An Unlikely Bond Helped Noor Abukaram Cement Change

* Ohio State Sen. Theresa Gavarone (left) and Noor Abukaram worked to pass legislation in the Ohio state legislature regarding student religious expression school extracurriculars.

Photo Credit: USA Today

"That one really lit a fire in my belly. I was mad. Being a mom, and seeing your kids and how hard they work, I'm looking at (Noor's story) and I'm like, 'These are high school kids trying to play a game, trying to compete in sports. What are we doing?'"

By Ashley Tysiac -- MileSplit

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Immediately upon leaving a local cafe in Sylvania, Ohio in early 2020, Ohio State Senator Theresa Gavarone picked up the phone.

Hooked up to her car's Bluetooth, Gavarone spent the entirety of the drive home to Bowling Green making calls, asking questions and trying to find a solution.

How can we make sure this doesn't happen again?

When Noor Abukaram, a 16-year-old student-athlete at Bounty Collegium, shared with her local state senator her experience during a cross country meet, a harrowing disqualification that was essentially due to her religious beliefs, Gavarone knew it was discrimination that infringed on the teenager's free expression rights.

She also knew she had a duty to serve her young constituent.

As a passionate mom to three children, Gavarone felt compelled to help Abukaram as if she were a daughter of her own.

Over the next two years, the pair worked together to push forward new legislation in the Ohio State Congress to protect student religious expression in athletics, which was ultimately signed into law by Governor Mike Dewine in February 2022.

It was an unorthodox partnership, the Republican representative paired with a Muslim high school distance runner. But their collective commitment made the case for change all the more unstoppable.

As a self-proclaimed hockey mom, Gavarone understood the dedication required to compete as a young student-athlete.

When she sat in that coffee shop and listened to Abukaram explain how she had the most monumental cross country race of her career stripped away from her for wearing a hijab in competition -- embodying the Islamic faith -- Gavarone couldn't believe her ears.

"That one really lit a fire in my belly. I was mad," Gavarone said. "Being a mom, and seeing your kids and how hard they work, I'm looking at (Noor's story) and I'm like, 'These are high school kids trying to play a game, trying to compete in sports. What are we doing?'"

In October 2019, Abukaram was disqualified by race officials from the district cross country championships for not filing a waiver per Ohio High School Athletic Association rules at the time. Only, officials effectively enacted the decision after the fact, after the 16-year-old had clocked a personal record time.

"Why would a student athlete have to choose between participating in the sport they love and exercising their deeply held religious beliefs?" she said.

That's when Gavarone, the dedicated mother, handed the baton off to the Ohio state senator.

Phone calls led to research and digging into high school athletic association rulebooks. A couple months later, Gavarone had a draft of a bill -- S.B. 288  -- ready to file and present in committee.

In early March 2020, Gavarone stood up in front of the Ohio Senate Education Committee to introduce the legislation for the first time. With her was Abukuram, prepared to testify in front of the state senators, some more than twice her age.

Gavarone watched in awe as Abukuram took to the podium in a room full of career politicians.

"People didn't realize she was still just a young high school athlete. I think people thought she was an adult," she said. "She got hard ball questions and she handled it so well and really did such a great job. She won everyone over."

Photo Credit: Maddie McGarvey/MileSplit

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Though Abukuram's words swayed the chamber, the bill's momentum would soon face an unprecedented hiccup: COVID-19.

Months passed as the legislative process in the pandemic world came to a halt.

In those intervening days and weeks, the OHSAA rewrote its rulebook, eliminating the need for a qualifying statement on religious headgear. According to the OHSAA rule book, which remains current, no waiver requirement is mentioned for athletes wearing religious head coverings during athletic competition. 

Even though the bill that came out of the Gavarone-Abukuram partnership died in committee during COVID-19, Gavarone thought the OHSAA rule change would prove sufficient in protecting Abukuram and other student-athletes.

But that was easier said than done. In early 2021, Gavarone received a phone call from Abukuram's mother, Yolanda Melendez. 

At a competition at Whitmer High School, in the surrounding Toledo area, a male official approached Abukuram before she took to the line to race in a 4x800m relay, wearing her hijab. You need a waiver, he said. Abukuram couldn't believe it. A female official followed. You need a waiver, she said. 

Abukaram held her ground and told both of the officials, "I don't need one," and ultimately the moment passed without a second DQ. But it was enough to throw into question all her earlier work in the Senate. 

"The second incident, it really just added, firmed her belief that we needed a law," Melendez said.

Gavarone sat at her desk and thought about her own kids. It was time for a second push.

A year later, the legislative process began yet again as Gavarone took to the Ohio Senate and introduced another bill -- S.B. 181 -- in May 2021 to protect student religious expression in athletics. Abukuram, now a high school senior, stood before lawmakers for the second time, again impressing upon them her experiences. 

The bill was essentially identical to the original one that never made it out of committee during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At first, Melendez said, the House Education Committee didn't understand why Abukaram and Gavarone were standing before them for a second time. They believed the OHSAA rule change proved more than sufficient to address the issue of religious expression in school extracurriculars.

The duo, though, wouldn't be denied. 

"It would continue to happen until we start(ed) protecting young women out there," Melendez said. "You can't just erase this."

Abukuram's persistence, paired with Gavarone's legislative craft, persuaded the Ohio state legislators to take action. 

S.B. 181 unanimously passed in the Senate, as it would later in the House, too. 

On Feb. 26, 2022, Governor Mike DeWine signed the bill into law, protecting student religious expression in interscholastic athletics and extracurricular activities.

The high schooler testified a total of four times in front of hundreds of legislators. S.B. 181 has now been in effect since May 30, 2022.

"When it passed into law, a weight was lifted off my shoulders," Abukaram said. "Also this feeling of these past two years, these past three years, it's led to this."

Photo Credit: Maddie McGarvey

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When Governor DeWine inked his signature on the bill, he used three different pens -- one for himself and one each for Gavarone and Abukaram. At first glance, it was nothing more than an average pen. But it meant much more to Gavarone than any other she's received over her tenure. 

"This is just a shining example of what you can do when you listen and take action to make things better," she said.

Naturally, the duo have both continued on their own paths since the groundbreaking action.

Abukaram is currently in college at Ohio State University, starred in an ESPN short film and runs her advocacy campaign Let Noor Run. Gavarone spoke at Abukaram's high school graduation in 2021 at Bounty Collegium.

Gavarone continues to serve her community and gets excited by issues that need solving. 

"Noor, honestly, is like a daughter," she said. "I have so much admiration for her."

The connection each made pursuing the cause made it all the more impactful.

"No other student in Ohio will have to go through this," Abukaram said. "That feeling eases my heart."

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* Additional reporting by Cory Mull