When Fatima Rahmati found out the Orlando killer was Afghan American she was shocked and scared — fearful that her community could suffer reprisals in an increasingly toxic political climate.
“Everyone is still in shock,” said the Women for Afghan Women program coordinator. “It’s scary.”
Her group provides services such as English classes and driving lessons to Afghan Americans living in New York.
There are an estimated 80,000 to 300,000 Afghan Americans. The largest communities are in California and Virginia, but thousands more live in New York, where shooter Omar Mateen was born in 1986.
Like many Americans of all backgrounds, Afghans are frustrated by failures to ban assault rifles in America. They are also weary of being asked to explain or apologize for the acts of deranged individuals.
“At this point, you don’t know the backlash,” said Rahmati, 37, scrambling to convene an emergency women’s meeting to raise awareness should anyone spot suspicious activity or should children be harassed in school, for example.
A New York Times investigation after last November’s terror attacks in Paris and the San Bernardino shooting in December found that the rate of suspected hate crimes against Muslims tripled in America.
Activists say Islamophobia has reached unprecedented levels, fueled by acts of terror and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims entering America.
“If you think worse-case scenario there could be retribution by any number of groups,” said Rahmati. “I feel like the political climate feeds into that fire,” she said, anxious about Trump’s success in the 2016 campaign so far.
“Is that a reflection of the country as a whole?”
Americans, she says, can be taken aback to learn she’s Afghan and Muslim, her striking appearance and Western dress at odds with pictures they see in the media of women in burqas on dusty streets in Afghanistan.
Yet she, like many Afghans in America, was once a refugee. Born in Afghanistan, she grew up in Australia and came to the United States 12 years ago.
Until the Syrian war, Afghans were the largest refugee population in the world. The 1980 Soviet invasion saw millions flee to Iran and Pakistan as their country became a battleground in the Cold War.
Their lives were rarely easy. Afghans who were doctors and teachers at home had to settle for menial work. The community in New York is diverse, numbering cab drivers, cleaners, surgeons, teachers, business owners and philanthropists.
Nationally, there is also a small but visible Afghan American elite. Zalmay Khalilzad, for example, served as US ambassador to Kabul, Baghdad and the United Nations under president George W. Bush.
Khaled Hosseini, author of international bestseller “The Kite Runner,” is another renowned Afghan American.
Wazhmah Osman, 42, was sickened and appalled by the target in Orlando — a gay nightclub that would have been a refuge for many.
She is a member of the Afghan American Artists and Writers’ Association, which is fully supportive of LGBTQ rights, rights she said are “very much in keeping with our Afghan and Muslim beliefs.”
“That hit home for me,” she told AFP of the massacre.
The organization scrambled to put out a statement condemning the attack to counteract “vitriol and the hateful rhetoric” from the media, she said.
“Some of us identify as queer and across the spectrum of gender and sexuality, and it was very important for us to express our deepest regret.”
Khaalid Abdulmalik, a part-time engineering student who teaches the Koran to children, reserves his anger for Mateen and other self-radicalized attackers who have nothing to do with Islam.
“We lose sleep over it at night because first of all it’s a very bad act and second of all now we’re facing more bigotry,” the 28-year-old told AFP.
“I really get angry,” he said. “It’s making us look bad and we have to deal with the ramifications. And not just us. Basically every Muslim everywhere.”
Donning Islamic dress in the mosque, he is careful to wear Western clothes on the street. Sometimes, Abdulmalik said, people tell his hijab-wearing wife “go back to your country” — comments he dismisses as “stupid stuff.”
Perhaps, he said, tighter gun laws could help. Afghans, just as any other American could easily become the next target.
“I don’t want something like that happening when I’m outside or God forbid my family,” said Abdulmalik. “Why not try to control it, see if it brings any change.”