Photos by: Maddie McGarvey/MileSplit
Noor Abukaram became international news in 2019 after being disqualified from a high school cross country race due to her religious beliefs. She fought back with her voice then, and she hasn't stopped fighting for equality, and especially for young Muslim athletes, ever since.
By Cory Mull - MileSplit
A 10-year-old girl walks down a New York City street in March with her family and sees it from a different light. Cars. Smells. Buildings. Everything hits a young person for the first time.
She follows the leaders, her mother and sisters, their friends, and the pack holds together a line, walking in-step for a half mile up midtown Manhattan.
A young person trusts family, seeks their knowledge and begins to understand the world as it appears in front of them. Still just 10 years old, the young girl has not become a woman yet. Unlike her sisters and her mother, she does not yet wear a hijab. But someday she may.
The pack stops at a corner, and now they are in Times Square. The 10-year-old smiles, looking to her left and right, at the massive buildings and their advertisements. It's International Women's Day, and she's surrounded by those she loves.
She wonders what may come next.
It's there! The 10-year-old looks up, 25 stories high into the skyline, and sees her 19-year-old sister Noor Abukaram staring back at her with a serious face, wearing her black hijab, her New York City billboard at One Times Square engulfing nearly five stories.
Sophia Abukaram sees a young Muslim woman who understands her. That's my sister.
Building The Mission
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If there is a face for change in high school athletics, it's Noor Abukaram, a 19-year-old Muslim woman and a sophomore at Ohio State University.
While her life has carried her forward since high school without the pursuit of collegiate athletics, her journey for equality in high school sports, and her fight to prevent further discriminations from taking place for Muslim athletes and girls, has remained the same.
At the age of 13, she first started wearing the hijab, wrapping it around her head and neck. She joined her grandmother and her mother Yolanda Melendez, who converted to Islam when she married her husband Ziad Abukaram, in that rite of passage for all Muslim women. Noor felt proud to wear it, because it represented a part of who she was.
Born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, a home to over 7,000 Muslims and a city with one of the country's most distinguishable mosques, the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, Abukaram went to an Islamic high school and came of age there, around people who look and sound just like her.
But just less than four years ago, as a cross-country runner for Sylvania High School in Ohio, she was disqualified from a district championship race due to a rule -- Section 11.8 in the 2019 Ohio track and field handbook -- prohibiting her from wearing a head-covering without an approved waiver by the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
"I laughed," Abukaram remembered thinking, because she had never been disqualified from an athletic event before. "I had a bracelet on. I thought to myself, 'Maybe I should have taken it off? The thought of my hijab didn't cross my mind until they said it."
That moment received national and international headlines, inspired Abukaram to start a non-profit, led an Ohio Senator to take action in the Statehouse and ultimately forced the OHSAA to change its rules around head-coverings, removing subjectivity from the equation.
But then the pandemic happened, the world stopped and everyone moved on. Abukaram felt an uneasiness pall over her as she moved into her final year of athletics. At one point, she asked her mother whether they had done enough.
"Mumma, am I going to be OK?" she asked Melendez.
What ultimately spurred Abukaram's next path forward, and escalated what may become her lifelong pursuit toward equality in high school athletics, is what happened next.
Once Abukaram was back in a uniform, just months shy from her high school graduation at Bounty Collegium -- the Islamic School she attended allowed her to compete in high school athletics for Sylvania in the OHSAA -- the very same thing happened again.
She was approached by two officials during a race -- in the middle of the 4x800 relay, actually -- and was told she could not race without a waiver, despite the elimination of that former rule after months of work in the Senate, with a bill directly focused on the freedom of religious expression.
The officials let her pass, but that wasn't the point. Abukaram had been wearing her hijab without issue that spring track and field season. She was dumbstruck.
It just kept happening. Why?
"I didn't understand," she told MileSplit recently. "I thought we were past this. I thought it had been changed."
Because it hadn't, Abukaram knew she had more work to do.
She needed a law.
Understanding The Next Step
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When high school ended and the next phase of Abukaram's life began, she wasn't quite sure where running fit in her life.
Emotionally traumatic moments had been a source of pain through her final years as a high school athlete. But now, without the security of a uniform, a coach and training instructions, she was forced to find her own place within the sport.
"There was always an end game with running," Melendez said. "This thing that running was giving her, it wasn't there when she went to college. It was this weird let down."
Then came a chance encounter at an ESPN Summit in New York in November of 2021. Abukaram and her mother met Kerin Hempel, who was at the time the Chief Operating Officer of the New York Road Runners, the non-profit organization that organizes the TCS New York City Marathon.
