Somia Elrowmeim, founder and president of the Brooklyn-based Union for Arab Women (UAW), a grassroots political organization designed to support Muslim women and social justice, is one of 14 Brooklyn finalists for the much sought after The David Prize.
The David Prize works to award visionary New Yorkers with grand altruistic ideas that push for change in the city, especially in disadvantaged and disenfranchised communities.
Elrowmeim is a Yemeni immigrant who came to the U.S back in 2006. She said that she dreamt of a new life in New York, but was met with a different reality.
“It’s completely different [from] how I dream about, I felt like I have to stand for my rights, and I have to fight and speak up. And it wasn’t easy for other students,” she said about incidents with a Long Island University professor she and her other Muslim friends encountered years ago. “This is the country of freedom that I know and read about, but honestly, you have to fight to get your freedom.”
The disillusionment of her American dream deepened after the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, said Elrowmeim, spurring her into action against his blatant anti-muslim agenda and travel bans.
She said that her daughter hardly felt safe in the city wearing a hijab, which is a religious head covering that women can choose to wear in honor of their Islamic faith. “Especially with the Muslim ban, I felt like I cannot bring my family, my brothers and sisters. Our country back home in Yemen was going through a war and it was really difficult,” said Elrowmeim about the executive order that banned foreigners from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
From protesting the ban at Borough Hall, Elrowmeim went on to found the UAW and became a powerhouse in Brooklyn politics by inspiring Muslim women in her community to get involved and be more independent.
They backed Khader El-Yateem, the first Palestinian-American Democratic candidate who ran against Councilman Justin Brannan (D-Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Bath Beach) for District 43 in 2017. They’ve endorsed Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Jamaal Bowman for Democratic nominee for New York’s 16th congressional district, State Senator Andrew Gounardes for his 22nd District 2018 race and coming re-election, and Tahanie Aboushi for the Manhattan District Attorney race.
“I’m so proud to be endorsed by the Union of Arab Women and look forward to continuing to organize together for communities where everyone — no matter who they are, where they came from or what their religion is— feels welcome. Somia made a big impact in the 2018 election and since then has been an excellent community partner and advocate for our local Muslim communities. I’m proud to have this support and look forward to continuing to work with UAW to improve our neighborhoods,” said State Senator Andrew Gounardes (D-Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, Gravesend, Gerritsen Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Marine Park).
“We’re not going to keep being silent,” said Elrowmeim, “This is our right and we know what the Constitution says.”
She spoke about the immense stress that Muslim women face culturally, including the same harrowing instances of increased domestic violence, hate crimes, and social injustices that many other demographics have suffered in the U.S and abroad. Particularly speaking in support of Black, Latina, and Chinese women that have faced overt racism, sexism, and economic hardships, she said, at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis and Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think the framing of what Somia’s trying to do is not just empowering for women and giving them an opportunity, especially during a declining economy, Somia’s idea is about a cooperative. Women having ownership over their skills and over their products,” said Palestinian-American political activist Linda Sarsour in a recent instagram post.
Elrowmeim’s David Prize idea continues her social justice work for women by envisioning a business cooperative, in the form of a bakery, for and by Muslim women that utilizes their technical and economic skills. She hopes to solve issues within the workplace that language barriers, lack of childcare, religious discrimination, and in some cases violence against women, can exacerbate. “We want our women to be leaders who are independent and speak freely about what they want and what they need,” said Elrowmeim.
Elrowmeim spoke of Muslim women who flee to shelters with their children because they can’t find jobs or need to escape strained relationships, end up feeling unsafe. “One of the woman, I refer her to the shelter and she has a baby, she had to take her hijab off because she didn’t feel safe,” said Elrowmeim.
Sarsour said that she is thankful for The David Prize because not a lot of people are investing in refugees, immigrants, females or people of color’s ideas.
“This idea of women supporting women. I think oftentimes women are taught to be in competition,” said Sarsour. “I always say when one woman succeeds, I succeed too.”