From tragedy to advocacy to the 2020 election, behind her rise to becoming a trailblazer in NC politics with big goals.
In the third week of February 2015, then NC State University senior Nida Allam had plans to get her ears pierced with her best friend and Wolfpack alumna Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21. On Tuesday, Feb. 10, Yusor’s 19-year-old sister Razan rang Nida to firm up the details.
That outing never happened. That evening, neighbor Craig Stephen Hicks shot both sisters and Yusor’s newlywed husband, 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, in the couple’s Chapel Hill condo. Allam waited until midnight with friends and family members in the condo parking lot for police to confirm they’d been killed.
“I was a bridesmaid in her wedding in December,” Allam told Cardinal & Pine this week. “And then in February she was gone.”
Hicks, who later pleaded guilty to the murders, said the shooting stemmed from a parking dispute, although many questioned whether the killings constituted a hate crime. All three victims were followers of the Muslim faith, and Hicks had been bitterly critical of Muslim people, as well as other religions, in social media posts.
Local and federal investigators said they didn’t uncover enough evidence to consider it a hate crime, although many still point to the murders as part of a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment and crimes.
Their extended immigrant community watched the families of the young shooting victims as they processed their children’s deaths.
“They reacted in such a humble way,” Allam says today. “Seeing their strength kind of sparked it for me: We’re their friends. How do we carry on their legacy? That was the one thing that their parents wanted, for their legacy not to die.”
That’s what put Allam on a path to a career in politics, and on Tuesday she was elected to the Durham County Board of Commissioners, becoming the first Muslim woman to hold office in North Carolina.
‘Turning pain into progress.’
Allam was one of six Muslims winning county-level offices this year across the United States. In all, about 170 Muslims ran for office in 2020, up about 25% from 2018.
“It’s a really powerful witness that in this moment, in a moment when we are so polarized, in a moment when we have seen heightened bigotry, it’s very powerful to see and it makes one really hopeful,” said Lela Ali, an Egyptian immigrant from Rocky Mount. Ali was Allam’s classmate at N.C. State. Today, she’s an organizer with the Movement Voter Project and co-founder of the social justice group Muslim Women For.
“It was turning pain into progress, is how I see it,” said Waad Husein, a third-generation Sudanese immigrant who became a close friend to Razan when they studied architectural design together at N.C. State. After the murders, Husein found some healing at an Islamic prayer and discussion group, or a halaqa, at Allam’s home.
“Her friends were taken away simply for who they were,” Husein said. “That’s been happening to Black people. It’s not a new issue, but it definitely hit closer to home. It’s not about us just being Muslims. It’s literally about everyone that’s marginalized in this country.”
A big part of their friends’ legacy is community service. Nida and Yusor had helped to lead the Muslim Student Organization at NC State, organizing the Triangle Health Fair for low-income residents. Before her senior year, Yusor had volunteered in a Turkish dental clinic for Syrian refugees, while Deah, already a dental student at UNC-Chapel Hill, distributed toothbrushes, floss and toothpaste to the unsheltered.
At the time, there were a few Black Muslim men who’d been elected to prominent state or federal office. In 2006, Minneapolis’ Keith Ellison became the first adherent of Islam elected to Congress, then in the 2018 race for Minnesota attorney general he became the first elected to a statewide office in the United States. In 2008, Andre Carson followed in Ellison’s footsteps, winning a U.S. House seat to represent much of the city of Indianapolis. Before Ellison’s election, North Carolina actually had the highest-ranking Muslim official in the nation, Larry Shaw, who served the Fayetteville area as a state representative and then state senator from 1995 to 2011.
The 2018 elections brought a wave of Muslim candidates to campaigns across the nation, with more than 100 filing for the primaries and 50 enduring into the general election. The most prominent were Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, two Muslim women elected to Congress.. In that same election, voters in Charlotte sent Mujtaba Mohammed to the NC state Senate and Nasif Majeed to the House.
