People to Watch: Zerqa Abid

Erica Thompson

Zerqa Abid could hardly contain her excitement during a late-July interview at My Deah's thrift shop, where she also runs her nonprofit, MY Project USA. She'd received word that Columbus City Council was funding a comprehensive soccer program for youth in Wedgewood Village, a low-income complex in the Hilltop area where seven homicides occurred in 2017. The support will allow Abid to hire coaches and assemble an advisory board of prominent officials in the city.

“It's not just about soccer,” Abid said. “These kids need these successful men. … They are not their same color, but they care for them and they are investing their time and their energy.”

This is just the latest victory in a yearlong battle Abid has been fighting on behalf of the Wedgewood community, which includes a large Somali immigrant population. Through MY Project USA, which Abid founded in 2015 to empower American Muslim youth, she has organized cleaning initiatives, “see something, say something” campaigns and brought government officials to the complex.

“I see myself as their advocate, as their sister, as their auntie, who is protecting their rights,” Abid said of the residents. “I very strongly feel that Wedgewood is going to be a role model community.”

Before Abid became like family to the Wedgewood youth, she was one of a large community of liberal, politically minded women in Karachi, Pakistan. Her mother and aunts were educated, and she was the first woman in her family to wear a hijab — by her own choice. She then became a wife and mother, permanently joining her husband in the U.S. in the mid '90s.

After studying TV production and journalism at North Carolina State University, Abid got a job at an MSNBC affiliate, and helped educate the newsroom on foreign coverage. Next, she managed a TV channel in Pakistan before she and her husband started their own international IT/media business. When the family returned to the U.S., the husband and wife pondered their next career move. 

“There is a special prayer in Islamic faith; they call it Istikhara, which means asking for goodness from God,” Abid said. “So when you are making major life changes, then you especially make this prayer. … I made the prayer for six months every single day.”

Abid's husband finally got a job offer in Columbus, and the family relocated in 2007. Abid's activism began with the Muslim Democrats, galvanizing voters ahead of the 2008 presidential election. “The Columbus Muslim community can swing the election if we organize,” Abid said.

But following the 2016 election, Abid put her political work on hold to focus on Wedgewood. “When you have to choose between election organizing and saving the children, of course you have to save the children,” she said. “And no one else is doing it.”

That is why Abid believes she was destined to come to Columbus. “When I was doing the Istikhara prayer 11 years ago, I was asking God to take me where he needed me the most,” she said. “The work I'm doing today is my calling.”

An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that the Abids' IT/media company shuttered. Alive regrets the error.  

Zerqa Abid

Age: 49

Occupation: Social and political activist, “fighter mom”

Hometown: Karachi Pakistan and Raleigh, North Carolina

Organizations: MY Project USA, Muslims for Ohio PAC, Muslims Against Human Trafficking

Who do you look up to? Umar Ibn Al-Khattab

Twitter: @ZerqaAbid