State Rep. Ruwa Romman on her 2024 legislative priorities and what it means to be the first Muslim woman in the House

Rep. Ruwa Romman, D-Duluth, at her desk on Sine Die, the last day of the 2023 legislative session. (Credit: Georgia House of Representatives).

Rep. Ruwa Romman, D-Duluth, at her desk on Sine Die, the last day of the 2023 legislative session. (Credit: Georgia House of Representatives).

Since the most recent war between Israel and Hamas erupted last month, two of the most prominent voices in the Georgia General Assembly engaging in public dialogue over the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been two freshman Democrats — Rep. Ruwa Romman, who is Palestinian; and Rep. Esther Panitch, who is Jewish. Both have personal ties to the region, and distinctly different perspectives on what’s happening there. 

State Affairs spoke to both legislators last week about their concerns over the conflict and its implications at home, as well as about their current legislative priorities. Today we hear from Romman, and on Tuesday we’ll post our conversation with Panitch.

Rep. Ruwa Romman is a freshman Democrat representing District 97, which includes Gwinnett County and her current hometown of Duluth. A Palestinian born in Amman, Jordan, Romman came to Georgia with her family when she was 7-years-old, growing up in Cumming in Forsyth County, then a mostly-white, conservative area of northeast Georgia marked by decades of racial tension and sporadic white supremacist violence.

“This was the kind of place where my teacher pulled me out of driver’s ed class because he overheard somebody mentioned I’m Palestinian and wanted to interrogate me to make sure I'm not part of Hamas,” recalled Romman, who has worn a head scarf since she was young, despite her parents’ fears for her safety.

“I was really proud of who and what I am, and really just going back to the values of justice and the importance of caring for others,” she said. “These were all core Islamic teachings, but I was growing up at a time where people would warp every single Arabic word into some sort of sinister understanding of my faith — that it was violent, that it was barbaric, that it was horrible, and honestly, we're seeing the same thing happening right now about Palestinians, where everything in our culture and language and lexicon is being deemed violent, because we're allowing these organizations like Isis and Hamas to define Muslims and Palestinians, when we all understand that the KKK doesn't represent Christianity.”

As a child Romman said she tried to teach her classmates “about Islam and how literally the root word is ‘peace.’ The idea that this faith has been twisted in this way was unacceptable to me. I'm also the oldest [child], and incredibly stubborn, and so I have a tendency to just be like ‘No, this is wrong. Let me tell you what's right.’ But at the same time, it [having to explain her religion] robbed me of my childhood. It really took away that sort of innocence that a lot of kids had that I lost very early on because I knew that I was representing something bigger than myself. But at the same time it is just really important for me to help people understand my community.”

With the boom in business and residential growth that has developed along state Highway 400 since the 1990s, Forsyth’s demographics have changed dramatically, and now has a population that is 20% Asian, 10% Hispanic and 5% Black. Romman said her sister, who is 12 years younger, “had a great time in high school. Her class is super diverse.”

Romman spent much of the past decade working and advocating for Muslim-American causes and volunteering for Democratic candidates while completing her education. She attended Oglethorpe University, studying politics, and earned a master’s degree in public policy at Georgetown University.  She also worked for civil rights organizations for several years, and most recently as a consultant for Deloitte, specializing in government affairs.

She took office in January as the first Muslim woman elected to serve in the state Georgia House of Representatives.

The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Tell me about your background and what (and perhaps who) led you to pursue public service, and specifically to serve in the state Legislature.

A. So, I grew up here, went to Oglethorpe University. And this was during Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter's campaigns [for U.S. Senate and governor, respectively]. They did a joint type of thing back then and invited students to get politically involved. And as you know, 90% of political work is grunt work. It's the door knocking. It's the phone calling. … And what I learned was we can literally shift our reality one door at a time. And so many of these policy decisions can be changed by engaging people one door at a time.

And thing number two that I learned was that there was little outreach to Muslim communities, Asian-American communities, communities that historically haven't been engaged politically. And so after that I [got involved with] the Georgia Muslim Voter Project and I was so excited about it because it was a nonprofit and all they did was register people to vote and teach them where and how to vote, and I was stoked because that was what was missing.

