United under a freedom fighter

After suffering the burden of 30 years of war, Afghanistan is riddled with stories of human suffering. Most families have, at some point, lost a loved one in armed conflict or have experienced life in refuge as they have fled to neighboring Pakistan.

In the 1970s the country was under soviet occupation where the Soviet Union, in effort to spread Marxism, fought against the Afghan Mujahideen lead by famed engineering student turned freedom fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud. The Mujahideen received unofficial military and/or financial support from a variety of countries including the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Israel, Indonesia and China. The Afghan government, with the Soviet Union as its ally, received different aid from the government of India under Indira Gandhi. The support came as an attempt to levy the spread of communism.

It was at this time young Shakira Rahimi (now Shakira Niazi) experienced a transition that forever changed her life. With her father held as a political hostage, her family made the trek millions of Afghans have made over the previous 30 years- a journey across the brooding mountains to the border of Pakistan where they resettled as refugees. The most common routes for this war induced refugee migration are the Kyber, Kurram, Gomal and Salang mountain passes in the northeastern part of the country which traditionally served as trade routes along the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Shakira, then 9 years old, was left in charge of her younger siblings during the nearly two-week journey over the Hindu Kush mountain rages.

“It’s unimaginable to me that many of the refuges currently arriving in the United States are in such a similar situation that my family was in during the soviet era- 30 years ago” she explained. “It’s shocking to realize our country has been at war for three decades. I was one of the lucky ones because I got out”.

The pain of hunger and the faint nature of thirst are no strangers to her, as once in Pakistan her family wandered the streets of Peshawar hungry and homeless like most Afghan refugee families. Shakira explained they had nowhere to sleep and would take turns napping in odd places. It was an exhausting way of life as they were constantly on the move.

“We were hungry, dirty, and thirsty yet there were so many other people in our situation. We had to move constantly. I have always believed that experience is what made me who I am. I know what it feels like to crave a drink of water and have none. I know what hunger feels like in your stomach and it’s painful and uncomfortable. I know what it feels like to lose everything. That time spent in Pakistan made me who I am today”.

With the aid of family and a refugee resettlement program, the Rahimi family eventually immigrated to the United States where Shakira went on to hone impressive entrepreneurial skills and develop several successful businesses, including her latest social enterprise initiative Salavare La Vita Water. Her mission is simple: every bottle sold provides access to clean water for one person in need for nearly a year and every 31 bottles sold provides one person with clean water for 20 years through the process of building wells in poverty and resource stricken communities. Although she just started- Shakira has already built a school in Afghanistan, five water wells in Afghanistan and 2 water points in Ethiopia. She returned to Afghanistan in fall 2011 for the first time in decades.

“Going home was a huge shock”, she told me. “My story is the same as every other girl from Afghanistan. The only difference is I was lucky enough to leave and start a new life elsewhere. I built businesses from the ground up and I feel I have proved what any Afghan woman, given the right opportunities, can do for society and humanity.  I visited the Kutchi township and interacted with the young girls. While I was there I could not help but think that each one of them could have been me had I not left. It’s a very surreal feeling, but a very impactful one. An old woman came up to me after we installed the water well and told me, ‘Thank you, you didn’t just give us access to water, but you gave us life!’ She had no idea that the name of this brand of water is called VITA, which means ‘life’. I will never forget that”.

Clean water is a socioeconomic and environmental problem facing nearly 1.1 billion people globally. This figure amounts to 1/7 of humanity. The United Nations Development Programme and World Health Organization estimate 3.41 million people die from water, sanitation and hygiene-related causes each year. The water and sanitation crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns. 780 million people lack access to an improved water source; approximately one in nine people which is nearly 3 times the population of the United States.

Shakira believes it is difficult to fully conceptualize the extent of the water crisis as she says it not only affects the overall health of a population but also directly impacts education and economy.

“For many rural impoverished societies the nearest water source is miles away. Generally it’s the women in the family that are tasked with retrieving the water for washing and cooking. Instead of going to school, these young girls and women are forced to travel on foot for miles hauling large containers of water. Retrieving water can take up to an entire day. So this lack of basic resources certainly has a long term and hidden economic impact”.

Fixing the “water problem” as she refers to it, directly impacts every other facet of society. Shakira believes people in affluent countries want to help with world issues, yet are often so busy in their work and family lives to invest a significant amount of time in the process. By connecting her bottled water to social enterprise, she gives people an “easy, effortless and thoughtless” way to take action against the world water crisis.

“How often do you purchase a bottle of water and not even think twice about it. What if such an effortless, thoughtless purchase directly impacted young women in Afghanistan? How would that make you feel? I’ve been thirsty before because I was a refugee once myself. I understand how they feel and that is why I want to take all my skills and knowledge and give back. I will never give up on the women of Afghanistan. I am them and they are me. I love my country and hope I can prove through my story, what valuable contribution women can make to humanity”.

I should probably mention that I met Shakira through a discussion about Ahmad Shah Massoud. Both of us hold him in high regard for his revolutionary spirit and advocacy for women’s rights. I have made many Afghan friends in the process of developing 50 Women and in fact have two other stories in the book from Afghan women. They are a beautiful people with a fascinating culture and Shakira and I certainly share a commitment to Afghan women.

The next time you drink bottled water- think about Shakira and her time with the young girls of the Kutchi settlement outside of Kabul. Think about the impact that one bottle, pressed coolly against your lips, can have to people thousands of miles away. You will never see water the same again.

Here is an excerpt from Shakira’s story:

When I started my research, my intention was to make a meaningful impact to humanity, because I had been given the opportunity to live in the land of opportunity, which gave me a very comfortable life. In return, I realized that this opportunity wasn’t just about living a good life, but it came with a greater responsibility.  I started to search for a meaningful way to make a difference, especially for women and girls in the underdeveloped world. From my experience of being one in Afghanistan and earning my respect and ultimately emotional freedom, I wanted to empower other women to do the same. My mission led me to a lack of clean water because water impacts the three most important components of a society: health, education and economy. The United Nations predicts the entire lack of clean water crisis can be solved with a little over $11 billion dollars. Where will that money come from? Some villages might need low cost water filters/pumps and others simply a water well. Currently there are plenty of very respectful, hard working nonprofits doing great work in these areas, but the crisis is far from over. If you type the term “nonprofit water” into an internet search engine you will find around 36 million hits and hundreds of organizations out there trying to solve this problem, and yet contaminated water is still one of the biggest killers of our time today. I believe, charity and donation can go only so far, but business has a unique power to change the world. By using products that are already massively consumed, we can engage a large audience to make a difference through the simple act of making a purchase. The bottled water industry in the United States is a 50 billion dollar industry annually. It is a growing industry and an avid consumer need. Creating a social enterprise venture out of a product that is an avid consumer need is an ideal business model because the product is going to be purchased regardless or where the proceeds are going. This makes it nearly effortless to funnel profits into a good cause.

My goal is to connect each bottled water customer with another person in the developing world’s need of basic clean water. Through the name VITÀ (life) I want to give hope to my fellow villagers of third world countries. I want to not only give them the luxury of safe water, but also hope these villagers can see through my story that one of them was able to build a life and to give back to her own. I want to be the example for their big dreams. To my fellow Consumers, I can show them how each one of those 1.4 million children under age of 5 that vanish due to drinking dirty water, could become a productive members of their society, like me…



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Filed under Reflections: Women of 50 Women

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