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Interview with Abrar Omeish - At-Large member of the Fairfax County School Board - United States

Updated: Jul 4, 2023



About Abrar Omeish:


BIOGRAPHICAL NARRATIVE

2022-2023 White House Fellowships


Abrar Omeish currently serves as an At-Large School Board Member in Fairfax County, overseeing a budget of over three billion dollars for 1.1 million constituents in the nation’s tenth largest school division. She is the first Libyan ever elected in US history, and the youngest woman, as well as the first Arab or Muslim woman, ever elected in Virginia, earning over 161,000 votes and coming in first among non-incumbents in a six-way race. She is also the first Muslim and youngest ever elected in her role. Abrar’s journey in education leadership started when she co-founded a student-led, student-run non-profit organization that continues to provide thousands of underprivileged youth with free tutoring and mentorship across 20 locations over the past ten years. She is known in the community as an “equity champion” who empowers student voice and includes perspectives of those who are least privileged. Some of her independent accomplishments include restoration of ELL summer school, introduction of tele-mental health resources, documentation of inclusive/accommodating spaces, and development of an ESSER funds oversight and audit plan. Her fervent support of the renaming of Robert E. Lee High School (to John R. Lewis), the expansion of Advanced Academic Program (AAP) access, and the reform of the admissions process in the nation’s top-performing high school has also gained national attention. Abrar has been endorsed by all local educator associations, and the Virginia Education Association has invited her to speak and advocate on a state level. She has also contributed nationally when bringing her expertise on student mental health and restraint/seclusion practices to the United States Department of Education in an OSERS practicum and discussion with Secretary Cardona last fall.

Outside of education, Abrar has also served as a legal fellow at a human rights and immigration law firm in Northern Virginia and has been a spokeswoman for #NoMuslimBanEver, a national coalition that successfully campaigned to reverse the Muslim ban within President Biden’s first days in office. She has spoken at Hill briefings and federal press conferences on the topic. Just this past summer, Abrar also helped process detainees from the January 2021 Capitol insurrection terrorist attack in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

In 2020, Abrar was appointed to serve as a Virginia Co-Chair for the Bernie Sanders campaign. She was also chosen from millions of residents to be a Virginia PLEO (Public Leader/Elected Official) and Rules Committee member to the 2020 Democratic National Convention, where she supported the unity ticket. Years prior, based on her successful coalition-building on campus in the wake of the Trump election, Abrar was recruited by the Deputy Chairman of the DNC to advance a taskforce designed to unify the party in the aftermath of the 2016 election.

Abrar holds a double bachelors with honors from Yale University, among very few who completed the intensive major track in recent history. She is a current dual MPP/JD candidate and Blume fellow, an honor granted to six students from over 9,000 for their commitment to public service, at Georgetown University. She is a recipient of the Yale Nakanishi Prize, Virginia Peace Award, President’s Public Service Award, Girl Scout Presidential Award, Girl Scout Gold Award, Phi Beta Kappa HS Award, among many other public endorsements.




Gender Equality Statistics for the United States:

Gender Development Index: .994

Gender Inequality Index: .204

Group Classification: 1, high equality in human development amongst genders

Largest Disparity: equal pay in the labor force for men and women



 

Andrew Lindsey

I would like to introduce our guest. Ms. Abrar Omeish. Currently serving as one of three At-Large School Board Members in Fairfax County, Ms. Omeish is both the first Muslim and youngest ever elected to this role in the state of Virginia. Her involvement in education extends back to the co-founding of GIVE, a nonprofit tutoring and mentorship program providing to thousands of underprivileged across Northern Virginia. Ms. Omeish is a true advocate for equity and understands the importance of providing a holistic education. Ms. Omeish, we are truly glad to have you join us to answer some questions.


Josh Baniewicz

What challenges did you face while going through your education?

Abrar Omeish

It was always interesting growing up in a community that’s incredibly diverse, especially after 9-11. When I went to school and interact with my peers, I didn’t realize the biases with which they were interacting with me and I saw myself just like everyone else. I was in the student government, and I ran for Student Council in high school. But ultimately people said things that were uninformed and insensitive. I still remember, in sixth grade, I was bullied and things like that were always challenges, of course, for any student that's going through elementary school. Finding my own identity then was an extremely important foundation to deal with this situation.