So I leaned really heavily into the nonprofit space. At one point I worked for Points of Light to learn how to do some of that fundraising. … As an intern at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, I actually got to give tours to people like John Lewis and Ambassador Andrew Young, and they were basically giving me a tour, let's be honest, but it was probably one of the coolest experiences of my life. I got to dig deep into the civil rights movement to learn things. John Lewis was I think 19 or 20 when he started SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. A lot of these folks were young, but they were disciplined and they were committed and they just had such a clear moral understanding of what was required of us. And to get a chance to talk to them and sit with them and ask them questions was probably one of the greatest honors of my life. 

I mean, everything I do is colored by the civil rights movement in some way, shape or form. … A lot of what I learned — how to register people to vote, how to be civically engaged, how to organize, how to do all of that was from Black movement organizers. And I don't think I would know how to do any of this stuff had it not been for the example that they set.

… And then we're in 2015-2016, it was the height of Trump's candidacy and eventual presidency. So that's when the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Georgia chapter was refounded, and I was one of the five original, I guess, like refounders. Basically, we operationalized the idea of a CAIR chapter here as the only Muslim civil rights organization in the state. This was when the Muslim ban was also implemented. So I was spending time at the airport translating for travelers who were stuck but needed somebody to help with Arabic.  … And what was really interesting to me about that experience and I think what gave me some of the courage to kind of be a little bit more public about my advocacy was that it was a time of heightened hatred, particularly against Muslims. We were getting death threats. I was assigned a GBI agent. We had state reps taking pictures with militia groups that were attending anti-Muslim rallies, and we were getting death threats to local mosques, things like that. And so I feel like that experience took me up a notch in terms of sometimes the cost of this work and what it means. 

Long story short … Shafina Khabani [head of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project] reached out to me and said, ‘We're doing a training for people interested in running for office.’ And I said, ‘Okay,’ and she's like, ‘We really need more people to attend, this is just really important. It's the first of its kind, but we need to have basically more butts in seats.’ And it was on a Zoom call. I was, ‘Fine. I'll do laundry and listen and give you feedback if you're missing anything.’ But a reporter from the AJC was there and she was asking me why should Muslim women be involved politically. Why is it important for this community to stay engaged in the political process? I was like, ‘I love talking about this.’ Her article was published a few months later, on my and my husband’s anniversary, on December 23rd, 2021. And it started with ‘Ruwa Romman is running for office.’

And I was like, I don't even know what district I live in, this is absurd. But the phone calls wouldn't stop and the cajoling wouldn't stop. My Muslim community, my advocacy community, every person who read the AJC that I knew growing up was calling and saying ‘You should run for office.’ And so 15 days later, I launched my campaign.

Rep. Ruma Romman, D-Duluth, worked for Islamic-American advocacy groups prior to serving in the Georgia Legislature.
Rep. Ruma Romman, D-Duluth, worked for Islamic-American advocacy groups prior to serving in the Georgia Legislature. (Credit: Ruwa4Georgia)

Q. And besides all that encouragement, what did you think that you might change or move the needle on?

A. I love digging into the policy, and the things I ran on were things like expanding access to Medicaid, and fixing the economic opportunity gap in our state, and making sure that every child has access to high quality, diverse public school opportunities. And voting rights. I did my masters on the Voting Rights Act and I knew that these laws had a real impact on turnout and so as I've tried to tell people as a state representative, I agreed to do this because those were the things that I knew the most about, those were things that I can engage the best on. So there's my constituents in my district and a broader constituency that is the Muslim and Palestinian community. And the reason I distinguish between the two is because the majority of Palestinians in the U.S. are Christian. And so I’m sort of wearing these multiple hats of state rep and all these different communities were looking to me to learn the process and I was hoping to help them as well.

Q. What are the key issues that you're concerned about, working on, and hope to see legislation address in the next session?

A. I would love to see Medicaid expanded. There's no reason why we haven't done Medicaid expansion. Hospitals are closing all around our state, 50% of counties don't have an OB/GYN. We were just ranked as the worst state for health care in the country by Fortune [magazine], the absolute bottom of the bottom of the list. And to be clear, that also doesn't translate to us paying less for health care. In fact, we pay more than a lot of these higher ranking states in our country. And so health care is an absolute big one for me. I grew up with sporadic access to health care. It was always a problem. 

