A international lawyer turned policy analyst, Sahar Fathi, is a powerhouse of social change on a mission to shakeup how city policy is made.
When you ask Fathi, who works at the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, what her job means to her, she’ll tell you it defines her.
Before she landed her current job, Fathi graduated cum laude from the University of Southern California, studied law and international studies at the University of Washington, attended two different universities in France and became a member of the New York Bar Association, and ran for State Legislature.
Oh, and she also worked as a legal clerk in Rwanda in her twenties.
Yeah, she’s pretty cool.
Her work at the city level began as an aide to Councilmember Mike O’Brien, where she worked on homeless issues and public safety, striving for equity for everyone.
Continuing her fight for fairness, Fathi now finds herself carefully evaluating and examining the policies that effect immigrants and refugees in Seattle.
What got you started down this career path?
I’m Iranian-American and I was born in Boston, but both my parents are Iranian. They came over with the revolution in 1979.
We used to go visit Iran for the summer, and in Iran when you’re nine you become a woman, so you have to wear a headscarf.
We went to the beach and there were a lot of crackdowns happening. My mother asked me to put on a headscarf and my cousin was nine and didn’t have to wear one because she looked like she was seven.
So I had to sit on the beach while all the other kids were playing and I had to be the model woman. I was watching the water and the tide came in and there was this woman wearing a long chador. She ran after her little boy in the water and the water started to swirl around her and the tide caught her and pulled her under.
I was watching as she almost drowned and people had to drag her out. And, as legend has it, I told my mother that I was going to work at an international criminal tribunal and bring justice for all these women. So I’ve been doing it ever since I was nine.
How did you get into your current position right now?
It’s a long story and I have no idea! Okay, so I studied to be an attorney and when I was in law school I still wanted to work at a criminal tribunal.
So I went to the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda. They only take really, really big criminals and all the rest of the criminals don‘t get heard. Which means that most people are living next door to people who committed genocide against their families. And it also means that a lot of orphans are living in subsidized housing ten feet away from where their parents were killed in front of them.
I was 22 or 23 and I went to the UN to practice Genocide/Humanitarian law, which is like the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life. The case I was working on had been going on for ten years. Four people were being tried for conspiracy to commit genocide, which is really hard to prove. So I remember thinking that I’m not doing anything for these kids, so I came back to the U.S., back to Seattle.
Eventually I worked for Councilman O’Brien on the city council.
In 2010 in Ballard, there were 800 people living in their cars, which is a lot for a small neighborhood. What we found was the way that homelessness is defined, is that if you live in your car, it is considered an asset. So you can’t apply for benefits because you had $2,000 in collateral, but you didn‘t actually have anything you were just living in your car.
There were tons of opportunities for these people, but they weren’t quite homeless yet and we couldn’t get them into services. So we created this pilot, it got all this recognition, and then I decided to run for office.
When I ran [for State Representative], it was on a platform of accessibility and inclusivity for low-income, homeless, immigrants and refugees. I think what happened is that I was so convincing on immigrant and refugee issues that they recruited me to the position I’m in now when I lost. That’s how I got here!
It’s been my niche a lot at the city. I’m always the one who’s at the table asking, “How are refugees going to access this? How do we change the contract so refugees can get in?”
How did studying abroad affect your work with policies and issues here in Seattle?
When I first went abroad to the Sorbonne (France), that was a year where I understood what it was like to be a foreign student.
Oh. My. God! It is so much harder. I mean, I’m a very educated person, but there were times where I couldn’t even communicate that I wanted a certain credit to be transferred over because I just didn’t have that vocabulary.
So I think I gained a lot of humility and that’s probably why I’m so obsessed with translation and interpretation right now at the city. Because it’s not fair to a lot of people, because they are very smart, it’s just this language barrier.
Do you think that Seattle is welcoming enough to immigrants and refugees?
No, but I don’t think it’s intentional. I think we fall off pretty quickly in terms of standards, but it’s not because we’re mean.
It’s because of things like equitable zoning. I don’t think anyone goes into Chinatown and says “Let’s make them suffer.” But rent rises and minimum wage needs to rise with it but it doesn’t, you know what I mean?
We are probably okay with living in the current status-quo. We are still trying to make a difference, which is what I admire quite a bit about Seattleites — because they always mean well. Sometimes we mess up a little, but we always mean well.
Do you think there is enough diversity in congress and in legislature?
No, no, no. That was one of the reasons I ran for State Legislature. I constantly told people of color to run, but it’s hard. You have to say certain things and you can’t be different.
And at the same time I think we could do a hell of a lot more to help people run. I think we have far too much money in politics, far too much is dependent on people in power.