Other than that, there's a huge movement now talking about the importance of literacy. Literacy is a civil right, and seeing how different groups may not have the same opportunities in reading and writing is one of the highest predictors of whether they're able to be successful post high school post-secondary. That was also something I struggled with. I was the daughter of immigrants, and my parents first language is not English. I learned Arabic in the home, before I did English, so I didn't have the same head start most kids do coming into school. That caught up with me and it affected my confidence in my ability to perform reading and, ultimately, even in SAT. I scored really high in math and in writing, but my reading score wasn't great. Literacy struggles are so common and widespread, unfortunately, but it is something you can overcome, and you can certainly accentuate other strengths that you have.


Kate Moorman-Wolfe

How was your experience at Yale as a woman, especially being a woman who is a part of a religious minority?

Abrar Omeish

The place where I grew up has deep pockets of poverty, but it also has some of the wealthiest people in the state. That was always a stark reality that I experienced when I was in public school, but then I went to Yale. I always imagined myself as part of the middle class, even upper middle class. My family did okay, my dad was a doctor. I considered myself incredibly privileged and, of course, was grateful for the resources I had. I wanted to give back to the community. In these circumstances, Yale was an entirely new level of wealth, and elitism. It opened my eyes. I could see a society that I never even imagined existed. Being exposed to that also motivated a frustration in me on behalf of all the underprivileged families and communities that don't have access to that kind of wealth and don't have the same opportunities. This is no their fault: we don’t choose the families we’re born into. It’s the luck of the draw in life. This new reality certainly shaped my perspective in general about the work I wanted to do, primarily focusing on socio-economic justice, stressing the importance of equal opportunity and fairness. Being on the school board, I feel that education is the starting point to be able to build a fair society. We hope to provide kids with equal opportunity to excel.

As a Muslim woman, it was quite hard. I was probably the first Muslims many had ever met in their lives. They were almost too arrogant to ask questions or to care, and that was very different from my old community. Privilege seemingly creates this arrogance. When you see what I am describing, it is logical to lose interest in meeting new people. The connection with the people and the place is lost.

On a more specific level, the University has a ton of money, so they invite famous people to speak. An important debate today, of course, is free speech versus hate speech. I bring this up because the University brought a well-known Islamophobe to speak. She is well known for going around and spreading hate, talking about the need to reform our religion. Her stance is based on her own traumatic experience. This person grew up in a family whose ideas were not based on the academic study of the religion or its traditions. Anyway, she was invited to speak for a specific club at the University, one that was devoted to provoking minority communities and often tried to be controversial almost intentionally. Of course, we all believe in the right to debate, we all reject censorship. However, in this case there was a different intention. We found the situation simply provocative, far from any kind sensitivity, and with no worries about the possibility of hurting others. Being a part of the Muslim Student Association, we decided to protest publishing a written statement, and trying to contact the group that wanted to bring the speaker. Nevertheless, the university still allowed the speaker to come, almost doubling down on their previous beliefs with a feeling of proudness. The administration of the university was aware that a student body felt very harmed by this, but bringing the speaker represented freedom of speech. When Trump was elected, I was still at Yale, specifically during the time of Trump’s Muslim ban. Such a ban took an early effect on students and other members of our Community at Yale. We had international students from some of the banned countries that could not go home for the winter because they would not be allowed to come back. Other issues stemmed from this too, like not allowing family to attend the graduation ceremony. As a Muslim woman studying at Yale motivated me to build awareness and understanding.


Lochlin Wessel

What advice you have for someone hoping to go to law school?