… Fully funding education. What all people don't understand is these teacher raises are great, this fully funding the QBE [Quality Basic Education] formula was a phenomenal thing that we did, fully funding HOPE [college scholarships] was a phenomenal thing that we did, but this is at the tail end of almost 10-plus years of austerity measures, and now we need to pay to restore these institutions back to where they were. On voting rights, we've got some really awesome experts in our body, particularly folks like [Rep.] Saira Draper [D-Atlanta] who has been professionally doing this work as well. And like I said, I did my masters on the Voting Rights Act and its impact and repealing pieces of it and its impact on turnout, and I will fight every bill in any way shape or form that impacts peoples’ ability to vote. I think, at the end of the day, there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. It just doesn't exist. I mean we have looked at billions of ballots, we have studied an insane amount of races, and every single researcher agrees that this sort of ballot stuffing is just not real. It's this kind of manipulation everyone’s worried about that doesn't exist. 

And closing the economic opportunity gap includes everything from public transportation to raising the minimum wage to ensuring that people have safe working conditions.

Q. Where do you think you may have some traction or hope to get some things done in the House with a Republican majority?

A. If you look at the results of the vote on SB 233, the school voucher bill that failed, a lot of my colleagues understand that for a lot of their constituents, the only thing they can access is their local public school. There is no private school in the area. There's no better alternative. And so they understand the importance of making sure that schools are taken care of. That if they are crumbling, they get fixed and that we are able to give every child the education that they should be having access to. Things like that. I think the idea of how do we prevent hospitals from closing? That's something we all agree on, right? People don't want to live in an area where they don't have access to a hospital because, God forbid, all of us are prone to accidents, illnesses, and emergencies. These are things that impact us on a human level. Obviously do we disagree on how we fix those things? Totally. But what I've noticed at least working on the House side, we kind of have to learn how to work together better. And I find people are at least willing to engage in the conversation and consider different possibilities. It doesn’t always translate to votes on the House floor, but it has translated into moving some things through committee.

Q. What would you say are the top lessons learned or key takeaways after your first 11 months of being in the Legislature?

A. One of the best lessons I have learned is that even when you can't decide what is coming to the House floor, you can still do a lot of good as a state representative. One of my favorite things is constituent services. I have access to points of contact that most people in the general public don't have, and so when somebody comes to me and says, ‘Hey, this thing is stuck somewhere,’ I can literally help unstick it. 

Q. The war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is far away from Georgia, but close to your heart. You've been quite vocal on social media and elsewhere about the conflict. What is important for people in Georgia to understand about this latest chapter in the complex, 75-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict? 

A. So, it's weird because I feel like the personal is the professional right now, and I'm really good about separating the two, and I've been unable to do so. On a personal level, I really am taking it day by day. There are days where I can't sleep, I can't function, but simultaneously I have to anyway, because every single day I'm getting text messages, a phone call, a Facebook post, something from a community member who's lost 10, 20, 50 family members, and I'm not exaggerating here. This is an occurrence that happens every single day for me.

We are seeing the conversation evolve in the way that it has because for the first time there are way more people in the United States that know a Palestinian or somebody impacted by this than ever before. And to give you an understanding, I just held a series of open office hours in my district, mostly to talk about redistricting stuff and what to expect. Naturally people also wanted to talk about what's going on [with Israel and Gaza]. And this was the first time for me as a Palestinian where people understood that this chapter didn't start on Oct. 7. It was a horrible new chapter. It's just distressing in every way for everybody. But it was so interesting to me to hear back from my constituents who were seeing what’s happening in Gaza right now is unacceptable. Some people understand the argument that Israel needs to respond and defend itself, but we've now shifted from defense to a much different and much more sinister … people are recognizing that just as every other country in the world, Israel is currently experiencing a dysfunctional far-right government that is attempting to take advantage of a tragedy for political gain. Israel is not unique here. It's just unique in the fact that this issue matters to so many people outside of the country. 

And with that personal piece of so much pain and so much anguish and so much suffering, on the flip side I have to figure out how do I connect what I'm hearing from my community to the people who can actually do something about it, because as a state representative, I have little to no jurisdiction on international issues. And as I've tried to explain to my colleagues, we have a duty to make sure that people who represent us are doing what we need them to do. And 80% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans support a ceasefire. How do we ensure that's happening? And at the same time making sure that those who try to take advantage of this moment are not rewarded for it, because we've already seen it. People are focusing on college kids and college campuses, sometimes completely lying about what these kids are saying … I am currently getting messages from Jewish students, pro-Palestinian allies, you name it, who are getting doxxed right now on their college campuses, and they're getting little to no recourse. But the way the conversation has been happening you would think that only one group of people is misbehaving or only one group of people is acting out or only one group of people is dealing with this and frankly for me, these are college kids, right? Like the idea that anybody would in any way leverage their platforms as fully functioning adults and members of society to target kids is just so out of balance for me. 

