Senzela Atmar is using the power of photography and social media to start a dialogue about everyday life in Afghanistan and beyond. A native of the country, Senzela founded Relief Without Borders, a U.S.-based non-profit that restores Afghanistan, and other developing countries, through awareness campaigns and mission aid projects. The creative initiative started on Instagram, where Relief Without Borders’ 23,000+ followers are invited to visualize life in developing countries beyond the conflict, violence and tragedy so often associated with the people who live there. Setting aside personal religious beliefs and political opinions, Senzela welcomes people to believe in the common thread of humanity. Senzela’s personal journey is as inspirational as the stories shared on the Relief Without Boarder’s page, and today, she shares that story with us. It is with pleasure we introduce Senzela as today’s FACE of Nashville!
Tell us about your background.
My family is from Laghman, Afghanistan. In the early ’90s, we were forced to flee our province and move into the city of Kabul. The country was under the control of extremist groups — currently known and referred to as the Taliban. At the time, the city of Kabul was labeled to be safer than the rural areas. I was the youngest of six children and the child to be born in the midst of the “Butcher of Kabul” bombings in 1992. We lived in these unsafe conditions for three years, until the government declared a ceasefire for 72 hours. This was my family’s only opportunity to travel cross-country to reach the Jalalabad province, which is about 33 hours by foot. My family of eight ended up having to walk most of this. We were told to meet a caravan in Jalalabad to drive us to the border of Pakistan. This was where everyone was seeking refuge. My parents registered us into the United Nations camp. While living in the camp, we were bullied a lot. My parents would worry about us even playing outside in the camps because there were killings and kidnapping. Someone even attempted to kidnap my 13-year-old brother Iqbal. The teenagers that tried to take him from us ended up killing him by running him over with a car. The body was simply wrapped in a bed sheet and handed to my father, who had no choice but to bury his own son. He ended up returning to Afghanistan to make the casket and tombstone by hand.
The depression caused my father, in his mid-40s, to have a heart attack in the camps. He was told to expect death in the coming weeks. Our relatives abroad didn’t know how to help us because we weren’t allowed to leave. My mother’s sister in Nashville, TN, sent us money every month so we could afford to move out of the tents and into some makeshift apartments that were a bit more secure. We ended up staying in the UN camps for over two years. My family knew it wasn’t safe to return, but we didn’t have a plan moving forward. My mom ended up helping a UK-based non-profit called Shelter Now. She was their teacher; she taught them all the new dialects from Afghanistan so they could interact better with the refugees. My father, being in the health condition that he was in, would stay home with the five children. Little did we know that our oldest brother, who was about 16 years old, was applying us into the U.S. Embassy Visa Lottery – a lottery that less than 1% of people in developing countries ever win. The odds were against us, but in 1997, our family was selected, and we all received our green cards to immediately move to America. We were in such shock that we actually didn’t immediately act on it until my mom’s sister told us it was real.
We were advised to move to Nashville, and we stayed with my aunt for about six months. My parents got jobs at McDonald’s and the local grocery store – they both walked to work. The kids were enrolled into school for the first time in years. Our community showed my family so much love. A 70-year-old woman who met my mother within months of us arriving took me to the dentist because I would cry day and night about my rotted teeth; Gloria paid for all of my dental needs. Families delivered us food and aid almost on a weekly basis. Another woman drove her car to our house, told us she wanted to give us her car, and then asked for a ride home. The reason I share the blessings my family has seen is because most refugees stories don’t play out the same way as mine did. Not everyone has a resourceful brother to apply for a visa lottery. Not everyone had a generous aunt in America to send them money. And not everyone receives the amount of compassion and love that we did.
How did the idea come about for Relief Without Borders (RWB), and when did it officially start?
Up until 9/11, Afghanistan was a foreign word to most. Post-9/11, I remember that I couldn’t go a week without someone calling me a terrorist or making a racist joke. The initial feeling I had was to be ashamed; I quickly turned that into an avenue to educate my peers and others that the word Afghanistan doesn’t equate to being a bad person. I had to explain the history of my country, tell them how behind it was and that extremists were trying to take over and implement their extremist ideology. I would then tell them about Afghans who were terrorized and that my own brother was killed for these reasons. It was unfortunate that I had to explain the simple fact that just because you’re born somewhere doesn’t make you a certain person. It would be like saying all people from Austria are evil because Hitler is from there. This repeated conversation gave me the idea of “People of Afghanistan” (POA), an online awareness platform that used social media and media outlets to tell everyday stories of the diverse people in Afghanistan. It gave them a voice — a voice that was heard all around the world. POA became viral within a few months. I was receiving e-mails and messages from non-profits asking to reach the people we were featuring. I worked with a team in Nashville to rebrand POA to Relief Without Borders (RWB). This name change would allow us to not only educate and aid people about Afghanistan but to also do so elsewhere.
We officially rebranded from POA to Relief Without Borders mid-2017. The idea was in me as early as I could comprehend the question, “What to do you want to do/be when you’re older?” but I wasn’t sure about the when or how.
What is the biggest misconception about life in Afghanistan?
The funniest would be that it’s a big flat desert. When people learn and see the beautiful mountains, they are blown away.
But the biggest misconception would be that there is just one culture in Afghanistan and that it’s not monolithic.
Is there any one story/portrait that stands out to you?
Rahmina and her family have a similar story to many Afghans. They are internally displaced and living in really harsh conditions waiting for their country to become safer so they can resettle in their hometown. The photo highlights her black rotted teeth, but her smile is contagious and numb to her living condition. RWB has aided her village numerous times, and this photo was taken during our spring 2018 aid where we provided her family with cooking supplies, food and clothes.
When did you realize there was a further-reaching effect that sharing the stories on Instagram could have?
It was when people assumed we were a non-profit and treated us like so. An Australian sports gear non-profit offered to ship us soccer balls and toys after seeing a soccer video we posted. I realized if I didn’t hurry up and become a 501(c)3 that I’d be doing a disservice to these people by not being able to be the vessel to connect the people who want to help those in need.
During aid missions, what is the focus, and why?
To find an immediate need, document it on our platforms and aid it. What makes us different from other non-governmental organizations is that we really want our donors and followers to see exactly where their contribution is going. Our next aid mission will focus on the lack of education in different villages in Afghanistan. We are working with local universities to supply thousands of backpacks filled with aid supply, to be shipped and distributed. Providing education is one of the most important things you can give to someone in a developing country.
What is the best piece of advice you have received and from whom?
My mother has been my role model and someone who has been able to advise me a lot about RWB. She has spent the last 11 years working for the U.S. military as a linguist. She has spent the past decade living in Afghanistan and only seeing her family 10% of the time, on average about a month a year. During her time in Afghanistan, she showed so much compassion and love to everyone and anyone. From the military men she treated like sons to the orphans in villages she was sent to — she had the opportunity to be a vessel of God’s love to people. While I don’t have one memorable piece of advice from her, she is who I turn to for that.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
The ability to travel abroad, hot showers and chocolate chip cookies.
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