Tariq Rasuli was in his first days of kindergarten in Queens, New York, when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 transformed New York City and led to rampant anti-Muslim sentiment.
“This was my first experience in school being outside of the home regularly. And you are looked at and treated differently being Muslim and Afghan,” he said. “It affects the way you look at your own language and culture and your own family’s background. Media and strangers in the streets are talking about where you are from, and you know that your culture is the polar opposite of what they are saying. It is a pretty difficult thing to balance.”
As a child, it pained Tariq to see children in the news who looked like him, were the same age, from the same region and spoke the same dialect, and who had no access to education or who had lost their parents, or who had even died, while he sat comfortably in New York.
Since then, Tariq has been focused on developing a deeper, more accurate understanding of Afghanistan, the country his family fled before he was born, a country he has never visited. He has worked to counter the singular image of violence and destruction and barren land that dominated media by learning about the country’s history and by listening to stories from his family and others about Afghanistan’s natural beauty, its culture and its art.
“My number one goal is to change the narrative of the country with what little platform I have,” he said. “And then secondly, I want to be able to go back to Afghanistan and contribute. A lot of Afghan Americans feel hopeless about our country. I take the opposite outlook. In a country with so much destruction and lack of development, there is more opportunity for your impact, outreach and aid to go so much further.”
Tariq’s parents escaped the communist, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1986 at a time when it was illegal to leave the country, and they joined other war refugees in Pakistan.
His family had built stores, homes and mosques in Afghanistan, and his paternal grandfather stayed behind to look after those properties. For years, his grandfather heroically hid families and children inside these buildings to protect them from military conscription.
In 1990, Tariq’s parents arrived in the U.S. with three children. Tariq was born five years later.
Growing up in Flushing, Queens, Tariq was a strong student, who was known for constantly talking, making friends with whoever was sitting nearby. His friends were Korean, Indian, Colombian and Mexican.
“Where I lived, you found out you weren’t so different because everyone had something different about the way they spoke or dressed or ate,” he said. “It was only when you were around people who didn’t come from a second culture, that you noticed how different you felt.”
Tariq is grateful to have had that community. “We didn’t have a lot of things,” he said, “but my childhood was rich in experiences.”
Tariq graduated from Fordham University in 2018 with a double major in biology and history. Studying history helped him better understand the forces that had led Afghanistan to be on the front lines of war for his entire life.
“We are often painted as this country that is regressive and overly conservative or with little desire to live in the modern age, and that is so far from the truth,” Tariq said. “In the 1920s, when Afghanistan achieved formal independence, the constitution guaranteed more rights for women than any constitution in the world,” he said.
When other countries and leaders with their own political interests intentionally destabilized the central government, Afghanistan became the battered and fractured country it has been for decades.
“The government has been so weak and toppled so many times. There are people who have had no interaction with the government authority for hundreds of years. They have no health care or running water. Many of these issues are holdovers from foreign interventions and invasions. It can all be traced back to that,” Tariq said.
While in college, Tariq volunteered for the Afghan Education Foundation, a small organization funding education-based micro projects in rural parts of Afghanistan. Tariq found it “addicting” to be able to concretely help people in Afghanistan
Tariq dreams of visiting the country, and seeing its rivers, cascading mountains and the pomegranate season in person. Despite the ongoing violence and instability, Tariq would like to start and lead his own grassroots organization in Afghanistan in the next five years.
“I know I will need to build relationships and trust. I want my organization to be operated and run in tandem with the people I seek to help,” he said. “And I am wary of coming in with an overly romanticized image. The country has experienced 40 years of war. There is a lot of cleaning up to do, but I know it is a beautiful place.”
Coming to Vital Strategies after college felt like a logical step for Tariq before starting his own organization. He joined as a compliance officer in the legal department in 2018. His main responsibilities have been to build Vital’s contract life cycle management system and to improve our data privacy and security.
Tariq is pleased to work in operations because it has allowed him to see the work behind the scenes, and because he has gotten to speak to Vital’s leaders and learn from them.
“You can’t sleepwalk through life and be successful. You have to take steps to get there,” he said.
During the pandemic, Tariq has tried to maximize his additional free time—gained by not having to commute a total of three hours every day from his family’s home in Long Island and not being able to go to the gym every evening. He has used that time to learn more about investing and the stock market and finance. He has delighted in his role as uncle to his 4-year-old niece who lives nearby. He reads news about the war in Afghanistan and reads about the experiences of international development organizations working in the country.
“My family went through all this struggle and continue to struggle. I don’t want to waste it,” he said. “I have an obsession with being able to leave some sort of a mark after I live my life. I want to be on the right side of history.”