… It's uncomfortable to deal with the fact that our [America’s] policies and tax dollars are causing mass suffering and it's almost like people are just so much more comfortable with what's trending. They would just much rather talk about college kids on campuses versus literally what's happening around the world in a way that a lot of us haven't ever been exposed to before. There are people in Gaza whose main priority is keeping their cell phones going because they want to document what's happening. We've never seen that before. We've never seen young content creators who are all under the age of 30 and who are calling the world, they are so desperate for people to believe them and believe their suffering, but they're prioritizing that over everything else, and I think that has dramatically shifted the conversation in a way that even as a Palestinian, I'll be honest with you, I didn't expect it. But there are places and rooms that I enter where I expect people to be hostile or unkind and sure, I've gotten the hate messages, but for every hateful message, I've received 10 in support. And it's from around the district. People have been beyond kind and they have been more willing to listen than I've ever seen in my entire life.

Q. What does it mean to you for Gov. Brian Kemp to announce that he was sending an additional $10 million to support Israel's defense, and flying the flag at half staff in the wake of the Hamas attack?

A. There's nothing wrong with mourning with people who have experienced loss. I want to be very, very clear on this. I refuse to lose my humanity as we go through all of this, as if I don't care. It is hard and it is awful. Is there a power imbalance here? Absolutely, but that doesn't change the fact that if people are mourning with others and they are showing empathy and sympathy for something that's horrible, that is a good thing. We need more of that. We need more people to do that.

What I personally struggle with is this sort of unequivocal support for a foreign government on top of all of that. We are sending Georgia taxpayers’ funds while our hospitals are closing and when we can't afford to give people health care and where schools are really struggling right now, and we're constantly being told that we can't pay for something, we don't have it in the budget. From my understanding one of the line items that we had that the governor vetoed was for free lunches and breakfast. And the cost of that was about $10 million. … and we’ve now done [total] bond purchases of $50 million [for Israel]. And so my question is if my only job as a state representative is the budget, then what does that say when something like that can happen without our consent as a legislative body? So not only are we engaging on this in a way that is for me as a Palestinian incredibly unfair, and I think harmful, but on top of that we are also simultaneously telling Georgians that ‘I'm sorry. We can't afford to give you things like food and health care.’ That is infuriating to me on so many levels, because I'm a Georgian. I live here. I want my communities to thrive and what you're telling me is on top of the position you've chosen to take on this, you're also going to take money that my communities needed away. So it was really upsetting. I was also particularly upset at the fact that it doesn't seem to me like he's [Kemp] willing to say the word Palestinian. He had done an interview, and he said my thoughts and prayers go out to Israelis, Americans and ‘other people.’

So, this is infuriating. I actually know Palestinians here in Georgia who are massive business owners, very wealthy, that have raised a ton of money for this man and supported his campaign and made sure he got elected. And he won't even meet with them. He won't even engage with us. He won't even say that we're Palestinians, and it's maddening because I know this is personal for a lot of people. I know it's a really hard conversation but part of our jobs isn't to make complicated an already-complicated conversation. Is it to further muddy the waters? Our job if we take it seriously is to take care of the people that we have a responsibility to, and not only are we not doing that, we are actively hurting a large constituency in Georgia. 

The coalition that’s emerging on this, I've never seen anything like this in my entire life, and I'm talking about Jewish allies who express incredible solidarity … I literally had a Jewish family attend one of my office hours who just wanted to engage in dialogue and they were genuinely open to the conversation and actually understood what I was trying to tell them. It's multiracial, it's multifaith, it's multigenerational. I cannot begin to fully express that in my 30 years of life I’ve never seen anything like this before and I think it would do us good to understand that shift and lean into it because there are some clear moral positions here, right? We can say killing children is bad. We can say killing innocent people, including the men who are currently trying to pull people out of the rubble with their bare hands – is wrong. We are now seeing entire families are being wiped off the face of the Earth. We can collectively say these things are bad and that is not an extreme position and it is one that is accepted by the majority of people in our country.

Q. If HB 30 is revived, or if we have another bill aimed at defining antisemitism introduced in the next session, what are the key elements that such legislation should include or perhaps not include and why?

