Talking with Congressional Candidate Nida Allam on Grieving and Leadership
In this interview, I speak with congressional candidate Nida Allam on grieving and leadership. Nida has experienced a variety of losses, from the murder of her close friends to a recent ectopic pregnancy, and has chosen to serve the public as she grieves. Watch the interview or read the transcript below, and if you like content like this that helps you learn how to grieve, don't forget to subscribe to my blog at the bottom of this page.
REBECCA FEINGLOS: Welcome to Grieve Leave, Let’s Talk. I’m Rebecca Feinglos, and I’m the founder of GrieveLeave.com. I’m your guide to grief and grieving as I’m taking a lot of time this year to focus on my feelings after some big personal losses: My dad’s sudden death at the start of the pandemic, my mom’s passing 20 years ago from cancer, and now going through a divorce in my 30s.
One of the ways that I’m learning about grieving this year is through interviewing some people who are incredible and who have also grieved out loud. I’m sharing that learning with all of you.
Today we are learning together from congressional candidate Nida Allam. Nida is a county commissioner in my hometown of Durham, North Carolina. She’s the first Muslim woman ever in elected office in my state. Nida is currently running for Congress. She’s been endorsed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, and previously served as the political director for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, And, if that wasn’t enough, she even served as vice chair of the Democratic party of my state. When she is elected, Nida will be the first woman and person of color to represent this congressional seat, the first Pakistani-American member of Congress, the first Muslim member of Congress from the south, and she will be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, so I can’t wait for that.
On a more personal note, I am so lucky to call Nida my friend. I’ve been inspired by her from day one of getting to know her, especially in how she’s been a leader for change through her grief after the tragic murder of her friends, Deah, Yuzor, and Razan in Chapel Hill in 2015, which, Nida, I know you’ll talk more about.
I just have to start off by saying welcome! I’m so happy to see your face. And I have to say congratulations on your pregnancy announcement! I know y’all must be so excited.
NIDA ALLAM: Thank you so much, Becki. And thank you so much for making this space, and having these difficult conversations. Because it’s necessary, it’s important for folks to be able to have a support system, and someone to look up to and reach out to like you.
Oh my gosh, well I admire you. I have just been touched by you as a leader from the moment I heard you speak, even before I met you. And that’s really why I wanted us to get the chance to talk together this evening. Let’s dive in!
Grief, for you, is something you actually talk about pretty openly in terms of being a big impetus for you getting involved in politics. Walk us through that. Take us back to 2015 and set the stage for us, tell us what was going on in your life at that time, and what happened in 2015.
In 2015 I was in my final year of undergrad. My whole life was ahead of me. My friends, we were planning what we were going to do after graduation. Our friends like Deah and Yuzor were starting their new lives together. They were the first of my friend group to get married. We had just celebrated their wedding seven weeks prior. And like two weeks prior we had just competed in a flag football tournament, me and Yuzor, where we came in first place in the girls’ league. Everything about our life was youthful. Me and Razan were actually planning that week to go to Chapel Hill, pick up Yuzor, and go get ear piercings together.
And all of those things, fun, joyous moments, and everything that we had to look forward to, were completely taken away from us, without any expectation. No one imagines losing their best friends in their early 20s. Especially after you just celebrated a wedding. Our entire community was so excited to be able to celebrate them because we’ve grown up together. This was the future of our generation. Our parents were finally feeling this moment – all of our parents were immigrants. They came to this country to provide a better future for us. They were able to provide us with the best education. Now they were starting to see their kids start their lives.
And, if you can share with us – describe the moment that you found out what happened, and what that triggered in you at the time. What were those first few weeks like? Maybe you can share a little bit more about the murder and tell us what happened in the immediate aftermath.
When I found out—that day, I remember so many of these details vividly. I had a final exam, and Razan had texted me before I went into my exam, asking me if I was coming with her to Chapel Hill. I was like, “No, I’m going into an exam, but I’ll text you right after.” I left the exam, I headed home, and then Towqir [Nida’s partner] when I got home starts texting me. He was like, “Hey, have you heard from Yuzor or Razan?” And I was like “No, I talked to Razan a few hours ago—she was headed over to Yuzor’s.” He was being very vague. I was like, “Why, what’s up?” And he was like, “There’s been a shooting at the Lake Forest apartments, and no one has been able to get in touch with Deah.” So all of those guys in the Muslim community were trying to get in touch with Deah. They were reaching out to the girls to find out if anyone was close and able to reach Yuzor or Razan. It turned into all of us frantically texting, me texting all of our mutual friends, “Have you guys heard from them?” And none of my friends had even known there was a shooting. Because all of our friends were NC State students, and most of Deah’s friends were on UNC’s campus at that point, so they knew about it before the rest of us. So I was the one who was unfortunately breaking the news to our friends that something had happened. We were trying to figure out if it was them, because all we knew is that there was a shooting. They didn’t give any names. And then it reached the point where the media I think reported the apartment number, and that’s when everything started to become more real. But even at that point, we just knew it was a shooting. We didn’t know they were gone.
