The 2023 - 24 Georgia General Assembly has been called the most diverse ever, with 83 people of color among its 236 members. That includes over a dozen first and second-generation immigrants–and of those, at least 10 were just elected, the vast majority of them, Democrats. Brought to you by ACC x 285 South.
House District 97: Duluth, Gwinnett County
Occupation: Public policy consultant
Education: B.A. in politics, Oglethorpe University; M.A. in public policy, Georgetown University
Birthplace: Amman, Jordan
When 29-year old Ruwa Romman first told her mom she planned to run for the state legislature, the response wasn’t exactly ideal. “To be honest, I didn’t encourage her to do this. I need a baby,” her mother, Sana Al Qawasmi, says over coffee and quiche, sitting outside Break Coffee in downtown Duluth.
“She really wants to be a grandmother,” Romman says.
Her mother wasn’t the only one who initially wasn’t sure about the whole thing. “A lot of people thought there’s no way that a Muslim woman–let alone a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, let alone a Palestinian Muslim woman in America–could ever win office in a state like Georgia,” Romman explains between bites.
Romman, who’s the granddaughter of Palestinian refugees, was born in Jordan and immigrated to metro Atlanta at age 7 with her family. On Nov. 8, she became the first Palestinian elected to the Georgia General Assembly–or any state office in Georgia. The Democrat defeated her Republican challenger, John Chan (himself the son of immigrants from Hong Kong), winning 57.7% of the vote for an open House District 97 seat in Gwinnett County, which cuts across a swath of Norcross, Peachtree Corners, Berkeley Lake, and Duluth.
She joins three other Muslims serving in the General Assembly this session, all from Gwinnett: Sen. Nabilah Islam and Rep. Farooq Mughal (also both newly elected), and Rep. Sheikh Raman, who was born in Bangladesh and became Georgia’s first Muslim lawmaker in 2019. Only Minnesota has more Muslim legislators this year, with five.
Romman will be advocating for issues she knows her diverse constituents care about: “It’s education, health care, economic opportunity and protecting our democracy. As much as people want to complicate it, it’s not that complicated,” says the new state house member, who holds an M.A. in public policy from Georgetown University.
The new lawmaker says years of groundwork helped her win what she’s called a “people-powered campaign.” Her friend Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, who’s also Muslim, ran for the same seat four years ago, but lost to Bonnie Rich, a Republican. (The district has since been redrawn.) That motivated Yacoubto found the Georgia Muslim Voter Project, a grassroots group that registers Muslim voters, before becoming executive director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund, which mobilizes Asian-American voters and is a watchdog for ballot access.
Where’s HD 97? See if you live, work, or hang out in Rep. Romman’s district.
Romman herself had volunteered in every election cycle since 2014, getting out the Democratic vote. She worked as a field organizer for the Georgia Muslim Voter Project and the Asian American Advocacy fund and served as CAIR Georgia’s communications director.
“I wouldn’t be here without that infrastructure,” Romman says, adding that its work has been decades in the making. “There were people who worked really hard to stop normalizing anti-Muslim anti-Arab sentiments in the media.”
Romman’s mother says she can recall moments (but only a few, she emphasizes) where she experienced anti-Muslim sentiment when the family moved to Alpharetta from Amman, Jordan in 2001, just a month before the Sept. 11 attacks.
A few neighbors in their Alpharetta subdivision noticed her hijab and thought they should stay away, Al Qawasmi says. “Step by step, I introduced myself and my religion. I taught them what is the real Islam. After that, we became friends, and they would come and drink tea with us.”
It was Palestinian-style black tea, with cinnamon and dried sage they’d brought over from Jordan. Their mostly white neighbors would gather on their lawn, sip the tea, and chat. ”My mom was really good about just making people feel comfortable. Like using food and just educating folks,” Romman says.
When Romman launched her campaign, her mother was her secret weapon. “We would text people the address the night before… and just let people know, hey, my mom was cooking and word spread really quickly.” Campaign volunteers flocked to Al Qawasmi’s homemade mujaddara (rice with lentils and caramelized onions), falafel, salad, and baked pastries filled with spinach or meat.
At one point, Romman says, 45 canvassers showed up at her house. “Truly, the days that we had the most canvassers were the days that my mom cooked food.”
All together, her campaign volunteers knocked on 15,000 doors, sent 75,000 texts, and made 8,000 phone calls.
Bringing people into the process has been a cornerstone of her campaign. “Everybody has a talent to bring to the table when it comes to social movements and political activism, because literally anyone can change the world with whatever they can offer as a group.”
Getting more people involved in the political process so representatives are responsive to their constituents rather than special interests, Romman believes, is a way to make positive change. “Institutions here in Georgia are not as supportive [of the people] as they could be. And that’s due to a lack of investment for decades now. But we can still move stuff to state representatives, and we can make a difference.”
Learn more about the Representing Georgia series from ACC x 285 South.