On October 18, 2019, Lubna Sebastian was having a turkey sandwich in a hotel hallway in Houston, US. She was helping the Joe Biden campaign before the debate among the presidential candidates of the Democratic Party. Suddenly, Biden came up, saw Lubna, and said, "Thank you for coming all the way down here."
Lubna had flown in from the campaign headquarters of Philadelphia, 2900 km away.
After another debate in Las Vegas, Lubna went up to Biden and said, “Congratulations, you did a superb job.” Biden smiled and said, “Thank you.”
Lubna saw Biden on the road when she worked on the campaign in Iowa and Nevada. “After each speech, Biden would stay at the venue for two hours, interacting with the local people,” she said. “It was crazy. I did not know you could have so much access to a prominent politician.”
Biden’s humility always had an impact. “You may only have 30 seconds with him but people would immediately share their problems: ‘My child has cancer’ or ‘I got laid off’,” said Lubna.
On the difference between Biden and former President Donald Trump, Lubna said, “He is the exact opposite of Trump. The level of exhaustion because of what happened during the past four years is immense. We have lived through a disaster. During the eight years of the Obama-Biden administration, things were so calm that people became a little politically absent. Even I was, at times.”
But for students who grew up during Trump’s presidency, they had to endure tough times. “They saw mass shootings go unanswered, while their parents could be struck off benefits from Obamacare,” she said. “They had seen kids in cages, who had been separated from their parents on the border with Mexico. They heard about a ban on people from six Muslim countries. Some international students were worried about whether they could study further because of possible future immigration laws. The list goes on. The level of stress which people lived under was abnormal,” she added.
As a result, students became politically active, including Lubna.
She joined the campaign, ‘It’s on Us,’ which was founded by the Obama-Biden administration. This was a programme to raise awareness on sexual assault on campuses. She became one of the 105 students across the country who became a national committee member.
Lubna’s father Sebastian James grew up in Visakhapatnam. His father worked in a construction company and the family travelled all over India. Nevertheless, they always maintained contact with Kerala by going on annual events. Today, Lubna’s paternal grandfather lives in Thalayolaparambu, Kottayam, while she has second cousins in Thiruvananthapuram, Kottayam and Thrissur.
On her maternal side, her grandparents live in Delhi. Sadly, last month, her grandfather passed away. But she has grand uncles and aunts who live in Vallakadavu, Thiruvananthapuram. The place she has visited most often is Kerala’s capital. The Sebastian family always ensures they make annual visits to their home state.
Asked why a 24-year-old like her supported one of the oldest candidates (Biden is 78), Lubna, on a Zoom call, said, “I grew up seeing Biden on TV. He always seemed personable, someone who was very empathetic and down-to-earth. I felt I had a connection with him.”
Lubna joined Biden’s campaign as an assistant. When some students, after doing their internships, returned to their schools, Lubna set up a programme to keep the students plugged in to the campaign.
In July, 2020, Lubna was promoted to be the national director of 'students for Joe Biden'. There were over 400 student chapters. Lubna developed campaign updates and national events for students across the country.
By this time, Lubna was working 16 hours a day. “Campaign work is back-breaking, and you cannot do it unless you deeply believe in the candidate,” she said.
On September 3, 2020, Lubna took her citizenship examination. Later, Biden wrote a letter in which he congratulated Lubna on becoming a citizen. ‘Your family decided to make this country home because they knew, above all else, America is all about possibilities,’ he wrote.
Lubna voted by mail for Biden, on October 3, a month before the election.
After the campaign, in which Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump to become the 46th President of the United States, Lubna worked on the committee that organised the inauguration ceremony of Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. After a month, Lubna is now job-hunting from Bethesda, Maryland, where she is staying with her parents.
Lubna’s father, Sebastian James, is a Washington-based economist with the World Bank. A graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, in 1995, he got into the Indian Revenue Service (IRS) and was posted in New Delhi. Later, he completed his Master’s and did a PhD from Harvard University. He resigned from the Government job when he was Joint Commissioner and went to the US in 2002. “I wanted a more challenging life,” he said.
A Christian, he is married to Shahin, a Keralite Muslim, whom he had met in Delhi. “It was love at first sight for me,” he said.
Asked whether the couple faced pressure from their families when they decided to get married, Sebastian said, “Shahin’s father did not believe religion should come in the way of two people who are in love. My side of the family had some reservations, but I convinced them.”
Apart from Lubna, the couple has another daughter, Adila, 17.
Interestingly, both Lubna’s mother and she were born at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi.
The family migrated when Lubna was five years old. “Growing up in America, there was a lot of pressure to conform,” said Lubna. “No one could pronounce my name. Or they would do it incorrectly. I looked very different from my classmates, most of whom were white. As a child, you don’t want to be different. You want to be like everybody else,” she said.
She felt she did not belong at times. But when she grew up and worked on different professional projects, Lubna met with a diverse range of people who belonged to so many different countries.
Asked the meaning of her name, Lubna said, “It is an Arabic word which means ‘river of milk in paradise.’ It is also the name of a tree that produces a fragrant flower.” Many people tell Lubna it is a beautiful name, including her family in Kerala.
When she was growing up, she would come to Kerala once every two years. But in college, the gaps became larger. The last time she came was in December 2019. “I grew up with my mom’s parents because they are in New Delhi, so I was closer to them,” she said.
Lubna admits that when she comes to Kerala, she feels she is reconnecting with her roots. “I blend in a lot more easily because everybody looks like me, unlike in the US, where I don’t always see anybody else like me,” she said.
Lubna particularly enjoys eating the fruits in Kerala which she says are very fresh, like mangoes, bananas, and guavas.
Asked about her plans, Lubna says she is interested in a career in politics. “There are different ways to be politically active,” she said. “It can be through elected office, or advocacy groups that are inherently political.”