Ruva Roman remembers the sadness she felt as the 8-year-old girl sat in the back of the school bus watching her classmates point her towards her house and burst into evil laughter.
“There’s the bomb lab,” they taunted in another attempt to brand her 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 office in the state.
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 was not easy, especially in the heavily Christian and conservative South.
“I could write chapters about what I’ve been through,” Roman told CNN, listing the many ways she’s faced bigotry or discrimination.
“Every time I’m ‘randomly’ picked by the TSA, the teachers put me in a position where I had to defend Islam and the Muslims in the classrooms taught the wrong things about me and my identity… it colored my whole life.”
But those hardships only fueled her passion for civic engagement, especially among marginalized communities, Roman said.
“Who I am has really taught me to seek out the most marginalized because they don’t have the resources or the time to go into the halls of political institutions to seek the help they need,” she said.
Roman began working with the Georgia Muslim Voter Project in 2015 to increase voter turnout among local Muslim Americans. She also helped establish the state chapter for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.
Soon after, Roman began working with the wider community. Her website boasts: “Ruwa has volunteered every election cycle since 2014 to help turn Georgia blue.”
She said her main focus is “bringing public service back into politics,” which she intends to do by expanding access to health care, bridging the economic opportunity gap, protecting voting rights and ensuring people 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 influence, not realizing that state legislatures have the most direct impact on them,” Roman said. “Every law that makes us angry or happy started in the state legislature somewhere.”
Roman 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 she attended 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 for office.
“I told her no, I don’t think so, and she ended up writing a wonderful piece about Muslim women in Georgia, but she started it with, ‘Ruva Roman is considering running for office,’ and I wasn’t.” – said Roman. “But when it came out, the community saw it and the response was very positive and everyone kept telling me to do it.”
Two weeks later, Roman and a group of volunteers launched a campaign.
She was surrounded by family, friends and community members who cheered on her success. Together they knocked on 15,000 doors, sent 75,000 messages and made 8,000 phone calls.
Her Republican opponent John Chan didn’t fight fair, she said.
“My opponent used anti-Muslim rhetoric against me, saying I had ties to terrorism, at one point flatly supporting an ad calling me a terrorist factory,” she said.
Flyers supporting Chan’s candidacy insinuated that she is connected to terrorist organizations.
Chan did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
It was the same type of bullying Roman faced as a schoolgirl, she said. Only this time she wasn’t alone. Thousands of people turned their backs on her.
“What was amazing was that people in my district sent me his 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 amazing moment for me,” she said.
It was also ironic, Roman added, because her passion for her community and social justice is rooted in her faith: “Justice is a central tenant of Islam,” she noted. “It inspires me to be good to others, to care for my neighbors and to protect the marginalized.”
It is also rooted in her family’s experience as Palestinian refugees, who she said were driven from their homeland by Israel in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
“My Palestinian identity instilled in me a focus on justice and caring for others,” Roman said. “Everyone deserves to live with dignity. I hope Palestinians everywhere see this as proof that showing up and working hard can be history making.
“I may not have a lot of power in foreign policy, but I sincerely hope that I can at least remind people that the Palestinians are not the anxiety, or the terrorists, or any other terrible apparition that society has imposed on us,” she added. “We are real people with real dreams.”
Roman joins three other Muslim Americans elected to state and local office in Georgia this election cycle, according to the Georgia Muslim Voters Project.
The other three candidates, all Democrats, were Nabila Islam, the first known Muslim woman elected to the Georgia State Senate, Sheikh Rahman, elected to the Georgia State Senate, and Farooq Mughal, elected to the Georgia State House.
“We’ve had Muslim representation at the state level in Georgia, but these victories have taken Georgia Muslim representation further than ever before, because now we have more gender and ethnic representation for Muslims,” the group’s executive director, Shafina Kabani, 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 inclusive leadership and welcoming policies for all of Georgia,” she said.
More than anything, Roman hopes her choice points to a future free of hate and bigotry.
“I think this proves that people have learned that Muslims are part of this community and that the wave of Islamophobia is hopefully starting to recede,” Roman added.
Looking back on her childhood, Roman wishes she could have told her younger self that things will get better with time, and that one day she will not only make Georgia history, but hopefully make a real difference in the world.