Tribute to Zahra Abbas by Carla Boyd

Last week, Zahra Abbas died suddenly. She was a good friend, a tireless advocate in the epilepsy community, and a beloved change-agent in Michigan state politics. She is beloved, and many people in my community are grieving in the wake of this loss. Carla Boyd, Board Member for the Epilepsy Foundation of Michigan, wrote a touching, public tribute to Zahra, and I would like to share that today.

I’ve been off Facebook for several months but had to return to share my heartbreak over the death of my friend, Zahra Abbas. It hurts so much to write those words.

The world lost one of its brightest lights yesterday. Zahra’s beautiful family lost their precious daughter, sister, auntie, niece, and cousin. The epilepsy community lost the advocate of a generation. Michigan lost a rising political leader. Those suffering from injustice lost a fearless, tenacious advocate. And so many people lost a dear friend, a once in a lifetime kind – myself and my daughter, Laine, included.

But anyone who met Zahra, even for five minutes, gained more than ever could be put into words. It was a joy to know Zahra, in large part, due to her gift of connection. It was palpable. She had an otherworldly ability to put people at ease. To make you feel heard. She literally helped me raise my daughter by sharing her wisdom as a young woman with epilepsy during some hard years. She was strong, grounded. Zahra was the most non-judgmental person I’d ever met. She was highly intelligent and deeply, deeply curious. When she asked you “why” she truly wanted to know your perspective. Zahra had magnetism and brimmed with life, just being around her made people feel good. People from all walks of life were drawn to her because she radiated goodness and truth. There’s no other way to put it. You could feel it.

It’s important to know that Zahra was forged in fire. She was one of the bravest women I will ever know. Like 30% of all people with epilepsy (including Laine), her seizures were drug resistant. This meant her epilepsy was brutal. Starting at age 14, and raging uncontrolled for over ten years, Zahra fought like a warrior. Daily grand mal seizures, broken bones, brain surgery, VNS implants, horrible side effects from dozens of drugs used to fight her seizures, status epilepticus multiple times, dozens of hospital stays. The residual mental health effects from years of unpredictable seizures and related trauma were always in the background. Zahra was open about her struggles with depression and anxiety and helped countless people through some of their own struggles (myself, included).

Zahra’s last resort was to try medical marijuana/cannabis. That was a bold step for her because she was extremely devout in her faith. Miraculously, for the first time in a decade, she began to get seizure control. At one stretch, she was four years seizure free. Zahra used her incredible story to advocate for those with epilepsy and served as an inspiration to the almost 110,000 people in Michigan suffering from epilepsy.

Through all of that, she and her family never, ever game up. Zahra’s mother, father, six siblings, and many cousins, aunts, and uncles rallied behind her every step of the way. She loved and adored her family. I had the pleasure of volunteering at a few events with Zahra and her mother, Sanae. It was incredible to witness their relationship . . . so deeply loving, effortless, playful, protective, beautiful. My heart is broken for Sanae and Zahra’s entire family.

Over the years, I told Zahra many times that I wanted to write her story someday because it was so inspirational. What was most remarkable is that, in spite of horrible suffering from uncontrolled seizures and the side effects of the medical treatments, Zahra was one of the most optimistic people I ever met. Not only was she just a beautiful, positive life force . . . she was on a mission. I jokingly called her “girl on fire. ” It was something to behold. Zahra literally buzzed with energy – and it was infectious. After being sidelined for ten years due to epilepsy, she didn’t have a minute to waste . . . so she took off running.

What was her mission? Injustice. Unfairness bothered her on a cellular level. She very much knew what it felt like to be discriminated against. If you boil it down, quite simply, Zahra Abbas was a warrior for justice. And she was fearless.

She advocated for those with epilepsy, like herself. When cannabis stopped her seizures after ten failed years of conventional medicine, she fought to get cannabis legalized so anyone in need could access it in the state of Michigan. Make no mistake, Zahra was a driving force behind the entire legalization movement. She sat on the boards of advocacy organizations and served as an expert speaker. I need to say that again . . . she became a public speaker. Can you ponder that for a minute? Imagine the courage it took for Zahra – someone who had experienced thousands of unpredictable seizures – to get up in front of thousands of people to speak. If you had the honor to meet Zahra, you may never meet someone as brave again.

When she realized she could forge change by driving public policy, she became a Democratic National Convention (DNC) precinct delegate, a delegate to the state central committee of the Michigan Democratic Party, as well as secretary of the Young Democrats of Michigan (YDM). Zahra was the first Arab American Muslim DNC delegate in state history. She graduated with an associate’s degree and received her certification as a medical assistant in 2019. She was actively involved with the Epilepsy Foundation of Michigan, speaking and volunteering at their events and camp, and interned at camp as well. Zahra never missed a foundation event. She also was part of the Healthy Dearborn steering committee and was a progressive activist, environmentalist, and was “committed to advocating and working towards a just and safe future for people.”

In short, she was on fire.

One of the most beautiful things about Zahra is that she literally floated above everything. I think she had a unique perspective because of what she had been through with her epilepsy . . . she had been to hell and back more than once. Bigots, cruel people, gossips? They didn’t bother her. She was truly above it and not in an arrogant way, she almost didn’t even notice it. She just didn’t have time for it.

Zahra was a builder, a connecter. She built bridges with love and acceptance. She created solutions. She spread her beautiful light to every person she met – and there were thousands. She never gave up, she fought every day of her life radiating love with a smile on her face. In 35 short years, Zahra changed the world. And those ripples will live on forever.

Zahra. My hero. My friend. Thank you for giving so much of yourself to make the world a better place.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr./posted by Zahra in 2017.

-Carla Boyd

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