Photos by Rob Hardin (Dispatch Magazines)

Zerqa Abid

A Hilliard resident engages young people in a struggling Hilltop housing complex.

In 2017, seven people were killed in Wedgewood Village, a 684-unit low-income housing complex on the West Side, leading The Columbus Dispatch to call it “Columbus’ deadliest location.” In the wake of that violent season, commander Scott Hyland, who oversaw the Columbus Division of Police’s West Side patrol for five years before starting a new assignment this summer, began walking the streets of the low-rise complex himself. He hoped to develop relationships in a troubled and fearful community that is home to many Somali refugees and immigrants. But Hyland couldn’t seem to make headway until he met Zerqa Abid, the founder of an initiative to engage the complex’s young people in soccer, reading and other programs. 

Abid invited the police commander to attend Friday night social gatherings she’d organized for young Wedgewood women. She brought him to parenting classes she’d set up at nearby Wedgewood Middle School. And at Abid’s invitation, Hyland and other police officers pitched in at a community clean-up day, where they not only picked up litter but also distributed flyers on how to contact police anonymously about suspicious activities. 

Crime dropped significantly in Wedgewood Village in 2018, Hyland said. And while multiple factors likely contributed to the change, he gives a lot of the credit to Abid, who helped improve police-community relations and initiated programs that engage hundreds of young people. “The calmness in the neighborhood—it grew,” he said. “And the confidence and the feeling of it being a safer neighborhood.” 

Abid is not Somali, and she lives in Hilliard, not Wedgewood Village. She’s a seasoned activist and volunteer community organizer who calls herself a “fighter mom,” an “activist mother” and, occasionally, a “Pakistani Muslim American Hilliard mom.” 

The 50-year-old mother of three and grandmother of two married young in her native Pakistan, where she waited for a green card for six years after her husband came to the U.S. Finally, she and their two girls were able to join him in North Carolina, where she earned a degree in mass communications. Still wearing the face-covering veil that she had adopted by choice—she would later give it up, opting instead for a hijab and modest attire—she worked at television stations in Raleigh and then in Karachi, Pakistan, before the family landed in Columbus in 2007. Around that time, she helped found a national network against domestic violence in Muslim families. 

Abid was impelled to take action locally by 2013 newspaper coverage of an alleged Somali human trafficking ring said to be forcing Muslim girls into prostitution in several U.S. cities, including Columbus. “I’m a mother of three daughters,” she said. “I could not sleep on this idea that somebody’s daughter would be sold several times a day because maybe my sister was not able to help her.”

“I have gotten help from my friends,” she added. “We get help from friends and cousins and extended family. I wanted to be that help for my brothers and sisters in my refugee community.”

Believing that poverty and lack of opportunity set the stage for social ills like gangs, prostitution, drugs and even radicalization, Abid planned an ambitious effort to engage young people on the Hilltop. She called her nonprofit MY Project USA, with MY representing Muslim Youth. 

Abid drew criticism from a few Somali Muslim religious leaders by speaking out about domestic violence and sex trafficking, although she is careful to point out that she believes these are cultural and family issues, not religious ones, and that she has received tremendous community support in addition to criticism. Her goal is to combat Islamophobia, not increase it. 

Video by Courtney Hergesheimer

Abid’s first project was the 2015 creation of a thrift shop, not far from Wedgewood Village, called My Deah’s Store. That’s where Dr. Hoda Amer, the Dublin cytologist who nominated Abid as an Everyday Hero, first met her after answering a Facebook call for volunteers. It was just before the religious festival of Eid al-Fitr, said Amer, and the shop was a huge jumble of clothing for the holiday. “But by the time Eid came, those fancy dresses were all hung up, and you know, the community came in and bought it—for very cheap prices.” 

Amer was impressed at the outcome, and by Abid’s commitment, pointing out that Abid not only works without pay but has invested her own money in MY Project USA. A few years later, Amer is a regular donor to the organization, and her two children are among the dozens of college students who volunteer weekly at Abid’s second initiative, a free food pantry that serves an average of 120 families a week.

Abid has engaged not only the police but Columbus City Council, which since 2017 has awarded three grants totaling $142,000 for soccer and other youth programming at Wedgewood organized by MY Project USA. County Auditor Michael Stinziano, who was on council in 2017, was impressed by her sense of urgency—and, when he saw her in action, by her way with the kids. “She holds them accountable and asks a lot of them—but always watching them step up and meet her goals, which benefits not only those young people, but the community they’re serving,” he said.

Russ Harris, a retired lobbyist who once served as Grove City’s soccer commissioner, is MY Project USA’s treasurer and, this past summer, worked to get utility poles removed and lines painted on a greenspace at Wedgewood so that the 110 kids signed up for the coming soccer season would have a convenient place to play. “I want this community to own their own soccer field,” he said. “Zerqa’s passion is inspiring.”

On a late Thursday afternoon in July, Abid met with eight teens in the back of My Deah’s Store. They were preparing to knock on Wedgewood doors to recruit more players and families for the soccer program. 

She frowned as she paged through one of the teen’s canvassing notebooks. “This binder is to make you more organized and help you understand the value of data.” The outcome of every visit should be noted in the book, she said.

Abid closed the meeting with a safety message. “Don’t go alone.” She rapped on the table. “Guys! Nobody is going alone.”

Fifteen-year-old Abdi Bakari got involved in MY Project USA after his older brother was murdered in 2018. “I wanted something to do and not think about his death,” Bakari said, leaving the meeting. “I feel like it’s important because if we have more kids involved in soccer, then they won’t be involved in gang violence.” 

Bakari was talking about the younger kids he is learning to coach—but he was also talking about himself, as his friend Abdulkadir Omar, also 15, pointed out. “It’s good what she does,” Omar said, referring to Abid. “She takes time out of her day to help this neighborhood. These kids.” He paused. “Us. What we’re doing right now is actually keeping us off the streets, too.”

Abid watched the teens fan out into the complex. “It’s Organizing 101, what they are doing right here,” she said. “Sometimes I want to go five years forward and see what they are doing then.” 

Zerqa Abid, second from right, and Russ Harris, farleft, with members of MY Project USA.