Muslims in the White House: Manar Waheed

‘I want to be part of this change, and I didn’t realize that change and advocacy can work together in government,’ says Waheed

Nadia Bilbassy-Charters
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To mark the end of our series on Muslims who serve in the White House, Al Arabiya English profiles Manar Waheed, deputy policy director for immigration at the White House Domestic Council.

Waheed quit her previous job after receiving a phone call from the White House asking her for an interview. They were looking for candidates who could work on immigration issues, and she was recommended.


Although she had long worked at nonprofits, Waheed agreed to take the job for one simple reason: she would be working in President Barack Obama’s administration.

“Under this president, there was much more potential for change from the inside than I ever thought there was growing up. I truly believe in this, and of the possibility of change,” she said. Waheed was born in a small town on the border of Texas and Arkansas to Pakistani parents.

She says she has experienced discrimination and xenophobia most of her life. “A lot of the discrimination I faced growing up wasn’t ill-intentioned or deliberate. It was a lack of exposure and understanding,” she said.

However, after 9/11 Waheed said the bigotry became more prevalent and abusive. “I was called a terrorist more times than I can even remember,” she said.

Waheed emerged from the world of non-profit organizations. She spent her early career after graduating from law school working on issues ranging from domestic violence, hate crimes, immigration, gender equality, discrimination and profiling.

Change from within

“I decided to leave the non-profit organization because there was potential for change from the inside,” she said.

“If I ever wanted to work in government, it would be under this president,.”Waheed came to the White House in Sept. 2014, two months prior to Obama’s executive action on immigration. Because of her background in fighting hate crimes, she had the opportunity to use that expertise soon after.

She feels that her opinion is trusted and respected, and her voice heard. She praises the White House team for its willingness to hear different opinions, something she had not experienced in her previous jobs.

“The most important thing for me is that people are heard. This is how we move forward,” she said.

Negative climate

Waheed says she is appalled by the negative political rhetoric directed at Muslims and other minorities, and how it has been seemingly accepted by many.

She fears that some intend to take the country backward and destroy progress made on race relations. Waheed described the current climate as reaching a “new low.”

She says the interesting thing throughout her career is the questions she has been asked: “I take a deep breath and always see it as a way to explain things and educate a bit instead of being offended.” The one place that she says she has not been asked those questions and instead has volunteered her input and been heard is at the White House.

Waheed’s parents grew up in Pakistan. Her dad grew up with very little, and sold toys on the streets of Pakistan to help contribute to his family. One of his proudest moments was walking through the gates of the White House to see his daughter at work, she recalled with a smile. “I don’t think my parents ever came to this country expecting that one of their children would work here and they would visit the White House. For immigrant parents like mine, these were dreams so big, you never considered them ” she said.

In our previous series about Muslims in the White House, see: ‘Meet Rumana, a Muslim woman advisor at the White House’, American Muslim White House staffers feel ‘part of history’ and 'From refugee to the White House: A woman’s American Dream realized'

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