Zaki Barzinji is an alum of Legacy International’s Global Youth Village. A former participant in the early 2000s at the campus in Bedford, Virginia, Zaki has gone on to work as a Public Affairs consultant, and has a passion for bridge-building and engaging marginalized groups politically. A graduate from Virginia Tech, Zaki worked under the Obama Administration as the Senior Associate Director of Public Engagement and was the first senior official to focus primarily on Muslim, Sikh, and Arab American issues. He worked under this program to amplify the voices and concerns of these communities that are seldom represented at the highest level. With the goal of equality and representation, Zaki represents yet another Legacy alumni using their skills to positively impact the global community.
Zaki got his political bearings when he was about 14, while going door-to-door canvassing with his mother. In a conservative part of Virginia, the year after 9/11, Zaki couldn’t understand why his mother would be running for office, especially wearing her hijab and going door to door to meet the neighbors. When his grandfather’s house was raided and ransacked by federal agents for no reason other than his Iraqi background, Zaki learned an important lesson about political engagement. He realized that people who looked like him and his family, marginalized and historically politically idle, are expected to detach themselves from the world of politics, seeing as it has never worked for them. They were seen as “a target and as something other than truly American,” Zaki says, based on the Islamophobic agenda of American politics at the time. When they give up hope that the system was made to work for them as well, Zaki’s grandfather told him, the system wins. Zaki says he thinks those in power are “banking on the idea that we will just give up and accept their premise; that there is no place for us at the table.” Now Zaki dedicates his life and career to “politics, policy, government, to work for change, and to try to fix the system that had thrown us out.”
Barzinji also emphasized the lack of a singular, “Muslim experience,” stating that the issues of Muslims intersect with those of African Americans, the LGBTQIA+ community, women and their repsective issues, and so on, and must be respected as a complex and multidimensional topic. Especially in America, the experiences of Muslim Americans or those who look ethnically ambiguous are vast and diverse, and can be traced back to ignorance and the islamophobia that was intensified after September 11, 2001. This intensification further compounded the lack of political participation by Muslim, Arab, Sikh, and other Middle Eastern Americans in the last 20 years.
We want to thank Zaki for taking the time to share his political experiences and encourage dialogue among an international audience at our biweekly Global Viewpoints Forum. His insights were inspirational in a time of such political unrest and uncertainty, and encouraged the use of political engagement as a tool to advocate for those who are marginalized. Zaki’s message has never been so important, with important and impactful political movements happening all around the world and a historic American election in the next month. We thank him for his time and his expertise and continue to host incredible speakers like Global Youth Village Alumni Zaki Barzinji at our Global Viewpoints Forums.