Episode 31 │ By Some Miracle (SOUTH AFRICA/MEXICO/DOMINICAN REP.)
Updated: May 4
"Speaking personally, as a refugee you hope or you wonder if you'll ever have a home, a home state, something to cling to." (Sahar, Episode 31)
Back in early December I posted on Facebook about having finished all my interviews for 2018, expressing gratitude to all of my guests along with announcing that I'd be taking a break until after the New Year. My college friend Sahar Mahmood commented on that post saying, "How can I be featured on this? lol" and here we are! Sahar has a variety of stories to share but for some reason I hadn't thought to invite her as a guest, so I'm exceedingly glad that she expressed her interest in that way.
Originally from Afghanistan, Sahar and her family were refugees in Pakistan before some of them received legal permission to move to Lansing, Michigan, where they have lived ever since. Sahar was only seven years old when they arrived in February 2001, and she remarks how lucky they were to have made it to the States at that time, because if it had been even a few months later, tightened restrictions and general hostility after 9/11 likely wouldn't have allowed them that chance. (Indeed, the rest of her close relatives were delayed for this very reason, and her whole family wasn't living in the same place again until a couple years ago.) Sahar speaks five languages ranging from conversational to native proficiency, and she compares learning American culture and the English language to the experience of studying abroad. When she was in a school with other young immigrants and refugees who didn't speak English that well, she didn't have to learn as quickly. But when she was placed in a different school, though it was admittedly difficult being one of few people of color there, her English proficiency vastly improved through immersion. The fact that Sahar has been people-oriented and talkative from a young age helped as well, no doubt.
Later on as a student at Michigan State University, Sahar studied abroad three times. The first was a program about sustainability in Dubai, UAE (the same freshman seminar that Sirrita Darby from episode 8 had previously done), and her year was coincidentally the final year that the program was held. She was somewhat underwhelmed by Dubai, humorously likening the city to the film I Am Legend ("lots of buildings and no people"). However, thanks to scholarships she didn't have to pay for anything to participate, and she got to connect with extended family members who lived in that city.
Then in the summer of 2012 she did her required field experience in Cape Town, South Africa, where she worked as an intern at the Cape Town Refugee Center for three months. Her duties included doing intake forms and assessments as clients arrived at the center, so she heard from people directly about what they had been through and escaped from. As a refugee from Lansing, which is a hub for refugees from all over the world, Sahar observed that her clients in Cape Town tended to come mostly from bordering countries and other parts of the African continent. Additionally, since most of them were coming directly from their home country (as opposed to staying in a refugee camp somewhere else before being relocated long-term like Sahar was), their trauma was more immediate. She tried to keep it professional even when hearing her clients' stories made her emotional, but then again, her own particular experience as a refugee enabled her to empathize with them and care for them more deeply. Unfortunately the Cape Town Refugee Center has been closed since December 2017, but Sahar gave me a good idea of the different services that they made available to refugee clients during the time that she was there.
A few years later, Sahar needed a couple additional credits in order to be classified as a full-time student during her final semester of senior year, so she did a volunteer-based study abroad program in Merida, Mexico. (This was the same international engagement program that Leticia Gittens from episode 25 did at some point.) Knowing that she'd be moving to San Jose to work for AmeriCorps/City Year after graduation, out of the four volunteer options Sahar requested to be placed in a youth-focused one. To her initial chagrin, she was assigned to help with feeding, activities, and other support at an elderly people's whom whose Spanish name translates to "abandoned grandparents". Many of the people living there were homeless or neglected due to disability or illness, or had needs that their families couldn't manage. Looking back on it, Sahar admits that she had a selfish mindset at first, thinking that she wouldn't have anything to give or to gain from working with the elderly, especially as it pertained to her future goals. But over the course of that one week, she and her fellow volunteers were continuously in awe of the residents' sweetness and resilience, and her time in Mexico remains as her most life-changing study abroad experience.
"working for people and working with people, not working at people"
Having studied comparative cultures and politics at MSU, Sahar's interests continue to vacillate between the realms of education/youth programming and policy/international relations. While she didn't so much love the teaching part of City Year, she thoroughly enjoyed working with young people and that pushed her toward more educational roles, which included leading a group of high school students from the Bay on a three-week learning and community service experience in the Dominican Republic with Global Glimpse. She then moved from the Bay back to Lansing and worked for a non-profit supporting court-involved youth, and in 2017 she was able to help facilitate a trip to Costa Rica for a select group of said teenagers. Both of her times taking students abroad, in addition to her previous experiences, further solidified her belief in the value of "working for people and working with people, not working at people".
Today Sahar works at her alma mater as a recruitment coordinator for the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) and remains passionate about student success for marginalized populations (especially first-generation students, students of color, and international students). She was recently selected to be a 2019 fellow in the New Leaders Council (NLC) Detroit chapter, has a dog named Drake, and is currently on vacation as I write this. Sahar can be reached via Instagram (@sahari.mahmood), Facebook (Sahar Mahmood), Twitter (@spartysahari), LinkedIn (Sahar Mahmood), or her MSU email address (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "By Some Miracle (SOUTH AFRICA/MEXICO/DOMINICAN REPUB.)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Sahar's profile on the RCAH website
Sahar's profile on the NLC website
Danielle G. is the creator, host, and producer of Young, Gifted and Abroad. You can find her other writings at DeelaSees.com.