Mother. Daughter. Sister. Refugee. Philanthropist. Fatima Rahmati was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and at the age of 4, she and her family fled as refugees from Afghanistan to Australia. Shortly after their arrival, her father passed, leaving behind three young children and a widowed wife.
Fatima traces back her experiences of being raised in the projects of Australia as the path which paved the way to philanthropy. Moving to New York City 11 years ago, Fatima found herself naturally gravitating towards education, social justice, and philanthropy. Since her arrival to New York, she has been no stranger to advocacy; working alongside organizations such as The Gathering For Justice, a social justice organization founded by Harry Belafonte, IRAP-the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project and her present role as Director of Development and Operations for Afghan Hands. Though she is currently working with multiple organizations, her primary focus lays with building a school in Afghanistan in honor of her father’s legacy, a philanthropist and educator. When asked what fuels her motivation, she replies, I am Powered by Love. A philosophical lifestyle which she believes that any and all things are possible when you lead with your heart.”
KwaK : Can you inform our readers a bit more about the injustices your family faced prior to and after fleeing Afghanistan? Which issues, do you believe, still play a prominent role in present Afghan society?
34 years ago when we fled Afghanistan little did we know it would be the beginning of a very bloody few decades for Afghanistan. Prior to the Soviet invasion Afghanistan was in relative peace. My mother left school in the 5th grade yet my father held multiple degrees and had traveled the world. My mother’s schooling was a family decision and quite traditional. She came from a family where the thinking was she could be more productive at home than at school. During the Taliban years though school wasn’t even an option for most girls. Fleeing Afghanistan was perilous not just for us but for most families who were attempting to leave. At that time there were mass kidnappings happening and families being torn apart. We fled in the middle of the night and almost nobody knew. It was too risky to say goodbye to family and for others to know. The fear was my father would be kidnapped or our family detained. We fled to neighboring India. We were stateless, paperless, with no identification papers. With the help of UNHCR we were granted visas to Australia. When we arrived in Australia, a month later my father passed away from cancer. We were refugees and coming from a small village in Afghanistan the adjustment, especially for my mother was difficult. She was illiterate and a widow at 30 years old with 3 kids under the age of 7. She learned to read and write and speak English. She inspires me on a daily basis. I believe today all these issues still play a huge role in Afghan lives. War, displacement, lack of education, lack of women rights. It’s disheartening, to say the least, to see the extent to which all this exists 34 years later. In 1969 an Afghan designer was featured on the cover of Vogue! The first Marks and Spencer store in the Central Asian region opened in Afghanistan in the 1960’s. That’s a glimpse of what Afghanistan was. I want people to know all our history not just the last forty years.
KwaK : Until the Syrian War, Afghans were the largest immigrant population in the world. That being said, how has Trump’s immigration ban affected Afghanistan and what are your thoughts on this new system.
This is true. Afghanistan is now number two having been number one for 30+ consecutive years with the largest immigrant population. To really wrap your head around is daunting. To understand what that does to a society gives you some idea of what the Afghan community and country faces. Afghanistan has not been listed as one of the countries on the travel ban. However, when it was first instituted we were seeing Afghans turned away at the airports. In addition to this, the current administration has reduced the number of refugee admissions into the US to 45,000 from the previous number of over 100,000. This is the lowest number we have seen in decades. It is important to note that too often the neighboring and developing countries take on the bulk of responsibility and influx of refugees however the countries, like the US, that have a hand in creating the conflict and have the capabilities of hosting refugees, shun their responsibilities. It’s frustrating and outrageous.
KwaK : It is apparent that your father was a major influence in your passion for philanthropy. Your work truly shines with integrity, true moral and ethical principles. What changes would you ideally want to leave behind as part of your legacy? What would you like to come from all your hard work?
It is something that keeps changing for me. I don’t have a singular vision. I am passionate about many things and consider my father, my mother, myself and my kids when I even begin to think of legacy. In this moment though I would say, I would love to have contributed to the shift in women’s rights both in Afghanistan and globally. I would love to have contributed to the empowerment of young women and how they see themselves and the way they move in this world. I have a love for the power of education and knowledge and the effects of that when given the opportunity to truly learn. And ultimately, I have a deep, deep belief in love. Maybe most people who speak of me after I’m gone will remember that most, that love can change anything and everything.
KwaK : As a women’s rights advocate, it brought tears to my eyes to have witnessed the epic number of people who came out to support the Woman’s March. Between 500,000 and 1.2 million marched in Washington, DC alone with another 4 million around the world. Do you feel as if large-scale organized protests, as such, have made a difference or impact in decisions made on women’s rights issues?
Absolutely. I believe no action is wasted. It all makes a difference. When you have a protest, like the Women’s March, it is undeniable what the people want. It also sparks those who may have not previously been involved in advocacy or activism to get involved. It allows room for all people from all walks of life to hear voices that maybe they would not have heard on the same scale before. You can’t witness something like the Women’s March and then genuinely say you didn’t know – you know! One point to add to that is often times change is slow. One march won’t change everything but it is something. When you have structural biases in place that have been there for hundreds of years it will take time to break that down and change it.
KwaK : Colin Kaepernick has essentially been blackballed by the NFL due to him kneeling in protest during the playing of the star-spangled banner. He used his position to take a stand against the recent and ongoing injustices that occur in our nation. He was quoted stating “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” What are your thoughts on how the NFL has treated this issue?
The NFL’s response has been what I would expect from a corporation. And quite frankly what I expect from many in this nation. They do not want to look this in the face. It is extremely uncomfortable for many people and it is easier to turn the other way. But this has been here for centuries and will not go away until it is looked at in the face and true change is brought about. This is part of the reason why Trump is President, if we look at history it is all there. The writing is on the wall so to speak. It should come as no surprise that Colin Kaepernick has been blackballed. Let’s not forget what happened to Muhammad Ali. This is not new. It goes without saying that money talks loudly, if players and fans alike boycotted or all spoke up together I believe we would see it being dealt with differently. And, Colin Kaepernick, I salute you. You are a hero.
KwaK : Tell us more about your role in the Afghan hands organization. Also, tell us about any future endeavors of yours and how our readers can support.
Afghan Hands is so close to my heart. It is largely focused on giving widowed women in Afghanistan a hand up not a hand out. This means we give them the opportunity to learn a trade (currently it is embroidery) whilst getting an education and the end result is they can be self-sufficient and run their own businesses. My mother is a widow and she knows how to embroider! The significance of this is not lost on me. My role within Afghan Hands is really that of a chameleon. Not a single one of us who work for Afghan Hands receives a wage. We are a small team and all do as much as we can. Event planning, development and operations, grant research etc. The founders of AH are like family to me, big brothers, so it feels like a family affair. We are currently searching for grants that will allow us to expand the work we do and allow one of us to take on a salary so we can invest more time. Even more intimately and personally, I am in the middle of planning a legacy project based on my fathers love of education and equality and my mothers courage. It will be a school in their home village in Northern Afghanistan. The school already exists. I am doing the needs assessment now to determine priorities and costs. There is so much needed. The physical structure (there are six bathrooms and none of them work!) and then access to books, pens, computers textbooks are just some of what is needed. I will likely fundraise for the school in the near future but in the meantime monetary donations of any amount are always welcome to Afghan Hands. For everyone out there who is reading this, volunteer, talk, raise your voice, vote, give someone a hug. It all counts. It all matters. There are so many ways to help. Keep the faith. I do believe that we will win 🙂