Abrar Omeish

There is an unfortunate reality about law school. People often come with a motivation created around an injustice they have seen. Some are simply motivated by money, but they still have a sense of wanting to do some good in the world. Regardless, it is so easy to lose sight of your initial motivation. To avoid this, my advice would be to tap into your deeper core self and try to understand why you wanted to come to law school and what you plan on doing with your degree or what experiences you hope to gain. That is my advice for all careers you may pursue, because at the end of the day, we have to be agents for positive change, agents that help move our society forward. Whatever career path you choose, you have to maximize it for the good and betterment of humanity, and attending law school is no different. For far too long, historically, the law has been manipulated, designed so that certain types of people may flourish while others are left out. When I came to law school, I learned about cases through history where this manipulation was a reality. Women were excluded from legal spaces for a long time, along with minorities, Native Americans, and others. The law was weaponized against people like that. Again, when attending law school, just be open minded about what you’re going to hear and try to keep the national controversies out of your head as much as possible. This will allow you to receive ideas and formulate your own judgements about the world.


Emma Grace ReVille

What do you believe is America’s biggest issue when it comes to Muslim women?

Abrar Omeish

Last September, the 20th anniversary of 9/11 was commemorated. It’s very hard to understand the journey of Muslims in this country without reflecting on 9/11 and studying what happened after that. In reality, Muslims have been in this country since before its founding. There were Muslims who helped Columbus navigate on his voyages, seeing as Spain was a large home to Muslims in the past. A third of the slaves that came to this country were Muslims from African-Muslim countries, too. These slaves would have much of the Qur’an memorized and would try to write as much down as they could to preserve their culture. There are records of these people, and I highly encourage looking at a book called History of Islam in America that is a really interesting documentation of this.

The history of Muslims in America has been long, but 9/11 and other recent events over the past 20 years have transformed the treatment of Muslims. The events have effectively weaponized the government in ways that marginalize the community. When looking at most of our geopolitics as a country, foreign policy in the US pins us up against mostly Muslim-majority countries. When we engage in war with one of these countries, there will be some level of propaganda so that the population can buy into that war as an American society. The government has to ensure that we believe in the war, like the war in Afghanistan, so that we don’t revolt against the government. The event of 9/11 helped justify foreign affairs by making the Muslim brand a boogeyman, that they are prone to terrorism, are violent people, and that they oppress women. These narratives underlying the American society put us in a situation where 70% of Americans have an unfavorable view of Muslims and Islam, even if they know nothing about it.

What this also shows us, however, is that a tremendous difference is made when they meet a single Muslim and they’re able to humanize the person. The largest challenge as an American Muslim woman, and for the American Muslim in general, is their perception. For 20 years, our government and military have been propagating a certain image of what Islam and Muslims are about. I’ve had friends in the military who told me about their training, about how they will go to sites such as the Pentagon or the spot of the Twin Towers and will say “this is what they did to us, so we need to go kill them”. The propaganda has had such an effect on us that if every one of us sat down and closed our eyes and imagined what a Muslim would look like or what being a Muslim means, I am willing to bet money that words like violent, backwards, or oppressive would come to mind. Those thoughts do not come from a reality, but from sustained media images, stories, and narratives over the years.

As a Muslim woman, I do want to speak up about women empowerment in our community because in many ways, women are treated unfairly, just like in any other group. I am kind of stuck because if I were to say this, it would be seen as the same narrative being used to weaponize the government against the Muslim community, causing me to be used like a tool to propagate an Anti-Muslim wave. The narrative is certainly one of the most difficult things to tackle right now. This narrative manifests through hate crimes. This stuff has tangible impact, and people have been shot or killed in this country because of these perceptions. Most textbooks in this country only talk about Muslims in a dreadful sense, like in reference to Al Qaeda or ISIS. Imagine then, as a kid, what your understanding of Muslims would then be. One last example that I will give about this is in regards to when the US withdrew from Afghanistan several months ago. The whole narrative was around the need to save the women in Afghanistan because women became the tool to justify this war to the public. In reality, the US Government didn’t do much for women abroad. There are so many women oppressed globally, even right here in our neighborhoods. Now with Ukraine, when we see people on top new outlets like CNN or BBC, the public begins to believe that we do need to intervene because they’re like “us”, they have blue eyes and blond hair. You know they’re Christian, unlike in Syria and Iraq, which are things that commentators have said. There is a clear contrast in the discourse about when people are received as human or not.