"Kerin came up to her and said, 'Would you be interested in running the New York Marathon?" Melendez remembers. "I said YES. I said, 'Noor, you should do it.' I remember going back to the hotel that night. We sat in the hotel and I asked her, 'Maybe this is how you can take this to the next level. This is an opportunity.'
The last time Abukaram had even run 10 miles was in high school. But over the course of the next year, she began to pour her heart back into the training. She ran a 10K in June in New York.
This time, however, it wasn't for a medal.
"You start to think, why am I running 26 miles?" Abukaram said. "It's to be physically there while you're spreading your message. The only reason I run today is because I told my story three years ago."
Her story was her disqualification from that race all those years ago.
But her non-profit, Let Noor Run, was a mission that was pushing the idea of freedom. It advocated on behalf of all young Muslim athletes, and it sought to erase those religious expression issues that existed, or even may still exist in high schools with underserved athletes.
The plan was to orchestrate donations for athletic hijabs for high school athletes all across Ohio, to raise money for Muslim athletes without support. Her family had, in equal parts, taken ownership of divisions of the non-profit -- her mother, Yolanda, in operations; her sister, Synene, covering social media and graphics; her 15-year-old brother, Mamdouh, was even working toward developing an app.
At Ohio State, where Noor is set to graduate in 2025, she's studying fashion design and one day hopes to design clothing that can be applicable for Muslim athletes.
Marathon training was the next step toward achieving that goal.
A year later, she stepped to the line of the TCS New York City Marathon, a 19-year-old hijabi woman, and ran the race, finishing it in four hours and 15 minutes.
For years, she had felt unseen. No more.
"Are you Noor Abukaram?" a bystander asked at the marathon, having seen her on television before.
"Yes, I am," she replied.
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The new bill moved fast after the second incident in 2021.
Melendez called Senator Theresa Gavarone from her car shortly after hearing from her daughter in tears the second time.
"As a mother, I always feel like I'm managing a household and trying to find the best avenues to support my kids," Melendez said.
Gavarone, an energetic 56, was first jolted in 2019 when she heard about the outrage surrounding Abukaram's first setback with race officials.
She was a hard-nosed Republican from Bowling Green and an attorney from the Second Senate District who was known for tackling hard issues like the opioid crisis and human trafficking. She had managed to get seven bills signed into law.
Her dark brown hair fell below her shoulders and anytime she smiled it felt like she was pulling you into her world. She had met Abukaram for the first time at a coffee shop in Sylvania, and upon hearing of her injustice for the first time in 2020, she could not stand for it.
"Mind blowing," Gavarone told MileSplit. "That was infuriating."
Her three children all played sports in the district, lacrosse and hockey. Gavarone couldn't fathom any of them being told they couldn't play due to their religious beliefs. So sometime during that first meeting, she told Noor, "Not again. Not in Ohio. We're going to change that law."
But while Abukaram and Gavarone worked on a bill -- Senate Bill 288 -- that provided freedom for religious expression in high school athletics in the early weeks of March of 2020, its passage stopped in the House once the pandemic hit.
As life went on, the bill faded and some felt like the work had mostly been done. The OHSAA even removed that religious qualifier in its uniform bylaws. Noor believed that, too.
Then another gut-punch.
"The thing is, everyone understood my story," she said. "The people around me knew who I was. It was interesting to have these officials tell me that I needed a waiver ... That was the turning point that led to the law.
"My life motto is everything happens for a reason," Abukaram continued. "I think about that moment a lot. If it didn't happen to me, it would have happened to another Muslim girl."
In the face of adversity, she had to keep going.
Gavarone answered the phone again that fateful day and heard Abukaram's mother on the other line. The Ohio Senator was bullish this time. We're going to get it done.
Less than a year later, Abukaram and Gavarone went back to the Statehouse for Round 2 and chased after Senate Bill 181, legislation that prevented the state's athletic governing body from developing rules out around the basis of religious apparel and banning the practice of enforcing regulations on them.
While the Senate met her with uniform approval again with 33 votes, Abukaram felt like she had something to prove in the House.
"I wanted to convince them," she said of her testimony. "I felt like I accomplished that."
As it went to a vote, Abukaram sat in the upper deck and stared at a series of lights indicating votes. "You could see all of their names on this LED screen light up with green," she said, and by the end 91 votes had turned green, giving it unanimous approval.
In February, Abukaram received a phone call. The bill had been signed by Governor Mike DeWine.