I ran to my parents’ room, I remember. My dad was trying to calm me down because I was hysterical—like I couldn’t even speak. I was trying to explain what was happening. When I told my mom, my aunt was visiting at the time, and they didn’t understand. No one could understand a shooting. They thought there was like a car accident or something, and somebody got hurt. My mom quickly put me in the car, and we drove to the apartment complex. All of our friends were just like “Let’s just go there.” We’re not getting any information from anyone else.
We showed up, and they put all of us – the apartment complex had this community center place in the front. All of the family and friends were just sitting there for hours. It wasn’t until after midnight, 1AM, when finally the police pulled the families into a separate room to finally tell them what had happened. Up until that point, it was all of us sitting there, knowing—we had overheard, eavesdropping the police officers whispering to each other details about what was happening. That was how everyone was piecing things together, that Deah, Yuzor, and Razan were all gone.
What an awful experience, and I’m so sorry that all of you experienced that. I’m so sorry for their families. In that moment of finally piecing things together—it’s not grief you feel right at the beginning. Can you describe what it felt like at the very beginning? Maybe shock?
I think for all of us, we were just holding on to so much hope. We kept hearing, “Shooting, shooting, shooting,” but we hoped we would hear news that yes, they were injured, but they were in stable condition, that something was going to be able to be done. There was this hope that kept fleeting as the time kept passing on…If that were the case, then they would tell us something.
So then it sinks in that these people that you love are gone. At what point do you feel like that hope pivoted for you, and it started to settle in—did that take days? When did it finally sink in that you were starting to feel grief?
I think after the funeral was when it really started to sink in. Because, again, all of us were in this state of shock. And even the funeral was so surreal because it was nothing like any of us had ever experienced. We had experienced losing our grandparents. Or family members that maybe we had more preparation, time to be ready to say goodbye. Like, if they had illnesses. But at their funerals, there were over 6,000 people or something who showed up for the funeral. It was on a soccer field. The NC State soccer field—it’s across from the Raleigh masjid, and they allowed us to use that space. And then going to the cemetery, you never go to a funeral where they’re burying three bodies at the same time.
And then it was a really odd experience because at the same time there was press, and everyone there. I remember Yuzor and Razan’s friends, as they were burying Yuzor and Razan, all of us were lined up alongside their graves, and they just kept sticking cameras in our face, trying to take pictures in those moments. And we just wanted to be able to stand there and make prayer.
To grieve. Wow. 6,000 people is – what a community showing, coming together to grieve together, and feel that together. I can’t imagine. I didn’t live in the state at the time, but I remember reading about everything in the news. This made national news. President Obama talked about this. And I feel like the nation was grieving.
Let’s talk about you, now and pivot. At what point did you decide “I’m going to take action with my grieving, I’m going to do something with my grieving.” Because you made that choice. When did that happen for you?
With all of our friends, we were in this state of shock. We didn’t get a chance to truly mourn our friends in the early days because it was that shock and sadness but then also this anger of why are they minimizing our friends’ lives to a parking dispute? The fact that their murderer’s words were the ones that were being repeated by the press and labeled as the truth. That they were the ones who were causing problems, that they had parked in his spot, when there was proof that that wasn’t a fact. But that was still what elected officials, police chiefs, the press, all ran with. And it was us, this community that’s already grieving, having to fight back that narrative. We knew that this man had threatened Deah, Yuzor, and Razan, especially after Yuzor started to move in—those incidents increased. That when she would have her friends over, he had shown up and flashed his gun at them before. But none of those things were taken into consideration in the early days.
What really triggered it for me was always Yuzor and Razan’s parents. They lost their two daughters. And the strength that they showed throughout all of it—they were shattered and broken. But all they ever would ask us was “Please keep their legacy alive. Do not let anyone forget their names.”
Is that why you got involved in politics? To keep their legacy alive?
Yeah, because their parents did so much for us, even when they were grieving. They would constantly ask—they would reach out to us, the friends, asking us “How are you guys doing?” And open up their home to us. And make space for us to grieve, when they were going through much, much, much worse. They gave us our best friends. They raised our best friends. It’s the least that we could do.
