect Park. As an immigrant myself, I just want to have others have the same opportunities I had, and the same type of support,” he says. “If I hadn’t had the support of those around me, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”