Ruwa Romman remembers the sadness she felt as an 8-year-old girl sitting in the back of a school bus watched her classmates point to her house and burst into wild laughter.
“There’s the bomb lab,” they scoffed in another attempt to brand his family as terrorists.
On Tuesday, the same girl, now a 29-year-old community organizer, made history as the first known Muslim woman elected to the Georgia House of Representatives and the first Palestinian American elected to any state office.
After 10 months of relentless campaigning, the Democrat said she is eager to begin representing the people of District 97, which includes Lake Berkeley and parts of Duluth, Norcross and Peachtree Corners in Gwinnett County.
As an immigrant, the granddaughter of Palestinian refugees and a Muslim woman who wears the hijab, or Islamic headscarf, the road to political office has not been easy, especially in the heavily Christian and conservative south.
“I could write chapters about what I’ve been through,” Romman told CNN, listing the many ways he’s faced bigotry or discrimination.
“Every time I am ‘randomly’ selected by the TSA, the teachers put me in a position where I had to defend Islam and Muslims because they were being taught the wrong things about me and my identity in classrooms. .. marked my whole life.”
But those hardships only fueled his passion for civic engagement, especially among marginalized communities, Romman said.
“Who I am has really taught me to seek out the most marginalized because they are the ones who don’t have the resources or the time to go to the lobbies of political institutions to ask for the help they need,” she said.
Romman began working with the Georgia Muslim Voter Project in 2015 to increase voter turnout among local American Muslims. He also helped establish the state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.
Soon after, Romman began working with the community at large. Her website boasts, “Ruwa has volunteered every election cycle since 2014 to help turn Georgia blue.”
He said his main goal is to “bring public service back to politics,” which he aims to do by helping expand access to health care, closing the economic opportunity gap, protecting the right to vote and ensuring- I want people to have access to life-saving care like abortion.
“I think a lot of people overlook state legislators because they think they’re local and don’t have a lot of impact, not realizing that state legislatures have the most direct impact on them,” Romman said. “Every law that made us mad or happy started in the state legislature somewhere.”
Romman said she always wanted to influence the political process, but never thought she would be a politician.
The decision to run for office came after attending a Georgia Muslim Voter Project training session for women from historically marginalized communities, where a reporter covering the event asked if she wanted to run in office
“I told her no, I don’t think so, and she ended up writing a nice piece about Muslim women in Georgia, but she started it with ‘Ruwa Romman is considering a run for office,’ and I didn’t.” . Roman said. “But when it came out, the community saw it and the response was very positive and everyone told me to do it.”
Two weeks later, Romman and a group of volunteers launched a campaign.
She was surrounded by family, friends and community members who were rooting for her success. Together, they knocked on 15,000 doors, sent 75,000 text messages and made 8,000 phone calls.
His Republican opponent John Chan didn’t put up a fair fight, he said.
“My opponent had used anti-Muslim rhetoric against me, saying I had links to terrorism, at one point strongly supporting an ad calling me a terrorist plant,” he said.
Flyers in support of Chan’s candidacy hinted that she is associated with terrorist organizations.
Chan did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
It was the same kind of bullying Romman faced as a high school girl, she said. Only this time she wasn’t alone. Thousands of people recovered it.
“What was amazing was that people in my district sent me their message and said, ‘This is unacceptable.’ How can we help? How can we get involved? How can we support you?’ and it was such an incredible moment for me,” she said.
It was also ironic, Romman added, because his passion for his community and social justice is rooted in his faith: “Justice is a central tenant of Islam,” he said. “It inspires me to be good to others, take care of my neighbors and protect the marginalized.”
It is also rooted in her family’s experience as Palestinian refugees, who she says were expelled from their homeland by Israel in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
“My Palestinian identification has instilled in me a focus on justice and caring for others,” Romman said. “Everyone deserves to live with dignity. I hope Palestinians everywhere see this as proof that showing up consistently and working hard can make history.
“I may not have much power in foreign policy, but I sincerely hope that I can at least remind people that the Palestinians are not the nuisance, or the terrorists, or any other terrible aspersion that society has put on us,” he added. “We are real people with real dreams.”
Romman joins three other Muslim Americans elected to state and local office in Georgia this election cycle, according to the Georgia Muslim Voter Project, but his win is particularly groundbreaking.
“We’ve had Muslim representation at the state level in Georgia, but these victories bring representation for Georgia Muslims more than ever because we now have more gender and ethnic representation for Muslims,” the group’s executive director Shafina Khabani told CNN. “Not only will we have representation that looks like us and aligns with our values, but we will have the opportunity to advocate and influence policies that directly affect our communities.”
“Having diversity in political representation means better laws, more leadership acceptance and welcoming policies for all of Georgia,” he said.
More than anything, Romman hopes his choices point to a future free of hate and bigotry.
“I think this shows that people have learned that Muslims are part of this community and that the tide of Islamophobia is starting to recede,” Romman said.
Looking back on his childhood, Romman would like to tell his youth that things would get better in time, and that one day he would not only make Georgia history, but hopefully, make a real difference in the world.