When Town of Hempstead Clerk Nasrin Ahmad was 6, her teacher in England couldn’t pronounce her name. So, instead, he called her “my little brown one.”
“It wasn’t done in a malicious way,” Ahmad, 60, of Salisbury, said. “It was done with love, but he didn’t know that it hurt me.”
Ahmad’s mother, Zarina Begum, was a stay-at-home mother who raised five children by herself, after Ahmad’s father, Noor Alam Ginai, died in a car accident in her birth country, Uganda, when she was 4. Soon after, Ahmad’s family moved to England.
During recess at her school in a small English village, children taunted Ahmad. “Your skin is brown because you don’t shower,” one child said. “Brown girl! Brown girl!” another taunted.
One memory, in particular, was seared in Ahmad’s mind. Her mother came to pick her up at school one day. “She was wearing a traditional kameez — the loose pants and long, flowing shirts — when all of a sudden I saw kids pointing at her,” Ahmad recalled.
“Why is she wearing her PJs outside?” the children asked. They laughed. “I was mortified,” Ahmad said. She closed her eyes. “Mortified.”
Those early memories have helped shape her career, including her decision to run for office. She said she sees the importance of fighting for the underrepresented, those without a voice, to ensure that all people are treated fairly.
A leader is born
Ahmad was born in Tororo, Uganda, in 1957. Because Uganda was a protectorate of the British Empire at the time, she was a British citizen. Her family relocated to England in 1963 after her father died. She lived in Kent County, England, for 20 years before relocating to the United States in 1984.
“I couldn’t find anybody to marry me,” Ahmad laughed. “So I told my brothers to go find me someone to marry, and they found my wonderful husband.”
She married Naeem, a Pakistani engineer who lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The pair moved to Salisbury in the mid-’80s to raise their three children, all whom attended the East Meadow schools. Ahmad founded the Human Dignity Committee after joining the Bowling Green Parent Teacher Association and finding a lack of diverse representation in the group.
Parents of English as a Second Language students “weren’t attending the meetings,” she recalled. “And it wasn’t because they were busy or didn’t care. It was because they couldn’t understand a single English word.”
So she made sure to pair parents with others who knew their native languages and English so they could get help with translations. “We all came together in my living room, and it was so beautiful to see so many cultures,” she said.
But the transition to a new country with different customs was difficult at first for Ahmad. Each time she felt alienated, the rush of emotion that she experienced on an English playground all those years earlier crept back into her mind.
“After Daddy died, Mummy took care of all my siblings and myself,” she said. “That day at the playground, I begged her not to come for me anymore. I told her that kids teased me because of the color of my skin, and rather than put a racist spin on the situation, my mother said, ‘But darling, they don’t have diversity here. You are special.’”
Her mother then uttered a small sliver of truth that Ahmad said has pushed her to where she is today. “She told me, ‘Honey, you will always have to work harder than the rest of the world.’”
“I’m reminded of my mummy’s words each time I face adversity,” Ahmad said. “That feeling from the playground, and my mother’s words, have carried me to success.”
‘By the grace of God’
“Since that conversation with my mother, I learned two things,” Ahmad said. “I have two strikes against me. I’m a woman and I’m non-white.
“I am a Muslim woman,” she continued. “I’m proud of my religion. It’s a beautiful religion. It’s not a radical, violent religion, like certain groups claim it to be. The holy Quran preaches peace and justice.”
An alarm sounded on her phone. It was her prayer alarm.
“As non-white women, we have to work harder than everyone else,” she said. “We have to prove that we are strong and smart and confident. In today’s world, that is becoming harder and harder to do.”
Ahmad said she did not wish to bring politics into the conversation, but she found it hard to exclude it. “Our president does not represent local politics,” she said. The Republican Party “has embraced me as a Muslim-American woman, and by the grace of God, I am here today.”
Ahmad said that although Muslims — and other diverse groups — may feel alienated because of the way they are perceived today, they will prevail.
“What I want to say to women, to Muslims, to Latinos and to anyone who feels oppressed, is to be proud of your religion and your culture,” Ahmad said. “Women fertilize the world. Do not use your gender, your culture or religion as an excuse to stand by and not do anything for yourself.”
She pointed out her lobbying to incorporate the Muslim holidays Eid al-Firtr and Eid al-Adha into school calendars. She stood in front of the East Meadow School District’s Board of Education meeting in November, along with two female students, to advocate the recognition of the holidays in the school calendar. She did the same in the Valley Stream public schools.
“I will continue to fight for every person who feels like they don’t belong here,” Ahmad said. “America is a beautiful country. We are all what makes the fiber of our country so strong.”