Zeena Abdulkarim is, like all of us, a multi-faceted person. The main characteristics she uses to describe herself is that she is female, black and an activist – all attributes that make living in a small southern town something of a challenge. She has confronted the challenge head-on.
Zeena was born and raised in Brevard to parents who immigrated from Africa. She is the youngest of six children, the four older of whom were all born abroad. She describes her five siblings as her best friends. One of her sisters, Dimah, works for the United Nations in Nairobi, and another, Nafisah, is a regional manager for Tesla in Atlanta.
Zeena graduated from Brevard High School this year and received a Connestee Falls scholarship. In September she will enroll at Georgia State University, her school of choice out of the five acceptances she received. She lives with her mother, Nawal, who works at Transylvania Regional Hospital as a patient care technician (PCTII). The family moved to Brevard when her father, an investment banker, joined Carolina Financial Group; he is now living in Zambia.
When she was 8 years old, Zeena and her family spent a year in Saudi Arabia. She also lived for a year in Charlotte when she was in sixth grade. She describes that experience, when she attended an underfunded school for six months, as her opportunity “to get a feel for being black in the U.S.” She then spent a semester at Northwest School for the Arts in Charlotte where she studied orchestra, theatre and local music. The family then returned to Brevard, where, during her sophomore year at Brevard High, she spent a semester at the Outdoor Academy in Pisgah Forest. She describes this experience as “life-changing” because it enhanced her “devotion to climate justice and protecting our planet.”
Zeena views her mother as her role model in dealing with the complexities of life as a member of a minority group. When she or one of her siblings experienced bias at school in Brevard, Nawal would go to the school, talk with the administration, and demand – and receive – an apology from the student who had used a racial slur. Zeena likes to get her mother’s input on issues, as her mother’s upbringing in Sudan gives her very different perspectives from that of her Americanized daughters on issues such as social justice and the environment.
For at least the past two years, social justice has been the focus of Zeena’s activities in Brevard. She feels that racial prejudice is the basis for all the social and economic problems in this country, and she has worked to make things better.
She became involved in the local NAACP to advocate for social justice within minority communities, and in her junior year she founded United Nations of Brevard High (UNBH), a non-partisan organization which focuses on social justice, involvement in local government and community service. Through this club, she has advocated for reform of gun laws and has introduced certain communities, such as the NAACP and El Centro, to Brevard High School. For example, during February of 2019, Black History Month, she arranged for Tommy Kilgore, the head of the NAACP in Brevard, to speak at Brevard High about his experiences as one of the first black students in the integrated Transylvania County school system.
She also served on the board of school improvement during her junior year “to plan for a more wholesome education system” at Brevard High. She also participated in cheerleading, track and field and tennis.
In addition, she has worked at several restaurants and stores in Brevard and at Zero Hour, a nonprofit focused on climate justice.
Her involvement in so many aspects of school and civic life was recognized when she was selected as the 2018-19 Homecoming Queen. She feels that the racial climate has improved in Brevard and nationally “because black and brown people have become more vocal about their experiences,” a development for which she can certainly take some credit.
When asked what she would say to the volunteers for and donors to the Connestee Falls Student Scholarship Program, she said, “Thank you! It is very helpful. Without financial aid and scholarships, I would not be able to cover the expenses of college without going deeply into debt.”