JEFFERSON CITY - The recent Iraqi war in a Muslim country had special meaning for one member of Missouri's legislature -- Yaphett El-Amin. She is one of Missouri's two black Muslims in the General Assembly, along with Rodney Hubbard. Both Democrats represent the adjacent 57th and 58th districts in St. Louis.
El-Amin's parents came to Islam during the Black Muslim movement in the sixties and she said she follows Islam the best that she can, trying to pray five times a day. "A spiritual foundation is essential in our culture because it is easy to do wrong," El-Amin said. "You can be hungry for power to empower others, or you can be hungry for power to empower yourself."
Although she would like her religion to be the basis of doing what she does, El-Amin said she was surprised that House sessions begin with a Christan prayer.
"Praying is good, but I think we should do it more universally," she said referring to the fact that the prayers in the Capitol are just Christian. "We could change it if people in power wanted, but I don't make a big deal of it."
Actually, El-Amin said that her goal is not making a big deal of her religion, but working for her district.
However, being a state representative was not what she had planned for her life. "I had no idea I would be here, but God is the best planner," El-Amin said. In the general elections in November last year, she became the first female Muslim legislator in Missouri. Her unique style, always covering her hair as a sign of respect to her faith, makes her different in the Capitol.
El-Amin represents the 57th District in north St. Louis city, which boundaries are just two miles away from where she grew up as the third of eight sisters in a lower-middle-class family.
El-Amin started her studies in public schools in St. Louis, but from seventh to twelfth grades she was bused to the St. Louis County as part of the area's school-desegregation program. "My parents decided I would have better resources, facilities and a better quality of education," El-Amin said.
In a predominantly white environment, she graduated from Mehlville High School. And in 1994 she got her Political Science degree from the University of Arkansas in Pine Bluff, a historically black college. "They both educated me differently," El-Amin said.
Back in her community, El-Amin saw things she didn't like. She started getting involved in political campaigns and in 1997 she became a Democratic committeewoman. "People would call you at four or five in the morning and it wasn't paid," El-Amin said.
Meanwhile, she was also working in the state's Youth Services Division, helping juvenile boys who commited crimes.
But it was her political activities that grabbed her interest. "I found it was a opportunity to help people," El-Amin said. "And people need someone who cares about them, especially where I live." She started getting more involved and she realized that "the higher you go, the strongest your voice is." And this is how she decided to run to be a representative.
El-Amin has important challenges in her district. "Poverty is a big problem," she said. "And poverty is a breathing ground for crime, drugs, drinking and lack of education."
Among her priorities, El-Amin said she wanted to attract retail outlets to the area and, even more important, get a better access to health care for her residents. "It's time to give them what the American Dream promises: freedom and equality," she said.
With term limits, El-Amin acknowledges she has a limited period in Missouri's House to make her mark. "Hopefully, for the end of my eight years people in my district will realize they can get the things they demand," she said.