Walking through the center of the city in the shadow of the looming domes of two state Capitol buildings — the old one and the new — it’s hard to miss the signs of history marked throughout Springfield, Illinois, the launching pad of the political careers of U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama.
“It is surreal to know that Abraham Lincoln was in the same position as me at one point,” said Nabeela Syed while standing in front of a statue of the “Great Emancipator” at the entrance to the current Illinois state Capitol.
While Lincoln made a name for himself at the old Capitol building a few blocks away, history is very much on the mind of Syed as she walks amid the rows of well-polished wooden desks and leather chairs lined up on the floor of the Illinois House of Representatives.
“Our tour guide said he actually took a picture of Barack Obama in the same exact place that me and my family were posing,” Syed told Voice of America. “So, to think about the history that exists here in Springfield and the history that we’re contributing, it’s an incredible feeling.”
Syed and her colleague Abdelnasser Rashid are about to make their own history as the 103rd Legislative session in Illinois gets underway. They are the first Muslim American lawmakers ever elected to the Statehouse.
“I think considering that Illinois has the highest per capita population of Muslims, I do wish it happened sooner, because I know the importance of representation,” Syed said.
In November, Syed defeated an incumbent Republican to win her suburban Chicago district.
“Not only am I Democrat, but I am a hijab-wearing Muslim, Indian American woman,” said Syed. “Our values, the way that we communicate our message, the way we engage our community, went beyond those things that people consider obstacles, and we flipped our district.”
At 23, Syed is also among the youngest women ever elected in Illinois and begins her term among other notable firsts in the Illinois House of Representatives, led by the first Black speaker, with the first female Republican House leader, and the largest Asian American caucus in the General Assembly.
“As the first Palestinian elected to the legislature and as one of two Muslims, I also carry the voices of so many people who have been marginalized and have been yearning for representation. And I take that responsibility very seriously,” said Rashid, who now represents a suburban Chicago district with a large Latino population.
“It is not just about adding the number of colored faces, it is more about perspectives and strategies and position. That’s why I think they got the support from the broader community, not only the Muslim population alone,” said Kikue Hamayotsu, a political science professor at Northern Illinois University.
She credits Rashid and Syed’s successful election campaigns to their focus and messaging on the issues concerning voters and not necessarily their identity.
“The things and policies they talked about are more about imminent important issues such as reproductive health, abortion law. Also gender issues, religious freedom at a time when religious conservatism is rising to influence politics,” Hamayotsu said.
“I think the lesson of my election and Nabeela’s election and so many more — it’s not just Muslims,” said Rashid. “It’s folks like Hoan Huynh, a Vietnamese refugee who was elected. People like Sharon Chung, a Korean-American who was elected. The number of people who are in the Illinois legislature is reflective of the diversity of our state. This is something that we should take pride in, and something that we should embrace so that our government continues to reflect the wishes of its people. I think where we have a strong healthy vibrant democracy, we’ll have better outcomes for all of us.”
‘Our democracy is composed of us’
As he reflects on a long, memorable day that included his swearing-in ceremony, Rashid was hopeful about the signal his and Syed’s elections send to others with similar backgrounds who may be debating their own political careers.
“My election gives confidence to people who may have been hesitant to run but now realize that they can. I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘I didn’t think that you could win, and now my eyes are open,” he said.
Syed hopes others who also wear the hijab might see her as an example of what is possible instead of what is not.
“Our democracy is composed of us,” she told VOA. “And we are contributing to making America amazing.”
While Illinois is a reliably “blue” state, Rashid and Syed’s election wins helped Democrats increase the party’s overall influence in state politics. In the 118-member Illinois House of Representatives, 40 seats are now held by Republicans and 78 by Democrats — one of the largest party majorities in state history.