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'It's imperative that more voices like mine are at the table': Georgia first Muslim Palestinian rep

Ruwa Romman [ruwa4georgia]
Ruwa Romman [ruwa4georgia]

A hijab-wearing Palestinian American woman was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives for the first time.

Ruwa Romman has made history earlier this month as the first Muslim and Palestinian-American elected to any office in the State, following ten months of actively campaigning.

Having worked in local politics for quite some time as the Communications Director at the civil rights and advocacy group, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and devoting her spare time to local organising with Georgia Muslim Voter Project, Ruwa has been outspoken on the fight for religious equality, civil rights of Muslims and marginalised communities.

According to an analysis published by CAIR along with Jetpac, a non-profit focused on increasing Muslim political representation in the US, Muslim Americans won at least 83 seats across this local, state, and federal mid-term elections, which they have been tracking for the last six years.

This exceeds the prior record of 71, which CAIR and Jetpac counted in 2020.

"It's been surreal but overwhelming," says the Democrat, regarding her journey to serve in Georgia's legislature. "I have faced extreme Islamophobia working for CAIR Georgia, such as receiving death threats, but that built much higher tolerance personally and professionally."

"The most interesting part about it all is that it's all because of my name," says Ruwa. "When I hand out the literature which has my name printed on it and knock on the doors, I was no longer going as a volunteer but as a candidate to say 'I am here to listen to your concerns.' And that's a huge adjustment and very different for me."

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According to an analysis conducted by CAIR, almost 150 Muslim Americans had run this year for office, including 51 state legislative candidates across 23 states and at least 83 seats across the recent local, state, and federal mid-term elections have been won.

Ruwa, whose platform included expanding access to health care, covering the mental health needs of those who have aged out of existing services, and fully-funding education in the state, successfully won the election over Republican opponent, John Chan.

She will be representing District 97, north-west of Atlanta.

However, the most amusing part regarding Ruwa's win is the wonderful accidental start to it all, as the 29-year-old politician had never intended to run for office during this election cycle.

"I always thought my role in this space would be behind the scenes, like focusing on outreach to people and never as the one whose name is on the postcard," she says.

It was not until a journalist who had been covering the Georgia Muslim Voter Project training session at which Ruwa was in attendance, had written an article mistakenly announcing Ruwa's plans to run for office.

"Even though it wasn't in my plans, my community was so excited about the prospect, especially since we lived in a newly drawn district with no incumbent," explains Ruwa. "So I really couldn't say no at a time when we desperately need someone who understands our community in every way."

"Not just the Muslims and the Palestinians," she added, "but also our district that for so long hasn't really had a voice in the State house."

Before she knew it, family, friends and members of the community reached out from all corners eager to join in her campaigns and share initiatives, compelling her to be the best representative, collaborator and neighbour.

Together, she noted, they had knocked on over 15,000 doors, sent 75,000 texts, and made 8,000 phone calls. Moreover, 40 per cent of the volunteers had never previously taken part in political campaigns.

"It's my mum's food that got everyone involved," she laughed, as she shared, "I wish I was joking but there was literally no better volunteer retention. I kid you not, if I went back and checked which days we had the most volunteers, I'm willing to bet anything it was the days my mum cooked for us. But I think it's such a beautiful example of how each of us have a part to play in this, even if you don't see yourself as a politically savvy person, you have a part in this space by bringing whatever talent you have to the table. Campaigns need that."

Born in Amman, Jordan, to Palestinian parents, Ruwa immigrated to the US with her family about a month before 9/11 and immediately, fell victim to the ensuing surveillance and aggressive policing.

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"I had a high school teacher who pulled me out of class to question me and make sure that me and my family were not part of any terrorist organisations, just because he overheard that I was a Palestinian. That is such an indicator of the fear and the mistrust that exists," she says.

Such experiences played a significant role in sparking her determination and voice to call for action and change. She has since graduated from Oglethorpe University in Georgia, where she served as president of the Student Government Association and earned a master's degree in public policy at the McCourt School.

Based on her years of observations and experience in grassroots movements, she noted how people are defeated by the idea of making a change for themselves due to lack of money, time and energy.

However, she noted how people neither have to approach nor work through a mediator but can, in fact, take on the role as policy makers themselves. "People ignore the political process to their detriment and then suffer the consequences of these decisions every single day," says Ruwa.

Therefore, her priority is to empower those around her by encouraging participation in politics and bringing their voices to the decision-making table.

"For far too long, a lot of voices have been ignored because of the way the system has been set up, which many people assume you must always have time, energy and money in order to have influence," she says.

"So it's become clearer than ever that if we are to ever change anything, whether it's related to policy or the world around us and government services that people rely on, it's imperative that more voices like mine are at the table."

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