Ruva Roman remembers the sadness she felt as an 8-year-old girl sitting in the back of a school bus, watching classmates point at her house and burst into evil laughter.
“There’s the bomb lab,” they taunted in yet 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 statewide 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 path to political office is not an easy one, 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, teachers put me in a position where I have to defend Islam and Muslims, classrooms teach me the wrong things about me and my identity… it’s 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 are the ones who don’t have the resources or the time to spend in the halls of political institutions to ask for 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 found the state chapter of 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, “Ruva has volunteered every election cycle since 2014 to help keep Georgia blue.”
She said her main focus is “bringing public services back into politics,” which she intends to do by helping expand access to health care, closing the economic opportunity gap, protecting voting rights and ensuring that people have access to life-saving care such as 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 legislators have the most direct impact on them,” Roman said. “Every law that has made us angry or happy started somewhere in the state legislature.”
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 attending a Georgia Muslim Voter Project training session for women from historically marginalized communities, where a journalist covering the event asked her if she wanted to run for office.
“I told her no, I don’t think so, and she ended up writing a beautiful piece about Muslim women in Georgia, but she started it with ‘Ruva Roman is considering running for office,’ and I wasn’t,” Roman said. “But when it came out, the community saw it and the response was overwhelmingly positive and everyone was 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 supported her success. Together they knocked on 15,000 doors, sent 75,000 messages and made 8,000 phone calls.
Her opponent, Republican John Chan, is not fighting fair, she 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 factory,” she said.
Leaflets supporting Chan’s candidacy hinted that it was 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. But this time she wasn’t alone. Thousands of people supported her.
“What was amazing is that people in my area sent me his messages 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 core tenant of Islam,” she pointed out. “It inspires me to be good to others, to care for my fellow man and to stand up for the marginalized.”
It is also rooted in her family’s experience as Palestinian refugees, who she says were driven from their homeland by Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
“My Palestinian identity made me focus on justice and caring for others,” Roman said. “Everyone deserves to live with dignity. I hope Palestinians everywhere see this as proof that consistent showing up and hard work 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, the terrorists, or any other terrible slander society throws at 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 Voter Project, but her victory is particularly groundbreaking.
“We had Muslim representation at the state level in Georgia, but these victories take Muslim representation in Georgia further than ever before because now we have more gender and ethnic representation for Muslims,” the group’s executive director, Shafina Habani, 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 impact our communities.”
“Diversity in political representation means better laws, more responsive leadership and welcoming policies for all of Georgia,” she said.
More than anything, Roman hopes her choice points to a future free of hatred and bigotry.
“I think it shows that people have learned that Muslims are part of this community and that wave of Islamophobia is hopefully starting to subside,” Roman added.
Looking back on her childhood, Roman wishes she could tell her younger self that things will get better in time and that one day she will not only make Georgia history, but hopefully make a real difference in the world.