Another piece that I should mention, too, is that after 9/11, our government now has tens of agencies that never existed before. Immigration control and ICE were those who would deport families. These agencies would just go into communities and pick people up. Another agency that didn’t exist before 9/11 was the entire Department of Homeland Security, which means that this was created in the name of the war on terror.

This weaponization against a group is nothing new. If you look back through history, the same thing happened with the war on drugs. The goal was to tackle the drug problem in black communities, but the government was selling drugs to the same communities. This was a manufactured war, something created to marginalize black communities and suppress them. The war on terror has played the same role, but it is more recent, meaning that we have not woken up to truly see the full situation. I grew up in a mosque, where spies were a normal part of life. We would often joke about that, saying things like I wonder where the FBI is today. As Americans, we’ve compromised our liberties and our privacy because we think it will make us safer, but we’ve justified this machine that now has to justify its own existence, and so it has to now create a problem where one does not exist. I would highly encourage you to educate yourselves on the impact of the war on terror post 9/11 on America. We’ve lost a lot as Americans when it comes to our civil liberties and our privacy, largely because of people’s fear in the aftermath of 9/11.


Brooke Sheely

In what settings have you experienced Islamophobia the most? Abrar Omeish

Unfortunately, oftentimes interactions with law enforcement make it exceedingly difficult. For example, I was stopped by a police officer a couple years ago who ended up escalating the situation, to a degree, where now we're settling in a lawsuit. It was horrific, I was pepper sprayed and I got a concussion, so that's just one example of a situation where there's an abuse of power. I think those are the contexts where a phobia is most obvious when there is unregulated uncontrolled power in the name of protecting America or the Community, but really it ends up being influenced by a lot of bias. For example, a lot of officers who joined the force are ex-military they have been trained in the past to literally kill people that look like me, they have been at war with people who are Muslim. And then you know they end up in a neighborhood in a civilian context where that might be triggering for them, and so they escalate force in their interaction with a Muslim person or someone that looks like someone that you remember from that context.

So that's become an exceedingly inconvenient situation, but maybe airports if I think about it, too. Incredibly invasive, I mean to the level where for a while it was the norm to take you to a special room which wasn't enough to go through the scanner. They would take you to a special room and they'd make you take your clothes off, pat you down, and take your headscarf off. To this day, if you pay attention the next time you travel if there's anyone Muslim, like someone covering their hair, their training tells them they must check for explosives, if someone comes through with a head covering. That seems like a neutral rule, but it's very obviously connected to Muslim women who cover their hair. And so, every time they're like sorry ma'am you have a covering, we got to pat you down and check for explosives. So, they rub this thing you might not notice what it is, but if you pay attention, they stick it in a computer, and it tells them if there's a bomb or not. That's very clearly a result of this narrative of Muslims being more of a threat when it comes to flying. I think airports and security, law enforcement interactions of different sorts whether that's border patrol or immigration, whether it's airport security, whether it's police in the neighborhoods, unfortunately is probably one of the areas where you see it most.

Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

All the problems that you have mentioned can be identified with the Western Hemisphere… What is more difficult, to be a woman or to be a part of a religious minority?

Abrar Omeish

That's an interesting question, because obviously I'm at the intersection of them. I think, being a Muslim is harder than being a woman. There's been a lot of advancements in women's rights, but also people can relate to the fact that they have a sister, they have a mom, they have someone in their family that they can humanize. But it's much easier to demonize and mistreat people when they're further away from you. So, if you've never interacted with a Muslim, as the average American doesn't have a Muslim in their family, it can be much easier to justify unruly behavior and incorrect views around them. I'm only visible as a Muslim because I'm a woman, so that is interesting.

I wanted to extend to your point on Europe because we see some contexts where it's even worse. France, for example, is famous unfortunately for oppressing women and not allowing them to make choices about how they dress. To me, my job and my modesty empower me. They give me a choice of bodily autonomy as I get to make calls and decisions about who has access to that or not. It allows me to enter a space without being belittled by being judged by my appearance. By prioritizing my mind, and the way I come forward, it allows me to prioritize certain attributes of who I am as opposed to the way I look and dolling myself up for a male centered society that values this. So, there are ways that I see this as incredibly empowering. But it has been flipped as young Muslim girls start to question their own identities. The overwhelming Western narrative around it is that your dad or your brother forces you to do that, but I make those calls.

