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Meet Nabilah Islam, the Bangladeshi American trying to make Georgia progressive

Endorsed by Ilhan Omar and AOC, Islam says she's not just trying to flip her district from red to blue, but from red to progressive
Islam is often called "Atlanta's AOC" in the press, referring to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (Courtesy of Nabilah Islam for Congress)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

Nabilah Islam says her family's one of the lucky ones.

As a teenager, her mother, a working-class immigrant from Noakhali, Bangladesh, literally broke her back while trying to hold down two jobs - flipping burgers at one and stacking boxes onto trucks at a busy warehouse in Atlanta, Georgia at the other.

When her injuries meant she needed time off work, her insurance company tried to deny her benefits. 

Islam says she was on every phone call with the insurance provider, translating and pushing for the company to cover her mother.

"The system tried to take advantage of my mum," she told Middle East Eye. 

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'I think we are the richest country in the world and we should already have a basic form of universal health care implemented'

- Nabilah Islam

Deciding to fight back against what she calls a "broken healthcare system", and eventually winning through a lengthy legal battle, the Bangladeshi American says she fully understands the plight many American families are facing when dealing with corporate America.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, a staggering 39.7 million Americans lived in poverty, according to an estimate from the US Census Bureau.

With more than 40 million Americans having filed for unemployment since the start of the Covid-19 crisis - a number not seen since the Great Depression - the 30-year-old says she is acutely aware of how bad things are, and how bad they could get.

"I fully understand that we could have been one of the families that go bankrupt, the two-thirds of families that go bankrupt in this country because of medical debt," she told MEE.

The incident, she says, led her on a path to where she is now - running for an open seat at the House of Representatives for Georgia's 7th District.

'Atlanta's AOC'

Islam, who identifies as a progressive, has received a deluge of support from notable Democrats and is often referred to by the media as "Atlanta's AOC".

Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez won over voters in New York's 14th congressional district in 2018 with a ruthlessly efficient grassroots campaign that ousted 10-term Democrat Joe Crowley.

"I'm also a progressive in this race - advocating for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and cancelling student debt," she said.

The progressive made headlines earlier this year when she filed a petition to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to allow her to use campaign funds to pay for her health insurance.

"I think we are the richest country in the world and we should already have a basic form of universal health care," she said.

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"And I think my FEC request about making it easier for working-class candidates to run got a lot of attention."

Pushing a platform that includes popular policies, Islam has taken the campaign stage by storm - winning endorsements from California Congressman Ro Khanna and Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

The most recent endorsement from Omar, Islam says, came after the congresswoman believed she had a vision that could work and would "cross the finish line".

"Ro and Ilhan understand that if we want to pass progressive policies in Congress, we're going to have to elect more progressives," she said.

"Both of them were supportive about my candidacy and decided to endorse and I'm honoured to have them on board."

A Muslim on the ballot

A child of Bangladeshi immigrants, Islam said that her Muslim faith is a part of who she is.

"My name's Nabilah Islam - so people know right off the bat that I'm a Muslim woman," she said.

"Being a Muslim, we have a duty to uplift people and seek justice and build a society that reflects dignity and justice... and I'm advocating for that."

'I'm actually the only candidate that grew up in this district. I'm a product of its public schools, I've worked multiple jobs here'

- Nabilah Islam

With 14 major mosques in Georgia's 7th District, Islam says her campaign has also been about making sure voters know what her issues are.

"Many of our parents came to this country to fight for a better life - and they see that's what I'm advocating for.

"They're also really excited that there's a Muslim on the ballot, the fact that they can vote for someone that their values align with."

She noted, however, that it was not until recently that the Muslim community actually believed in her ability to win the election.

"It wasn't until recently that someone said: 'Nabilah, the community is proud of you, but we're finally starting to believe that you can win'," she said.

Georgia's 7th: A majority-minority district

With an open seat this year, Islam's main competition in the six-person Democratic primary is Carolyn Bourdeax, a college professor who narrowly won the Democratic nomination back in 2018, only to lose it to incumbent Rob Woodall by less than 500 votes. Woodhall is not seeking reelection this year. 

Bourdeax has raised more than $1mn in campaign contributions and has received support from Democratic representatives John Lewis and Hank Johnson. Still, Islam says her grassroots campaign, along with having grown up in the community, could give her the edge.

"I'm actually the only candidate that grew up in this district. I'm a product of its public schools. I've worked multiple jobs here," Islam said.

"I very intimately know the community experience."

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Islam also believes that the demographic shift in the district could help her win the election. The district has a majority-minority population, with the number of Black, Asian, and Hispanic Americans outnumbering the number of White Americans.

In 2018, Georgia's Stacey Abrams made history as the first black woman selected by a major party to be a gubernatorial nominee.

Even though she came up short in her race against Republican Brian Kemp, edged out by fewer than 55,000 votes, Islam sees all of this as an advantage.

Abrams won by a heavy margin, more than 14 points, in Gwinnet County, which makes up around 85 percent of Georgia's 7th district.

The congressional candidate sees this as a sign that the district wants a progressive to represent the community, a role that she can fill for them.

"It's a working-class district. It's a district that has been struggling to have more representation," Islam said.

"Folks are really excited at the prospect of having a person of colour that understands the lived experience of the community to represent them in Congress."

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