This is why I think you are such a passionate leader. You lead with this feeling. You lead with this conviction. You talk about them in every speech that I’ve heard you give. Can you talk to me more about how has your grieving for your friends changed over time? Let’s say from your first decision to get involved in the state democratic party—were you thinking of them actively at that time? To now, today, you’re running for Congress and you’re still talking about them. Walk me through that.
When I first started getting involved in the Bernie [Sanders] campaign, my biggest thing was I felt like we were failed as a Muslim community, as an immigrant community, by our elected officials. No one was coming out and speaking up the way that we needed, and providing us with care – the “we have your back, we have your community’s back.” We felt siloed and isolated, and that’s happened to Muslim communities and immigrant communities before. I started looking and saw that there were elections coming up. Who actually speaks about us? Not in these stereotypical, polarizing ways, but actually looks at us as the proud Americans that we are. The people that our parents raised us to be, to want to achieve the American dream.
And that’s what resonated with me so much about Bernie. It was the fact that he would always, in his grumpy tone, say “We’re all here because we believe in economic and social justice.” It’s not for one individual or the other. It’s for all of us. And that really resonated with me, and it really resonated with our community. We saw more Muslims starting to get involved in politics because of Senator Sanders, and the way he talked about minority communities and communities that had been left behind.
When I was elected vice-chair of the state party, my biggest project for those four years was how do we get these communities that have been left behind more activated, not just around election cycles. We’ll see these campaigns show up, ask for our votes, and then forget about us, after they’ve been elected, after they’ve gotten our votes to win their seats. Throughout the duration of my tenure, we had sit-downs with Congressman David Price, and we would bring religious community leaders to talk to him about the issues that were facing us locally. But also, we have a lot of family members that still live overseas, and this is how the United States foreign policy impacts us. Having those conversations…We hosted the first Iftar in the history of North Carolina in the Governor’s mansion. We have the interfaith caucus, we are constantly bringing together people of different faith backgrounds to just have conversations about climate change. Have conversations about Medicaid expansion. Things that are impacting us every single day. But we don’t have resources or ways to know how to reach out to our elected officials, and this is breaking those barriers down.
I feel like you living your life as a Muslim woman who is proud and who is leading on behalf of immigrant communities, the Muslim community across North Carolina—what a powerful way to honor your friends’ legacies, Nida. I hope that you feel so proud of the way that you’ve been grieving. Because what I see you do, is you’re grieving as a leader. You’re grieving by leading. And not everyone can do that. That takes a really special person. It’s why I’ve been really inspired by you from day one.
Can I ask—I’m watching the time, and I want to be respectful. It’s a busy primary season for you! But I do want to ask a question about comparative grieving, here. You’ve been very open with your struggles of pregnancy loss. And I wonder if you can share a little bit about what that grief and grieving process has felt like for you. Is it different – to what extent is it different from the grief and grieving that you’ve been feeling and doing for your friends.
With my pregnancy loss, it was a very strange time to go through it. Because it was still at the peak of COVID. Even going through my fertility treatments was difficult because they had put me on a waitlist because they couldn’t take in as many patients into the clinic because of COVID restrictions. They couldn’t have as many people in the office. So I was on a waiting list for a couple of months before I was able to get in. Finally, I was able to go in. I had gone through, I think it was my second or third round, where this fertility treatment worked. And it was kind of strange, because I didn’t actually get to experience or learn about the loss in the doctor’s office. Because, again, they couldn’t bring me in for every single checkup and bloodwork results reading. So I would come in, I would take my bloodwork, and I would leave. And they had been monitoring my bloodwork to see my hormone levels. They had started to rise because the pregnancy was starting to grow. And then they noticed a drop. They were like, “Ok, we’re going to keep monitoring—sometimes that can happen. We’re going to wait a couple of days, four or five days.” Then I went back again, and they’re like, “Ok, it’s dropped again.”
And they called me, and my nurse was absolutely amazing. She was really, really supportive, and really apologetic, because she wished she was able to be there when she was sharing that news. That my hormone levels had dropped by half—it had cut in half, which proved that the pregnancy was not viable by any means. And I remember I was lying in bed, my husband Towqir was still in class when I received the call.
You were by yourself.
Yeah. And the nurse felt so helpless too because she was there on the phone like, “Do you want me to stay on the phone with you? Do you have questions,” trying to comfort me. But I was just – it’s not the same. And then it reached the point, we were trying to figure out what is possible, what’s going to happen next. Then we found out that the pregnancy, we didn’t just lose it—it was ectopic, and it wasn’t resolving itself. Because then my hormones started spiking a little bit up, and going back down. And they were like, ok this pregnancy is not resolving itself. They tried to let me wait a little bit. They were like, “We can keep waiting to see if your hormone levels drop down to zero,” but then it eventually reached the point where they were like, “it’s not—at this point, it’s going to cause health problems for you, and we need to take action.”