So, I say all of this because in France and Turkey it has become so extreme that they are prohibiting the hijab. This means that women cannot run for office and women are not allowed to wear it in universities, so they must resort to wearing hats and other things to preserve their modesty and faith without being forced by someone like a cop to take it off. It is egregious and you wouldn’t think that this is a liberal western society as you would think of one having freedom to wear what they want. It's to the level of secularism, so the idea that separation of Church and State is an important concept for us to be able to exist in a society with different views but still respecting one another.

Though, in the French context it has been taken to an extreme where we're going to get rid of religion so that it becomes an oppressive right to people who are outwardly expressing it. So, I wanted to make sure I pointed out that as a country we won't head in that direction. It is very possible liberalism taken to the extreme does that. It's not just doing what you want to do, it's being neutral, even though neutral ends up just being what the majority believes is imposed on everyone else.


Elizabeth Mcvean

What do you think is the major step that needs to be taken to fix the portrayal of the Muslim community?

Abrar Omeish

I'm going to compare this to the Black experience in this country where the government invested so many resources to harm the community and now to clean it up, must commit many resources to undo the wrong. I think, in a comparable way for the Muslim community, there have been so many resources invested, billions and billions of dollars invested in creating narratives and causing harm towards Muslims that the government would have to correct and clean up in the same way systemically.

Now how likely is this? People are still making the case for reparations from the time of slavery until today and that is not being fulfilled in the black context, so I don’t have hope of it happening in the Muslim context as well. We need to start talking about an undue ignorance, that has been a part of how we've been socialized and has unfortunately just become a product of if you grew up in America, you're most likely to just have a negative view of Muslims.

We must be able to educate ourselves and exchange perspectives. If you look at history, public opinion is usually what ends up changing policy, sometimes taking several generations. Changing your views then instructing your kids results in that generation becoming the people who run for office and become our next lawmakers, etc. It is certainly a crucial step that I don't want to underestimate, but then, of course, dismantling the security state that's a huge, ambitious thing to say. People are still pushing for dismantling policing, and we are obviously not close to that, right now, so there are lofty ideas of how it can happen.

On the most basic level, we all can control conversations and awareness, and gain understanding which are certainly major steps. I do commend you Dr. Sola Corbacho for facilitating conversations that give students an opportunity to do that.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Thank you very much, because without you it would be difficult. I am going to add something here, you were talking about education, and we will talk about your work in education. This is one way to change our future because we are working with the younger generation. You have referred to the media, this is one of the biggest challenges we have. How would you change this? Is there a way to change media to portray, or at least to show a fair portrayal of the Muslim community?

Abrar Omeish

That is a good question. The media is a huge source of how we think about everything, and it influences everything you know. In the Muslim context, it is connected as over time, it leads us to associate certain concepts and emotions with specific topics. With Muslims, it is the violence oppression. In the same way, we see media frames, for example if there is a shooting or crime and it has been committed by a white person, media will preface it as a mental health issue, or they need support. If it is a Black or Hispanic person it becomes a very different story and can be prefaced with gangs, drugs, or something else. Similarly, this happens with the Muslim community in relation to terrorism.

Regarding your point on how we can change the media by creating alternatives, sometimes we view big news outlets, such as CNN and Politico, as permanent. It is likely they have always existed, and they are immovable to where no one can ever compete with them. People are beginning to realize that they are biased, and they are starting to look to third alternative sources.

For example, there is a democracy currently and no one dreamed that this would be possible. Vox is also a third view type of media that started in our generation. I never would have imagined that they would gain such a following level of credibility in such a short amount of time. Even Politico, which is a popular cover on Congress, started in my lifetime.

So, these outlets have gained credibility in a much shorter period than we give them credit for. Since we were born while they were created, we think that they have always been there. Though, creating an alternative which covers situations that you have encountered, make a big dream for yourself, and try to establish an outlet that covers stories which humanize people and create justice.

