Farouk Shami

Family connections tie college supporter to Democratic candidate

In the hallway outside of a room in Texas State University’s LBJ Student Center, students moved in around gubernatorial candidate Farouk Shami on Wednesday night for a group picture. There, smiling wide in the center of the back row, stood Sama’an Ashrawi, a 19-year-old Middle Eastern studies sophomore at UT and a self-proclaimed Shami admirer.

Ashrawi, a half-Palestinian sophomore from the Houston suburbs, has been following Shami — who is also Palestinian — around and volunteering for his campaign since he decided to run for office. Whether his attraction to Shami is purely cultural, familial or political — Ashrawi supports the underdog candidate.

“I love the guy, that’s why I follow him around everywhere,” Ashrawi said.

He said he lucked out Wednesday night because his homework load was light, but elections only happen every four years, so supporting his candidate would have taken precedence either way.

Shami and Sama’an Ashrawi’s father, Ibrahim Ashraw — who immigrated to U.S. in his late 20’s — both grew up in nearby areas in Palestine where their families knew of each other. People in Palestine are closely connected, Sama’an Ashrawi said.

When talk of Shami running for office in Texas surfaced two years ago, the two families grew closer. Ibrahim Ashrawi volunteered for the campaign, and his son — Sama’an Ashrawi — went headfirst into garnering support around campus by telling his friends about Shami and convincing them to go with him to any event between Austin and Houston.

“It’s the first time somebody from the community has stepped up politically,” Sama’an Ashrawi said. “Everybody, all of a sudden, wanted to be a part of it. The community has energy again.”

Whether Shami wins the election or not, Sama’an Ashrawi said this is a big step for Palestinians in the U.S.

Growing up, Sama’an Ashrawi said family dinners were filled with discussions that focused primarily on local and Middle-Eastern politics.

As a result, he acquired a genuine interest in the subject early in life.

“Politics were like my bedtime stories growing up,” Sama’an Ashrawi said. “I had to be political because of my dad, and I’m a lot smarter for it now.”

Colleen McKinney, a communication design major at Texas State and one of the two friends Sama’an Ashrawi brought Wednesday night, said that since high school, Sama’an Ashrawi has known more about politics than most people.

“Whenever he talks about politics, there is this light that lights up his face,” McKinney said.

When Shami arrived at the San Marcos Cafe on the Square, he spoke briefly with the campaign workers and other people as he passed before reaching the back of the restaurant where Sama’an Ashrawi sat with his friends. Shami smiled, greeted Sama’an Ashrawi with a hand-clap turned hand shake and took the open seat next to him.

“Sama’an Ashrawi, keefak Habibi?” he said, asking how he was doing in Arabic.

Mahmoud Al-Batal, associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, said Habibi, or my beloved, is used widely in the Middle East and among Arabs everywhere to refer to a close friend.

Shami spent time at Sama’an Ashrawi’s table conversing with him and his friends before getting up and mingling with the other people who had filled the cafe.

After working the crowd, Shami recited his campaign speech, detailing his ability to create jobs in Texas and restating how he is not a career politician and, for this reason, has the happiness of the people at heart. Sama’an Ashrawi’s eyes were fixed on the hair care magnet as he spoke.

As the crowd petered out and Sama’an Ashrawi had to leave, he went up to Shami, who took his hand and pulled him close. They exchanged a kiss on both cheeks. Al-Batal said cheek kisses are commonly used greetings in the Middle East reserved for friends. He said it is atypical for two people who just met to exchange kisses, but normal for good friends, akin to shaking hands.

After the kisses, as Shami said bye to Sama’an Ashrawi’s friends, he told them that although Sama’an Ashrawi and him are not related, he loves him like a grandson.

“The next thing he’s going to say is going to make me cry,” Sama’an Ashrawi said. “That’s my guy right there.”

Sama’an Ashrawi, who has three “Farouk for Governor” shirts, said as the days get closer to the March 2 primary, he plans on wearing one of his shirts at least once a week as a way of sparking interest. He also has more than 50 campaign signs he plans to put up around Austin.

Early voting starts Tuesday and ends Feb. 26. Both the Democratic and Republican primaries will be held March 2.

Former Mayor Bill White shakes hands with Rep. Mark Strama after a rally for his gubernatorial candidacy at Sholtz Garten in December.

Photo Credit: Caleb Bryant Miller | Daily Texan Staff

As the gubernatorial primaries draw near, Democratic candidates Bill White and Farouk Shami are gearing up for their first debate Monday.

The debate, hosted by public broadcasting station KERA, will begin at 7 p.m. and will be held at a CBS studio in Fort Worth in front of an audience. White, a former mayor of Houston, and Shami, a self-made businessman, will take questions from viewers through social-networking Web sites, reporters and live audience members.

Sherri Greenberg, economics lecturer and former member of the House of Representatives, said education, jobs and environmental issues will dominate Monday’s debate. Greenberg said the idea of fresh leadership will underscore both Shami’s and White’s answers.

“Both [candidates] are positioning themselves as agents of change,” Greenberg said. “Shami will say that he’s an outsider, and White will say that we need new blood in the governor’s office.”

Ally Smith, spokeswoman for White, said the candidates will probably focus more on debating the issues, not each others’ reputations, which happened during the Republican primary debate on Jan. 29 between Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina.

Viewers should also expect to hear candidates addressing a more student-friendly topic, Smith said.

“You didn’t hear anything about education in Friday’s debate, yet it’s the most important role of state government,” she said.

She said the long-term economic growth of Texas is dependent on having an educated workforce, which can be done by increasing high school graduation rates and reducing financial obstacles to higher education.

“We need to bring down the skyrocketing tuition increases,” White said in an interview with The Daily Texan. “We need to make sure young people are not prevented from going to college for financial reasons.”

Greenberg said Shami is not favored to win the Democratic nomination, but that hasn’t kept the underdog candidate from campaigning.

“I feel confident that after this debate, the Democratic primary will receive significantly more attention as people in Texas realize I am the only candidate who is not a career politician and who has real-life experience solving significant problems on a large scale,” Shami said in a prepared statement.

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