Nida Allam made history last month, becoming the first Muslim woman elected to public office in North Carolina. But the job — indeed, the world — will be very different from the one she imagined when she decided to run for a seat on the Durham County Board of Commissioners.
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed life in North Carolina — closing public schools, emptying university campuses and shutting down most non-essential businesses. Durham is one of the hardest hit of the state’s 100 counties. With 63 confirmed infections as of Tuesday, it ranks behind only much-larger Mecklenburg County, which has reported 104.
Allam says she ran to be part of a new, more inclusive and progressive vision for Durham — one that includes voices and communities seldom represented in local government. That mission is now more important than ever, she said.
Allam has had plenty of time to think about the future, its unknowns and her role in all of it. She and her husband, Towqir Aziz, are now at the end of their own two-week quarantine.
“After the election we went to Spain to celebrate and kind of de-stress from the campaign,” Allam told Policy Watch last week. “But that’s completely not what it turned into.”
Instead, Allam and her husband found themselves engulfed in the international panic over COVID-19. As Europe struggled with an overwhelming number of infections and the United States belatedly began to put social distancing measures in place, they were just trying to get back home.
“Our flight was supposed to come back Sunday, but after [President Donald] Trump’s press conference they started cancelling all the flights,” Allam said. “We were scurrying to find a flight back. We finally got home but now we’re under a two week quarantine. We don’t have any symptoms — but just to be safe.”
Her doctor told her the office had only five available tests and had to save them for those with symptoms, she said. As of this week, Allam and her husband remain asymptomatic — but they are taking no chances.
They are saying their five prayers a day at home, she said, as are most observant Muslims with the local mosques suspending in-person gatherings for worship.
Allam said she is not even visiting her parents, who are her next-door neighbors.
“Right now we really have to check our own privilege,” Allam said. “We may be young, we may be healthy, but who could we pass this along to?”
These are not the questions and issues Allam expected to be tackling this month.
A 26-year-old Democrat, she was one of the five women who won the party’s primary for the five seats on the Durham County Board of Commissioners. There are no Republicans running for the seats in the general election, so Allam will take office in December.
Allam imagined the months between her election and her swearing-in differently — a calmer period after a long and sometimes difficult campaign. In the run-up to her election Allam faced racist harassment and threats, her hijab becoming a particular obsession on right-wing, anti-Muslim web sites and social media circles.
“Any time I posted a picture or I did campaign things, I’d always receive some negative responses,” Allam said. “Whether it direct messages or people would post Islamophobic comments, xenophobic comments. One man would consistently ask me my citizenship status, repeatedly. He reached out to my mom to demand she release my citizenship status. I had to tell my parents to be careful if anyone reached out to them.”
The aggression she faced reminded her of the reasons she was running — most strongly the 2015 murders of Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19; her sister, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and Yusor’s husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23. Yusor was her best friend, Allam said. Enduring a national conversation over whether what was clearly a hate crime deserved that designation was wrenchingly painful, she said, but it also spurred her to become a voice for the voiceless.
As she faced hatred throughout her campaign, Allam began to wonder if there was anyone to whom she could reach out for advice — someone who had gone through this same experience. State Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed (D-Mecklenburg), one of the few Muslim lawmakers in the state’s history, was very supportive, Allam said. But in North Carolina few Muslim women had run for office — and none successfully.
She realized she was going to have to become that person.
“I realized there are going to be young Muslim girls who want to run for office who need someone they can just get comfort from,” Allam said. “The messages can get really nasty and hurtful. It can get really dark sometimes. But I realized I’m not just running for myself. I’m not just trying to be an elected official just for myself. It’s about a community that you’re standing up for.”
When she’s sworn-in in December, Allam will be part of a board composed of women from diverse backgrounds. That’s gratifying, she said, and she knows her fellow commissioners feel the same responsibility she does.
“Every leadership position I carry, I create spaces for people who haven’t been able to be part of conversations, who haven’t been part of campaign and electoral politics,” Allam said. “I’m not just uplifting their voices now, I’m creating a space where their voices can be heard.”
As Durham looks to recover from the health and economic consequences of COVID-19, Allam said, that’s going to be essential.
“Of course the greatest concern is people’s health,” Allam said. “But we’re also thinking about all the small businesses, the restaurants that don’t know if they’re going to be able to continue. We already have people from McDougald Terrace [public housing community] displaced and living in motels with kids who are at home with their children, who are not able to be in school.”
“It’s going to be really important that we concentrate on those communities, on getting them back into their homes as soon as possible with as many resources as we can,” Allam said. “And we don’t yet know what it’s going to look like in a few months and who is going to be affected. But we have to center the voices of those people.”
We’re at a time right now when leaders need to be asking marginalized communities what they need, Allam said, not telling them what they’re going to do.
Having voices from those communities at the table is transformative, she said — and it’s important that they know they can also lead.
“In the Muslim community, talking about politics even is a very taboo conversation, just because of how the media portrays Muslims and all the biases that exist,” Allam said. “The community tends not to talk about politics or even about voting. So hopefully this kind of encourages people to start becoming involved — getting involved with city and county boards.”
That change is being driven by the younger generations, Allam said.
“From my generation, the most politically involved group has been Muslim women,” Allam said. “Three of my friends started a nonprofit after the Trump election called Muslim Women For — doing grassroots organizing, leadership training and self defense courses. We really needed that.”
While the slurs and negative comments were many during her campaign, Allam said it was inspiring to see the number of people — especially young people — who were encouraging.
“Honestly, for every one negative comment there were ten or twenty positive responses. Even after I won my election. I made the mistake of reading the comment sections as CNN or The Hill. There would be 20 or 30 negative comments but there were 7,000 hearts or likes. I had to make sure to realize that.”
As a new elected official, Allam said she knows she will have to prove herself — to make her tenure in office about centering marginalized voices the way she would in her campaign. It’s a challenge to which she said she’s looking forward.
“It’s an important time for this change,” Allam said. “I do feel like I’m part of a wave of change and I am taking that seriously.”