"Someone called us and asked for a comment," Melendez said. "It was anti-climatic."
And yet, the objective was completed.
The state of Ohio had a law granting the freedom of religious expression during high school athletics.
It may not have her name on it, but it was unofficially Noor's law.
"My life motto is everything happens for a reason. I think about that moment a lot. If it didn't happen to me, it would have happened to another Muslim girl."
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A few things happen when a 16-year-old shares her voice, takes action for a cause worth fighting for, and then offers national advocacy for a broad issue like expression for young minorities.
People start to notice.
In 2022, a producer for ESPN reached out to the Abukaram family and produced a short film on Noor's journey to the Ohio Statehouse. They titled it, 'Let Noor Run.'
It was a featured segment on the company's Fifty-50 program, a series honoring 50 years of Title IX for women in sports. Abukaram was later invited to the ESPYs and won the Billie Jean King Youth Leadership award. From there, she was also named 'American Muslim of the Year' by the Council of American-Islamic Relations.
Brands like Nike and Strava and HOKA reached out and worked with Noor to appear in photo shoots and social campaigns.
Abukaram has met reputable figures like Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as an officially registered competitor, and Amaiya Zafar, who was the first boxer to wear a hijab in a sanctioned fight.
That billboard in New York City? It was part of a brand campaign for the national milk processor's organization, MILKPEP, an advertisement tailored to athletes who run -- Need recovery? Drink a glass of milk.
"I don't know how to explain it," Melendez said. "It's such an unusual thing."
Regardless of the various messages, Abukaram's voice was being heard.
The next step, she said, was providing an impact for Muslim athletes, first in the Toledo area and then potentially to those across the country.
Because the fight continues. Abukaram says she feels she may not be the last Muslim athlete to face this turmoil. In 2020, a Tennessee athlete, Najah Aqeel, was disqualified from her volleyball match for wearing a hijab without a waiver -- though the TSSAA quickly amended the rule four months later to prevent it from happening again.
In 2022, Latifah McBryde, a female wrestler, qualified for the Pan-American Championships, but an international federation told her she could not compete unless she wore approved attire. Ultimately, she was told, she would not be able to wear her hijab, a symbol of her Islamic faith -- in refusing to do so, she eventually gave up her spot on the team.
"I have this dream I'm chasing," Abukaram said. "One part is finishing all six major marathons. But another one is one of my personal dreams with Let Noor Run, and it's all about inclusivity in sports."
Abukaram's next goal is to work with the Billie Jean King Foundation to find a way to produce donation boxes for her athletic hijab project and to figure distribution options to elevate the mission across Ohio and elsewhere. She thinks if more hijabs are available for young Muslim girls, the pathway to sports will be easier.
"There are so many different brands and movements, it's about finding out, 'Where do we fit and what can we do to push this forward?'" she said.
A Path Forward
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A few months ago, when Abukaram was making her way around the five boroughs for the TCS New York City Marathon, she met a woman from London who immediately recognized her.
"'I saw your story," Abukaram remembered her saying. "'Before your story came out, I never saw another hijabi on the course. But all of a sudden, I saw more. It's because of your story.'"
Was it true?
Was Abukaram, the 19-year-old teenager who was fighting for equality in high school sports, making waves across the globe? Much like when Ibtihaj Muhammad made strides for Muslim athletes everywhere when she became the first American woman to wear a hijab in the Olympics, Noor was carving her own voice.
Maybe she wasn't quite sold on whether that was true, but by March, as the digital billboard made its way to New York City, and as ad campaigns rolled out, and as other freedom of expression bills were being discussed in other states, she has become more comfortable in talking about her pursuits for equality.
Abukaram thinks about her sister Sophia often. She refuses to let her 10-year-old sibling face the same issues that beleaguered her experiences in high school. When Sophia decides to put on the hijab for the first time, Abukaram hopes, she wants it to mean something.
The next mission, Noor says, is the London Marathon.
"I'm really excited to bring my story to London and to run with that mission on my back," she said.
Her mother, Yolanda, and father, Ziad, who both ran New York, won't be far behind. Both are traveling alongside their daughter to support her.
Abukaram will also be running with Muslim Runners, a group which seeks to inspire those of the Islamic faith to get out and be active.
That's not her only objective, however.
Let Noor Run may begin to inspire a new wave of young Muslim athletes.
"You have thousands of people who see you run and you can tell your story. When they ask, 'How did you get here, Why are you running?' You have that opportunity to tell them why and inspire people."
* Additional reporting by MileSplit's Ashley Tysiac