I think creating alternatives is the way to go and social media gives us a huge opportunity to do so. Large media outlets are no longer monopolizing the space because we can show other frames through social media. You can even cover things that you have seen, such as the George Floyd situation. Before that, exposure of police brutality towards African Americans in this country largely came out of social media through cell phone videos and random people posting about it. This wasn’t necessarily what the big media was covering, though they were forced to talk about it because everyone was talking about it online. So, do not underestimate the power of this and create challenging frames, such as in a university paper you may have.


Emma Grace Reville

What made you want to be a part of the school board?

Abrar Omeish

This is related to some of what I was talking about earlier. You guys know, we grew up in a society where everybody is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We believe in this idea of the American Dream, that if you work hard, you can make it in this country. Unfortunately, reality and research has shown us that for many people it is not achievable. Even if they work hard, they might never make it as far as we promised they could. Fundamentally, the American Dream idea is the concept of meritocracy. If you work hard in society, you will move up in that society.

For me growing up, I remember going through public school and realizing it is obvious the kinds of trajectories all these kids were going to go through. For example, in sixth grade I could identify the kid that would probably end up in trouble by the time they were in high school or the kid that needed extra attention because they were not getting it from home. There is no adult that would intervene, and I had seen this throughout the years of us being together as a cohort. It killed me because I would think about that idea of meritocracy and how we claim we are a society that if you work hard, you can make it. I also saw examples that didn’t fit this and examples where kids were not invested in ways, I felt my family invested in me. My mom sacrificed a tremendous amount to be able to raise me and invest in my success, but I didn’t do anything to earn that. I didn’t do anything to deserve that family more than the kid who was struggling in school and whose parents were unable to help him because they didn’t know English or had to work three jobs to put food on the table. At a young age, that is not something that is within our capacity to control, so if we claim that we are a meritocracy and a place where the American Dream is real, why are we not actually cultivating that opportunity.

That is where public education is the first step to this. Our first interaction with local government, or government at all, is the kindergarten classroom because public schools are funded by the government. If we are not, as a system, providing resources and investing in kids in a way that is fair and helps them fulfil their potential and move up to where they can, then we are not starting from an equitable place starting from day one of a child’s life.

That is what led me to think about issues of fairness. I remember seeing a special education kid get kicked out of school for doing something he didn’t even understand was wrong. This is the lack of not humanizing that person. The kinds of experiences, such as a girl in my algebra class having to drop out because her parents could not afford a tutor to support her, lead me to question the American Dream. I would say that we are not a meritocracy, and the American dream does not exist for a lot of people. I want to be a part of making it fairer, which led me to run for school board.

In that context, I found it important to question why people are still in power if these problems are persisting. The people in power are older and wealthier people who are part of the elite and seem out of touch with the realities of these people and do not understand the average needs of vulnerable members of the community, either minorities, low-income people, people with disabilities, or those who do not speak English. That is what really drove me because I felt like I would have a perspective that nobody else would. Unfortunately, in any conversation I have, even if all I do is show up and think about fairness and equity for all different types of communities, that is always a missing piece of the conversation. So, I feel as though there’s always a value to add, which ultimately motivated me to run. I thought the people in power didn’t deserve it, so I decided to be one of them and make it better.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

How long will it take the United States to elect a Muslim woman as president?

Abrar Omeish

Oh, my goodness that's a tall order. I don't know but I remain hopeful because I don't think our grandparent's generation would have ever imagined a Black President and we saw that in our lifetime. So, give it one or two generations, maybe.


Juan Sola-Corbacho

Imagine if tomorrow you wake up and are the new president of the United States, what is the first thing that you would do with that power?

Abrar Omeish

I think I would start an initiative or give an opening speech about healing our community and embracing everyone with all that they come with. I think we've devolved right now and we're in a very critical moment as a society and a nation where the division seems to be more than ever. We have a fundamental lack of understanding of one another and we're not able to humanize each other. Differences are scary to us versus an opportunity and something that's a strength, so I would try to lead with that kind of message and put forward initiatives that cultivate conversations in these communities.



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