A. The unfortunate reality is that there are some people taking advantage of every situation to push a political agenda, and I want to be very clear about this because I've seen a lot of news coverage about all the awful things that are happening in Cobb County and in Atlanta with the [antisemitic] flyers and the really hateful messages and full-on Nazi flags are being flown in front of synagogues. That is important and disgusting. I want that on every record everywhere humanly possible. My concern with these bills is that they don't actually address those things because first the person has to commit a crime and a lot of these things are happening in public places.

… So every time you see a headline where it's like this thing happened and that's why we need [legislation], by the sponsors’ own admission during committee hearings, it will not address those things. What it will do is it will criminalize speech as it relates to criticism of the state of Israel because it conflates anti-Israel sentiments with anti-Jewish sentiments. And are there times where that could happen, 100%, if you're going after a synagogue that the only reason you've gone after it is because it's a synagogue. And if you're collectively punishing a group of people for the actions of another government, that is a bad thing to do and people should not be doing it. But if somebody for example counter-protested an event for the state of Israel, are they doing it because they're antisemitic? Or are they doing it because they believe that what Israel is doing is wrong? Those things are complicated and we have to parse them out. 

And so what I look for in this legislation is one, does it conflate anti-Israel sentiments with antisemitism? If so, I’m not going to support it. … I know this is much more difficult for the Jewish community, because people interpret Zionism in very different ways. And what I've tried to explain to people is that the first Zionists I ever met were Christian leaders from a megachurch in Forsyth County. I hadn't met Jewish Zionists growing up until much later in my lifetime. And so when you conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, I really struggle with that and I've been very clear about this growing up as a Palestinian. My grandfather always taught us that our problem was not with the Jewish people. He had Jewish neighbors. There is no Holy Land without Judaism or the Jewish community being in the Holy Land. His problem was the idea that somehow he does not have a claim to the land and that somehow he is less than anybody else who has a claim to the land.

And that ideology of supremacy is what so many of us have a problem with.  It’s already complicated, right? It’s already difficult and to be very clear, antisemitism is on the rise.   There are people pushing this bill who do see criticism of the state of Israel as antisemitic, period full stop. It is a Jewish homeland and they see criticism of it [as you] hate the Jewish people. And as I've explained to people, my family didn't lose everything because of Jewish people. They lost everything when they were kicked out of their homeland. It's the action and it's the policy, not the faith and ethnicity. It's really, really important to distinguish between those two things.

Rep. Ruwa Romman (D-Duluth), her husband Shahzaib Jiwani and dog Balto.
Rep. Ruwa Romman with her husband Shahzaib Jiwani and dog Balto (Credit: Ruwa Romman).

Q. Your work as a legislator can impact many people's lives and must feel consequential and perhaps even stressful at times. When you're not working, what do you do to unwind, free your mind and conjure up some joy?

A. Right now my focus is to get more sleep and eat better. But I've really gotten into running — long, slow runs that have become meditative for me. It's almost like it unravels my mind for the day and helps me just organize my thoughts. As everybody knows, I'm a huge Swiftie; it’s been my thing, since I was 12. It has become part of my brand. … “Miss Americana” is my favorite song and it’s a political allegory all tied up into a high school story. And so one of my favorite things to do when I have time for it, is to put on some Taylor Swift and cook a nice meal and just take a beat. But even when I can't, just getting an option to engage in something that is less serious has been just really awesome. I also love reading.

The ruwa romman file

Position: Representative, District 97 (D-Duluth/Gwinnett County)

Age: 30

Birthplace: Amman, Jordan

Current residence: Duluth

Education: B.A. in politics from Oglethorpe University, Masters in Public Policy from Georgetown University

Career path: Worked for nonprofits including the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and Points of Light; advocacy organizations including the Council on American-Islamic Relations,Georgia chapter and the Islamic Speakers Bureau, in communications and strategic roles; and most recently, as a consultant for Deloitte, specializing in governmental affairs.

Family: Husband Shahzaib Jiwani, two cats (Itsy and Olive), and two dogs (Balto and Riley). 

Hobbies/passions outside work: Reading, running, Taylor Swift.

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Correction: This story has been updated to correct that Romman said Gov. Kemp said his thoughts and prayers go out to "Israelis, Americans and 'other people',” not “Israeli-Americans, and 'other people',” as published in a previous version. The story is also updated to correct the anniversary date of Romman and her husband, which is Dec. 23, not Dec. 21.