People Who Inspire Us: Mahbooba Akhtar

People Who Inspire Us:: Mahbooba Akhtar (Kabita)

In this month’s (April)  “Inspiring Sakhi” series, we feature Mahbooba Akhtar (Kabita), a researcher and advocate, who is an unsung hero in New York City’s South Asian community. Here’s her story in her own words:

I first came to the United States in 2004, when I was invited by Johns Hopkins University to work as a consultant on an HIV/AIDS project they were doing in Bangladesh, India and Cambodia to identify how traditions and behaviors had increased or decreased the risk of HIV/AIDS.


I remember noticing that it was much easier to reach and talk about HIV/AIDS among commercial sex workers in Sonagachi, than it was among housewives – who are also selling sex, only they do it in their own homes with cultural sanctions. Now that I think about it, I don’t know why it surprised me.


It is always so much harder to deal with challenges inside of our homes and families than outside. My personal experience was like that.


I got married in Bangladesh when I was 13, and by 15, I knew that I could not stay in that relationship, so I decided to end the relationship. So, after some struggling, I decided to leave the home.  My daughter was only one year old at that time, and I needed support, but my family did not accept my decision to leave my husband’s home. But I still left. I went to my grandparents and told them that they have to take care of me. They didn’t like my choice either, but they accepted me.


I was still going to school at that time. I remember how much I loved school. I really loved sports, and was always ready to participate in every game, and wanted to win. One evening I remember we had a sports competition at school. I joined all the games and was so caught up in winning that I forgot about my daughter who was at home with my grandparents. When I got home that evening, my grandmother was very angry with me. She told me I am not a good mother, and that this was not the way to behave. After that day, I stopped all the extra activities and just came home after school to take care of my daughter.


I really wanted to finish my education, so I became very focused. I finished my Secondary School Certificate and then enrolled in college. But that was not so simple, because I did not have the money to pay for college. So I went when I could afford it, and when I did not have money, I did not go. I managed somehow to finish my bachelor’s education. I also found work, raised my daughter, sent her to college and got her married. That was a great accomplishment.


After the Johns Hopkins program ended, I took the opportunity to stay in the United States, and build my life here. At that time, I had no work permit, so I started to volunteer with APICHA using my previous work experience to do outreach and awareness raising work on HIV/AIDS. But I had to also worry about my survival, so I did different jobs. I did housekeeping, babysitting, taking care of the elderly, any job I could find.


When I got my work permit, I worked with many community-based organizations in New York City. I worked at CONNECT and met 14-15 other women, who together formed Shakti Peer Group. Shakti Peer Group’s goal is to end violence against women through training, education and outreach. I was trained as a peer educator, and I trained many other women on understanding gender roles and the dynamics of violence. We went directly to different sections of our community like mosques, melas and other events to increase awareness about preventing violence and offer support to each other.


The Shakti Peer Group has reached over one thousand community members using creative methods such as small group sessions over chai and samosas, speaking to community members in public spaces, and holding informative workshops on domestic violence, gender roles and provided culturally specific resources for women in need.  Our members have spoken at various local and national conferences on our unique strategy to combat violence against women through a peer education approach.


At that time, my daughter was also having similar issues in her marriage. She was in Bangladesh, and I was in New York. For a few years, I tried to do whatever I can from here, but then I realized she really needs my help. She was facing a lot of opposition from our family members around her. I said to my daughter, as I say to anyone I speak to about life and choices; you can take whatever decision you want. In any situation,  just make sure you don’t hurt yourself. You can take whatever decision you want in your life, even if everybody opposes, you have to do what makes you happy.


In 2011, I went to Bangladesh to be with my daughter. I left my job to stay there for 2-3 months with my daughter. At that time, my personal life was very very challenging. My family including brothers, cousins, and elders were very upset with me for supporting my daughter. She was unhappy, and they wanted her to stay in the marriage. I told them, she is my daughter, and I will support her on whatever her decision is.


Today, I am back in New York, and I am working to finish my Bachelors in Business Administration at DeVry University. I started this education also a while ago, but still there are many other things that happen in family and life, that are more important, so I have been slowly finishing my degree.


Now I have another goal. I have already started to work on starting an organization here that is different from others. There are many non-profit organizations doing very good work on different issues but there is always one element I have found missing. Nobody starts at 0, everyone starts at 1. In my statistics class I am learning that you count from 0, not 1.


My goal is to start at point 0 in the life of a new immigrant. People like me when they come here, have a lot of needs. We need to understand the system in this country, we need somebody to show us the essentials, how to bring children to schools, how to find jobs, how to file paperwork, how to travel around efficiently, all these things that everyone figures out the very hard way. That is point 0- that is where we need to begin.


Dishari is the name of the organization I am working on. In Bengali, it means guide or they who show the way. I want new immigrant families to have a dishari. Someplace that will help an entire family with the resources they need to settle into a new world and find their way is very important. That is a good way to prevent many other issues.


After establishing it, I want to make programs to support women, because I know that when a family first comes here, the woman always sacrifices her wishes for the betterment of her family. We are cooks, babysitters, cleaners and so much more for others, but we do little for ourselves.


By starting it as a family organization and supporting and empowering women in that context, we can truly help and transform our community.


Our series continues here and on Twitter. Tweet @SakhiNYC with #InspiringSakhi and tell us who is a source of inspiration and action in your life.