Expatriate leaves San Jose to give micro-loans to poor Afghan women

Expatriate leaves San Jose to give micro-loans to poor Afghan women

By Fariba Nawa
August 22, 2007
The San Francisco Chronicle

Katrin Fakiri’s office is a constant rush of phone calls, e-mail messages, and people entering and leaving. On a wall, a framed picture of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with Fakiri and several other women hangs crookedly.

Fakiri, 35, is the director of Parwaz, a flourishing microcredit organization that offers an estimated 9,000 poor women small loans at 2 percent interest. Its total assets of $1.1 million and staff of 70 workers are a far cry from the $50,000 budget and four employees Fakiri started with four years ago.

In 2003, she gave up security, mobility and independence to move from San Jose to her birthplace, Kabul, and start a nongovernmental organization to help women start their own businesses. Before she left the Bay Area, she was a single woman climbing the corporate ladder in the Silicon Valley. Now she’s married, a mother of a year-old son and head of one of Afghanistan’s 12 flourishing microfinance companies.

Fakiri is one of several thousand Afghan expatriates who returned to Afghanistan after Sept. 11 and the U.S.-led ouster of the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban government. From the Bay Area, home to the largest Afghan community in the United States with some 60,000 people, these expatriates opened nonprofit organizations, invested in business ventures and found jobs as government advisers.

Fakiri worked without salary for the first two years and learned to make tough decisions. She sacked seven employees, including a male project manager who had been undermining her efforts. He would agree with her decisions in meetings, then tell other employees to ignore them. She also ordered the arrest of a female employee who had siphoned off thousands of dollars that was supposed to go for loans.

“This is a country where if you want to a lead an organization, you have to have some dictatorship characteristics,” she said. “These people are survivors, and they survived because they know how to work the system. If someone is perceived as being weak, they’ll take advantage of you.”

Fakiri lived in Kabul until age 9, when her family fled the Soviet invasion and settled in the United States, first in New York, then San Jose. Of seven brothers, one sister and her parents, she’s the only one who returned. She concedes that she had idyllic images of her childhood until she witnessed the war’s destruction and how different most Afghans were from her. They were not concerned with ideals and nostalgia; they were worried about just getting through the day.

In the past two years, most expatriates have returned to the United States and elsewhere after the Taliban began a campaign of kidnappings and suicide bombings, delaying many reconstruction efforts. Only a few have remained.

Homa Clifford, owner of a real estate agency in Fremont, arrived in Kabul in 2004 with her husband, Abdullah, an accountant for a U.S. company hired to reform Afghanistan’s financial system. She said a lack of confidence in local government and deteriorating security sent them packing a year later. However, Clifford says she would return once a “safe and secure environment” has been established.

Fakiri also points out that life in Kabul as a woman has not been easy. She has stopped smiling at people, especially men, who might perceive it as a sign of promiscuity. She dresses more conservatively, wearing long-sleeved, knee-length skirts with slacks and a head scarf outside the office.

“I lost the freedom to be myself. I’m friendly, social and interact with men and women, and here I have to watch what I wear, who I talk to. If I go walking, I have to take one of my guards.

“There are days when I say I can’t do this anymore (until) I see someone who didn’t have enough food to eat running a business,” she said.

A half hour from Fakiri’s posh office, six Afghan women are sewing, embroidering and making jewelry in a collective business they call Medina. With a $540 loan from Parwaz, they have moved their enterprise to a two-story building with three small rooms, where they also teach disabled children literacy and arts and crafts.

On a recent morning, three young women sat in front of Chinese-made sewing machines as their instructor, Habiba, showed them how to sew various patterns.

Nazifa, 20, who is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair, says she wants to learn how to sew and read and write so she can eventually support herself. Neither student nor teacher would give their last names.

“In the beginning, I didn’t think women would be able to open businesses and be able to pay back the loan,” Fakiri said. “But about 98 percent are paying off their loans. If the security is good, I could stay here forever.”

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