Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here


Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

Zerqa Abid

Founder, president and executive director, MY Project USA, Columbus, Ohio

How This Woman Lifts Up Underserved Immigrant Youth

MY Project USA is a national initiative to protect and empower refugee and immigrant youth and their families who live in underprivileged, crime-ridden neighborhoods. We are the largest Muslim social services organization in Ohio. Since our founding seven years ago, we have provided services to more than 170,000 individuals, including 750 youth served through our youth empowerment program. We’ve distributed more than 4 million meals and snacks, donated 50,000 clothing and household items, contributed more than 65,000 hours in community service, and engaged 4,000 volunteers and youth activists. ​

The problem I am trying to solve

​I live in a community with a large Muslim immigrant population. Most live in poverty and struggle with multiple barriers, including not being able to speak English. As a result, I see a lot of youth with not enough guidance against gangs, violence, drugs and human trafficking. MY Project USA empowers these kids to avoid all of this through a holistic program that combines a soccer club, English classes, mentorship and opportunities for community service and youth leadership. We have created a safe and healthy space for families so that youth can grow up as successful, productive citizens.​

The moment that sparked my passion

​Like my clients, I am also a Muslim American immigrant. I came to the United States at age 26 with two children under the age of 5. Even though I am a professional and college graduate, I still found it hard to adjust, both as a woman and as a parent. Then, in 2013, I read in the news about local Muslim girls who ran away from parental abuse and ended up being trafficked by a gang. It hit me extremely hard. My heart broke for these young women, and for their parents. I decided at once to start an organization to help protect and empower refugee and immigrant youth and families. ​

What I wish others knew

spinner image zerqa abid
Courtesy of Zerqa Abid

​Kids who are at risk are not bad kids. The children and teens I work with are amazing and have so much potential. We gave them a little extra soccer programming, for example, and they emerged as soccer champions in central Ohio. They are good kids, with good parents, who are trapped in the wrong neighborhoods. If we can make the communities they live in safer spaces, and keep criminals away from them, they have amazing futures ahead of them. They make me proud every single day.​

Take 16-year-old Sharmarke, who was pulled by MY Project USA to escape a life on the streets. He didn't have any good influence or purpose to his life. Our programming gave him a purpose. He has become a better student, a better leader and a better soccer player. He has grown his circle of friends and feels like the people he has met through MY Project USA have become like family. Most importantly, he now plays a key role in his own community by helping other kids stay on the right track and out of trouble.​

Advice to others who want to make a difference

​When you start a nonprofit, it is a difficult journey, but it is also an extremely rewarding one. More than anything, building MY Project USA has humbled me. I am a better, stronger and more patient person now than when I launched this organization. It has taught me diplomacy, and to curb my impatience and ego. It has improved my team-building, management and fundraising skills. ​

​Your perseverance will also be tested. I had to stay strong, for example, against all kinds of hate attacks and whisper campaigns from Muslim clergy and other male community leaders. They did not like that MY Project USA talked about violence, drugs and trafficking issues within the Muslim community, especially those facing girls. But I had faith and stayed on track regardless of my challenges and difficulties. The results have been worth it. ​

Why my approach is unique

​​MY Project USA has always been deeply integrated into our community. Many of the families we serve fled persecution and violence in their home countries and as a result have a distrust of government and social service providers. That is why our staff and volunteers are drawn from this immigrant community. They have the same culture and faith, and speak the same languages. As a result, we have been able to successfully provide services where others cannot. ​

​We are also unique because we serve our youth from two sides. We save them from drugs, gangs and jails, but in the process turn them into advocates, leaders and professionals. We empower these youth by creating opportunities for them to build a stronger, just and more inclusive America.

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?