And that was another really difficult decision, because even though I knew it wasn’t viable, in the back of my head, I was still thinking, maybe, just maybe. I was asking the doctor questions like, “Is there any way we could try to…” They kept saying “pregnancy of unknown location,” so I was like, “is there any way that we could move the baby to the uterus?” And they were like “No, that’s just not possible.” They were like, “You have to receive the medical abortion to make sure that you’re able to go through another fertility treatment safely, again, and to make sure it doesn’t escalate and become any more [harmful] to your life.”
…My sister really stepped in at that point, because I was really bad at asking questions at the doctor’s office. And she started coming with me, and she would ask a million – she would bring pieces of paper with her research that she would just [ask] all of the questions to the doctor. [She] and my husband were both there with me when I had the medical abortion, to be able to be there for a support system. I was supposed to be on bed rest for like a week after that. It was just a lot of—it was strange, because it was all so scientific.
Doesn’t allow a lot of room for feeling, usually, right? But did you grieve? I mean, did you feel like you had the space to grieve? Did you create that space?
Yeah, and I think it was really interesting because we had wanted it for so long. My husband was also grieving, and we grieved in very different ways, which was a very interesting experience. He’s someone who, I think, in that moment of time—like, I talk about emotion, I talk about my grief, but I think in that period, I think my grief was different where I didn’t want to talk about it to anyone. We had some family members and friends who wanted to visit, and I was like, “I really don’t want to.” Because I knew that they would be emotional about it. We are, now, Towqir and I, are bringing in the first grandchild of the family in. And it’s the first baby of the new generation for his side of the family. So I was like, I’m not ready to communicate with everyone. I felt like I had let our family down, even though I knew I hadn’t. But I just didn’t want to talk to people about that.
Towqir’s way of grieving was very different, where he needed to talk through it. It was a struggle because we were together but we were grieving in completely different ways.
I’m sure you learned a lot about each other in trying to reconcile two different grieving styles coming together.
My sister being there for us was so helpful because my husband was able to talk to her through his grief. And that allowed me my space to be able to grieve more quietly and in private.
How fascinating, because that is a different style of grieving than how you seemed to grieve for your friends. And yet, you wrote about your ectopic pregnancy and your medical abortion for Teen Vogue. You could argue that that’s grieving, by sharing your story. So what changed? What made you want to grieve out loud about that too?
When I was grieving quietly in the early stages, I kind of started—I’m not a journal or diary person, but in that moment I couldn’t speak about how I was feeling, so I just started jotting down notes about how I was feeling. And that kind of stemmed into more and more, and eventually me deciding [to post] that I had gone through ectopic pregnancy. And I was overwhelmed by how many women had reached out saying that they had been through that and they had never felt comfortable or safe in speaking up about it. And then the N&O did a story on it. I would walk in Durham, and people would say “We ready your story. We suffered the same thing. And we thought we were broken.” Even now when I’m pregnant, I was at an event yesterday, and a former councilwoman came up to me and she was just beaming, and she was like, “I’m just so glad people are having these conversations more openly now, because we weren’t able to have these conversations when I was younger.”
Your grieving out loud has helped so many people, Nida. And your leading through your grief has been an inspiration to so many. I am grateful that you took the time to be here with me for Grieve Leave. Last thought—I know you’ve got to go. Is there any advice you would give to someone who is grieving right now? Just from what you’ve learned in your life and the grief that you’ve felt.
Yeah, I think kind of what we just last talked about. Different moments lead you to grieve in different ways, and I don’t think there’s any wrong or right way to grieve. You have to listen to your body. You have to listen to how your heart needs to heal and mend. I think it’s important for you to have a support system or try to find a support system, whether it’s friends, family, or a therapist. Or any sort of outlet that you have—it might even just be exercise. For me, it is not. But it’s what helps you get through it in a way that you’re most comfortable with, and not to allow anyone to tell you how you’re supposed to grieve.
Beautiful. That is perfect, Nida. Thank you so, so much for joining us today! Make sure to follow Nida’s campaign at www.nidaallam.com. Vote for her before May 17th if you live in district 4. And don’t forget to subscribe and follow my blog if you liked this and want more grieving content at www.grieveleave.com. Thanks so much for joining, and grieve on, friends!