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“Our home just as much as it’s anyone else’s” says Nabeela Syed, first Muslim woman in Illinois General Assembly

Nabeela Syed is one of a wave of Gen-Zs who won electoral seats in the mid-term election Nov. 8. At age 23, she is the youngest member of the Illinois General Assembly.

23-year-old Nabeela Syed (center) is the first Muslim American woman in the Illinois General Assembly. (photo via Twitter)

23-year-old Indian American Nabeela Syed, the first Muslim woman in the Illinois General Assembly, rarely thought about her identity while growing up in this state.

Syed, whose parents hail from Hyderabad, has worn a hijab since she was a freshman in high school. “For me, there's no escaping my identity, and that's why I chose to wear a hijab. I feel very proud of my faith,” she told New India Abroad in an interview, shortly after taking her oath of office.

She recalled jokingly being called a terrorist by classmates, but added: “Overall, my high school experience was pretty positive.”

All of that changed in 2016, as former President Donald Trump laced his bid for the White House with Islamophobic invective, and invoked a travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority countries shortly after taking office.

“This was not just a classroom bully doing this. It was the president. When he got elected, that really rocked my world. I was questioning whether or not people like me belong in this country. And that was the turning point for me,” she said.

Nabeela Syed (center) is surrounded by supporters on the campaign trail. (photo via Twitter)

“I was born and raised here, my parents immigrated here. They've contributed so much. My grandparents have contributed so much, and I will too. And it is our home just as much as it's anyone else's.”

“Trump and people like him — if they had their way — would continue to push us all the way until we're out of the country. And that can't be the case. We've got to create space, not just for ourselves, not just for myself, but for other communities as well,” said Syed.

The new politician is one of a wave of Gen-Zs who won electoral seats in the mid-term election Nov. 8. At age 23, she is the youngest member of the Illinois General Assembly.

Syed managed to unseat Republican incumbent Chris Bos, who had held the seat for one term. She garnered more than 53 percent of the vote, while Bos received slightly less than 47 percent.

“People were excited to see a young person at their door asking for their support,” said Syed, crediting her win to grass-roots, shoe-leather campaigning, knocking on doors in her district with a team of volunteers.

“Gen Z candidates are proof that voters care about electing candidates who will listen to them and fight for their priorities more than they care about a candidate’s age,” she tweeted.

Nabeela Syed graduated from UC Berkeley. (photo via Twitter)

Illinois has the sixth largest population of Muslims in the U.S., but until now, has no Muslim representation in its state Legislature. Fellow Democrat Abdelnasser Rashid

also won his seat in the Illinois General Assembly in the 2022 mid-term election. The two represent a wave of Muslim Americans who won office in this election cycle.

According to a report from the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Jetpac Resource Center, 82 Muslim Americans won local, state legislative, statewide, judicial, and federal races, the highest number ever recorded.

“We are witnessing the next step in the American Muslim community’s political transformation from marginalized voices that were sidelined, or worse, to decision makers. These newly-elected officials are building upon the success of our community’s decades-long investment in civic engagement, voter registration and running for office,” said CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad.

Syed told New India Abroad that she has many issues she hopes to focus on during her first term in office. Chief among them is gun control. Earlier this year, Robert Crimo, 21, allegedly shot into a crowd during 4th of July celebrations in Highland Park, Illinois, killing seven people and wounding dozens of others. Crimo has been charged with 21 counts of murder: he has pleaded not guilty on all counts.

Syed was born just 10 days before the horrific 1999 Columbine High School shootings, at which  Eric David Harris and Dylan Bennet Klebold killed 12 students and one teacher before killing themselves. Mass shootings have become commonplace on school campuses, birthing a generation of young activists calling for stricter gun control measures and background checks.

“I grew up doing active shooter drills since the third grade, and ensuring that future generations don't have to is a top priority of mine,” said Syed. “Active shooter drills are awful,” she said, describing a situation in which police come on to campus and test students’ responses to someone jangling a doorknob. “How is a third grader supposed to respond to that?” she queried, adding that no one should be afraid to come to school, but parents and students worry daily about a mass shooting happening on campus.

“Mass shootings have been devastating families and schools and teachers. We need to put an immediate end to it,” said Syed.

Healthcare is also a top focus for the newly-elected legislator.  “No one should have to break their bank to get the lifesaving prescription medications that they need,” she said. Safeguarding reproductive rights also ranks high on Syed’s list of priorities.

On climate change, Syed said she would support the implementation of the Climate & Equitable Jobs Act, which would put Illinois on track to achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 and create thousands of new jobs. She is also an advocate for better public transportation, including the expansion of walking and biking trails.

Syed received numerous endorsements for her campaign, most notably from the Indian American Impact Fund and Illinois state Senator Ram Villivalam, a Democrat. She is an alumnus of UC Berkeley, where she earned degrees in business administration and political science.