When Nina Ahmad was just 11 years old, she found herself at the center of a brutal, violent war for independence.
Ahmad lived with her older brother and her parents in what was then East Pakistan. As native Bangla speakers, they were squarely in the sights of Operation Searchlight, a genocidal campaign of terror that the Pakistan army launched in March of 1971 to stamp out the budding Bengali nationalist movement. The ensuing nine-month war would give birth to the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. It would also leave 3 million dead Bengalis in its wake.
An indelible mark
Ahmad - now Dr. Ahmad, former Philadelphia deputy mayor of public engagement under Mayor Kenney and the current PACE-recommended candidate for Pennsylvania auditor general - remembers that time vividly.
She remembers the tanks rolling down residential streets, crushing sleeping rickshaw drivers, whose bodies would be left on the sides of the street to bloat. “To teach you a lesson,” she said.
She remembers neighbors disappearing, never to be heard from again.
She remembers the military banging doors down, raping women and girls in front of male family members as a perverse show of force and domination.
She remembers lying in bed each night, alert to every subtle sound outside her window, wondering if this was the moment she would have to spring out of bed and run to the hiding spot next to the chicken coop, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt with her hair cut short - her mother’s desperate attempt to disguise her as a boy.
“These are the memories,” she said. “My children haven’t heard many of these stories because we just push them down in order to survive. I cannot tell you how traumatic it all was.”
Organization out of chaos
Defying military orders, the Ahmad family would gather in darkness on the roof of their home, huddled around a shortwave radio to listen to Freedom Bangladesh Radio, an illegal broadcast from the outpost of the guerrilla war.
“We’d also listen to the BBC,” she said. “And that’s when we heard about this movement of everyday Americans who were outraged that, in their name, their government was supplying arms to basically kill us.”
As Ahmad would come to learn, the International Longshoremen’s Association, together with the Quaker community and a group of expats in the Philadelphia and Baltimore areas, had formed a coalition to stop U.S. arms shipments to Pakistan.
In June 1971, they set up dinghies around Pakistani cargo ships leaving U.S. ports in a symbolic blockade. Simultaneously, the ILA arranged a four-month work stoppage that effectively shut down shipping lanes to the area under siege.
“When my parents discussed this, I didn’t know what a union was,” Ahmad said. “But it seemed so amazing that so very far away, people were identifying with this oppression and standing up and putting their jobs on the line. So, it was very fascinating to me, this collaborative movement building around an issue that might not be your issue directly, but you stood for other people. That sense of solidarity.”
With that profound and personal introduction to the power of organized labor, Ahmad delved deeper. She learned about tragedies like New York’s infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, seeing parallels to the Bangladesh garment industry, a key driver of the Bangladesh economy that was and is composed mostly of women.
“This is happening there now, where unionization has started, but not enough to safeguard these women,” she said. “So, they’ve had these fires where they’ve jumped out their third-floor windows because the exit was locked.”
Teasing out the thread
Ahmad stayed in Bangladesh another 10 years after the war, learning English from books because, as she said, “There was no school. We didn’t know which grade we were, who was getting where. Everybody was lumped together after the war. It was complete chaos.”
She credits her parents - and particularly her mother, a Montessori-trained teacher - with instilling in her a passion for learning.
“I had this strong emphasis on, ‘You’re responsible for yourself. You can educate yourself with the tools around you,’” she said.
At 21, she came to America to study at Michigan’s Lawrence Institute of Technology. Driven by a fear of failure that could send her back to Bangladesh, she excelled in college, and was offered Ph.D. fellowships from both Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania.The only reason she picked UPenn over Stanford, she said, was because she wanted to be in an urban area, close to New York and D.C.
“That’s not how you choose graduate programs,” she admitted. “But the real reason was I wanted to be in a place that probably reminded me of home. Philadelphia is much more close-knit with small streets and a little more crowded.”
As Ahmad pursued her Ph.D. in Chemistry at UPenn, her appreciation for organized labor only deepened.
“You’re an indentured servant when you’re a graduate student,” she said. “Literally, you are. Those work conditions are horrible. It’s 24/7. It’s just a really weird space, and I think it’s rich to be unionized.”
Improving conditions, one data point at a time
If she’s elected auditor general, Ahmad hopes to use her position and her training to advocate for improvements in the workplace from a data perspective.
“Take something like Act 102, which says that nurses can’t be forced to work overtime, yet hospitals do it all the time,” she said. “So, there’s an implementation issue there, and a monitoring issue. So those are the kinds of ways that I can tell you doing the dollars and cents calculation, why that hurts our economy and why unionization actually helps our economy.”
Ahmad makes it clear she’s on a mission to transform Pennsylvania through elected office. And her true power may be that she seems equally capable of doing just that whether she’s speaking about the transformative power of data with the confidence of an Ivy League-educated scientist or pulling inspiration from the wreckage of her painful childhood memories.
“I always say, I stand in the sacrifice of those 3 million people and those 200,000 women and girls who sacrificed for me to have freedom,” she said. “I also stand in the sacrifice of people in this country who fought and who’ve been fighting for 400 years. They’re still fighting. And I am grateful for that.”