Local Politics

On seventh anniversary of Muslim friends' murder in Chapel Hill, NC official keeping their legacy alive with Congress bid

Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam says she is helping to keep her friends' legacies alive in her current run for Congress.

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Nida Allam
Chantal Allam
DURHAM, N.C.(Editor’s note: This story is part of a package profiling Muslim sisters Afreen, Arsheen and Nida Allam, first-generation Americans with parents from India and Pakistan. Raised in Cary, each is forging high-profile careers in politics and tech. Even though the writer and subjects share the same surname, they are in no way related.)

Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam said she is helping to keep her friends’ legacies alive in her current run for Congress.

Seven years ago this Thursday, three Muslim college students -- Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, Abu-Salha's husband, Deah Barakat, 23, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, 19 – were murdered in their Chapel Hill home by neighbor Craig Hicks. Initially attributed to a parking dispute, it quickly sparked cries of a hate crime and rising anti-Muslim sentiment.

“Our community still feels the loss of Deah, Yusor, and Razan deeply,” says Allam, 28, who considered herself best friends with the couple.

“They epitomized genuine love for their communities and this country.”

Allam made history in March 2020 when she became the first Muslim American woman to be elected to office in North Carolina. She’s now running in the Sixth Congressional District to replace the seat currently held by Rep. David Price in a controversial redistricting map.

Nida Allam with Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her husband, Deah Barakat, 23, who were murdered in Chapel Hill in 2015.

If her bid is successful, she would be the third Muslim woman in Congress and the fifth overall.

Allam insists she never had plans to get into politics.

“[Their murder] was a triggering point for me,” said the first-generation American with parents from India and Pakistan. Born in Canada, her family moved to Cary when her father got a job with IBM at age five. The year of the murders, she earned a degree in sustainable materials and technology from NC State.

“I was applying for tech jobs,” she recalls.

But then she witnessed the event’s aftermath, noticing “the media coverage and how it minimized the lives of three Muslims.” Hicks pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and is now serving three life terms without parole. But prosecutors and the victims’ relatives pressed for a hate crime designation against Muslims, to no avail.

Allam, who is religious and wears hijab, says she realized it was time for Muslims to be better represented.

“[The Muslim] community doesn't get involved in politics, especially post 9/11. That didn't really sit well with me anymore.”

Allam isn’t the only one in her family defying Muslim stereotypes. Her sister, Afreen Allam, 33, is CEO and founder of SiNON Nano Sciences. Her other sister, Arsheen, 31, also runs her own cleantech company called GoLeafe.

“Our father always wanted us to be independent and support ourselves,” recalls Allam. “That was always his dream.”

A millennial politician

After kicking off her campaign in a Twitter post last November, Allam is ramping up efforts ahead of the primary election in March. From her headquarters in Durham, she’s blasting out campaign emails and stepping up Zoom appearances in this age of COVID.

“We’re already seeing a huge amount of enthusiasm, with over 40 youth volunteers already making calls and sending texts,” she says. “We’re investing in field organizing and building up a grassroots movement.”

It’s a stunning rise for the millennial who launched herself onto the scene shortly after the murders, first as political director of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. In January 2017, she was elected third vice-chairperson of the North Carolina Democratic Party and became the first Muslim to join the executive council. A year later, she was appointed to the Durham Mayor’s Council for Women before winning her seat on the Commission.

This time around, she’s running in a crowded field with at least 10 contenders, including former “American Idol” contestant Clay Aiken.

Still, that doesn’t dissuade Allam. “We’re looking forward to making our case to voters,” she says.

Allam is even making it personal, advocating for universal healthcare while sharing her own struggles with infertility.

In a Jan. 26 email to supporters, Allam opened up about her own experience with fertility treatments.

“My infertility journey has made me a stronger advocate for progressive policies because I know how impactful they could be for people like me,” she wrote.

In the end, she’s speaking up in the hopes that others feel “seen, recognized and represented.” It’s something she knows her friends – Deah, Yusor and Razan – would have supported.

“I hope each and every one of us can strive to carry on their legacy through acts of service and love,” she says.

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