That trend continued this year, as voters elected the first Muslims to state legislatures in Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.
But back in 2015 when Allam first envisioned a life in politics, she didn’t have national figures like Omar and Tlaib to look up to. Instead, she looked to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a 74-year-old Jewish man who was advocating for universal healthcare access, something near and dear to the hearts of her and her friends.
“My family, we would talk about politics, but not in details,” Allam says. “It was like, ‘This is what’s happening to Muslims right now.’ We didn’t talk about electoral politics because we never had a candidate who truly spoke for us.”
Allam, 26, was in elementary school when 9/11 happened. Politics had everything to do with how Muslims were perceived by the wider public. Whenever there was a mass shooting, she would think: “Please don’t be a Muslim name. Please don’t be a Muslim name.”
Throughout her life, political leaders like George W. Bush or Bill Clinton would insist that Islam isn’t violent. But at the same time, she says they would also suggest that all Muslims needed to apologize for or condemn the actions of an Islamist fringe.
“Bernie talked about Muslims as social justice fighters,” Allam said. “That really resonated with me. This is what we need to do. This is what we need from politics so that in the future, incidents like Yusor and Razan don’t happen. These are the social-justice issues that matter to us.”
In the spring of 2015, Allam founded NC State Students for Bernie, which eventually grew to 600 members. After graduation in December, Allam deferred a job with her father’s employer, MetLife, and went to work for Sanders as a field organizer in South Carolina, working her way up the ranks to become the campaign’s political director for the Carolinas, New York and New Jersey, reaching out to marginalized communities on Sanders’ Medicaid for All proposal and environmental justice. Since then, she has served as the first Muslim on the NC Democratic Party’s Executive Council and as a member of Durham Mayor Steve Schewel’s Council for Women.
One of her colleagues on the women’s advisory group, Ashley Canady, said Allam has stood with her community at McDougald Terrace, where 300 households had to be evacuated last winter amid long-standing—and still ongoing — complaints about pests, air quality and water leaks. Canady serves as McDougald’s resident council president and has four children, ages 4 to 15.
“She’s seen how passionate I am, and that just gave her the drive and the willingness to stand beside me and help me help my community,” said Canady, who stopped to talk with Allam during an interview last week in downtown Durham.
Last December, just before the mass evacuations, Canady was cleaning up after her own apartment flooded. Allam and her husband Towqir Aziz arrived with two weeks’ worth of groceries. Allam soon recruited the NC chapter of the international Zakat Foundation to provide food, school materials and cleaning supplies to hundreds of families at McDougald. Zakat’s NC manager Nayma Kose said Allam continues to show up for the organization’s food drop-offs at McDougald.
“She’s not just there as a leader, but she’s there in action to help see things through,” Kose said.
Canady said Allam’s relationship with the neighborhood will give them a listening ear on the Board of Commissioners after she’s sworn in next month.
“She does a lot of work behind the scenes,” said Canady. “I feel she’ll really be a great asset.”
Among Allam’s priorities: universal pre-K; a $15 minimum wage for county workers; a corporate headcount tax on Duke University and any tax-exempt entity with more than 100 employees; low-income home-buyer vouchers; more job-certification assistance for the unemployed; and criminal record expungement clinics to help people with past felony convictions qualify for work.
“There has been a lack of basic appearances by elected officials, of just coming out to hear what families are going through,” she said. “You need to remove all of the systemic problems that exist, that make it impossible for them to be able to thrive in Durham like everyone else is doing.”
Allam’s ultimate goal is to become a US senator.
“People have these stereotypes that Muslim women are sheltered or that they’re oppressed because they wear hijab,” she said, with a traditional maroon scarf draped around her dark-framed eyeglasses. “For me, leading as a Muslim means I take the core values of caring for my community into action. That’s what we should want from our politicians, and not necessarily that we’re pushing our religious book on anyone.”