North Stars ft. Rubina Nafees Fatima

I met Rubina Nafees Fatima too late in life. My loss entirely.

The quiet dignity, steel-like strength, complete conviction in her chosen path and a value system based on faith and goodness. So many things about her that inspire me.  As I got to know her better, my intrigue only increased, along with complete awe of how she had altered her own comfortable life to such a vast degree with the sole ambition of serving those who needed attention.  

We are trustees of the privilege we receive.  We have a duty as human beings to serve beyond our immediate family.

Some words I’d often heard took new meaning as I understood Rubina more and more.  Trusteeship, service, fairness, responsibility.  The full extent of these words came to me through her. 

Rubina’s story begins and grows on the desire of a just and fair society.  It’s a story of an ordinary life making extraordinary choices.  A story that seems like any of ours to begin with, following the expected path, fulfilling societal expectations, discharging her duties to the best of her abilities.  But then it becomes a beautiful example of forging her own way, honouring her calling, pursuing her mission entirely against the norm, something very few of us have the courage for.  

Rubina at the kitchen incubator and cloud kitchen, which is also the manufacturing floor for uniforms and men's wear. (Pic. Courtesy: SAFA)

Rubina’s father was in the army, which meant moving homes with each posting, exposing Rubina to an India that was diverse and culturally rich.  It also exposed her to complex societal issues beyond her own protected life.  Through that phase, her loving grandfather sowed the seeds of social responsibility within her, mainly through the way he conducted his life with her as his witness.

He gifted her with empathy and wisdom which she carries with her to this day. 

It’s okay to give weddings a miss. Never miss visiting an ill person. Never miss funerals. People are around us in happy times, but in misery, one is alone, so never miss checking in on them.

Decades later Rubina still quotes him and the lessons she has internalized at the young age of seven. Lessons cast in stone in Rubina’s sense of responsibility.

Travelling through Rajasthan with family, young Rubina was thirsty while spending the night in a house provided by the army. She went with her sister to take water from a container outside. As she was about to pick the glass, the guard came running in panic, asking them not to touch it. Baffled by his demeanour, the girls followed his instructions and put both their hands together to drink the water he poured out so they don’t touch the glass.  Later when she narrated the incident to her family, they were not surprised at all and asked her to let it be. Unnerved completely, Rubina learnt what discrimination feels like that day. It made a lasting impact on her.

After her father retired from the Army, Rubina’s family settled in Hyderabad. When the time came to choose a career path, Rubina seriously contemplated completing her Masters in Social Work after graduation without knowing what it truly encompassed. Well-meaning family members intervened.  Social workers are jhola wallas who keep roaming around in villages. Why would she want to do that?

Discouraged out of her natural choice, with not much information for argument, Rubina opted for travel and tourism, eventually building a career in that field. Life moved on, and she got married, finally moving to Saudi Arabia. Her natural restlessness led her to look beyond her immediate work in travel and tourism, and she started looking for opportunities to volunteer.

Rubina raised money for floods in India, worked on small projects, joined the Sri Lankan expatriate’s Association to care for Sri Lankan abused housemates, worked on weekends as counsellor, all the while gaining her understanding of social issues through each experience. By now, she was a professional and a mother of children who needed a better education system for high school. Rubina moved back to India with her children for their schooling while her husband continued to serve his employment in Saudi Arabia.  

Rubina’s return to India in many ways was the beginning of her new journey.  Having started a profitable business for training and placements in the travel industry the restlessness in her was catching up. She had been volunteering for someone else’s vision so far. It was now time to work on her vision.  

And thus, SAFA was born out of a deep desire to serve and to change.  An apt name for a mission that paid respects to two huge influencers in Rubina’s life, Suleman Ali and Aftab Ali, her grandfather and her father. 

Women connected to livelihoods through a social enterprise model around tailoring and stitching. (Pic. Courtesy: SAFA)

The mission was clear. Income generation for women alongside empowering them to manage and respect the ecosystem they come from. Women were trained to gain skills, sensitized for managing money, managing family expectations and negotiating with families to avoid backlash violence from men who would be threatened by an erstwhile dependent wife/sister now earning good incomes. SAFA’s methodology included enabling men to see value in working women.  

Extremely driven and excited to have finally begun, Rubina however had not shared this life-changing move even with her family and friends.  She was worried that people would laugh at her.  Mock her as being one of those women who want a cute hobby on the side.  For the longest time, people attributed it to her need to have something to pass the time with.  People still ask her if she goes to office every day.

So, for a while, she juggled two hats, running her business and also SAFA.  Finally, Rubina decided to take the risk and close her profitable business to focus on her NGO.  What's the worst thing that could happen?  Would she fail?  That seemed to be a risk worth taking. 

Here is why I find all of this so remarkable: To an outsider, Rubina had everything going well for her.  She had a good family, was financially independent, and was expected to be satisfied and lead a life expected from most women.   I’m sure she heard all the usual questions - Why do you struggle?  Why are you not focusing on your family?  What is the need for all this?   What you are doing is the Government’s job.  

I ask her about it and she underplays it, of course.  In her soft, curtailed style she tells me:

We haven’t been placed here to live only for ourselves.  Our prime duty is to be useful to others.  How can our life be limited only to self-absorption?  If we have had the privilege to have education, intelligence and capability, it is imperative for us to lift those who haven’t, isn’t it?

I have served my family as best as I could.  Now my path is clear.  I will live my life serving.  I have my family who I care deeply for and then I have a large family of many, many people who need care.

In fact, we need to start early.  Should not be so self-involved that we can’t see beyond ourselves.  Can't wait till we grow old.  We have to start serving while we are younger.

When she shut down her profitable venture, true to her fears, most well-wishers struggled to understand her commitment to SAFA.  People were expecting her to be a part time social worker, and she was determined to prove them wrong. With each passing month and year, her seriousness and dedication were obvious.  

Today, 11 years after a quiet beginning, SAFA has 96 full time employees, works in 246 slums with 22 projects in 9 centres.  While she finds joy in that, she is pragmatic & refuses to feel a sense of achievement. 

Team SAFA (Pic. courtesy SheThePeople & SAFA)

There’s so much to do! - is her quick response. This is not a destination.  In fact, there is always a sense of having not done enough.

SAFA continues to thrive and Rubina continues to lead it with the precision of a practical leader with great delegation, trust and also a very fine eye for good processes.  This focus on good processes that can be replicated enabled her to institutionalize work-from-home options for many women making it easier for more women to participate.

Rubina’s love for her team, her admiration for the grit they have shines through as she speaks.  Her wonderful team energizes her in the way they care and execute for SAFA as if it was their own.  During the pandemic when migrants began to walk, a frustrated Rubina posted on the team WhatsApp group “Should we begin relief operations?”  Within a minute there were multiple 'Yes's' and the SAFA COVID-19 Relief work began.

SAFA led the Youth Feed India Relief Campaign, a nationwide youth led movement in participation with 12 Foundations to provide dry rations to those who were struggling to buy essentials and couldn't work from home. This campaign reached out to more than 70,000 people with 42,00,000 meals across Hyderabad, Delhi, North Karnataka, Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai, Gurgaon and Pondicherry.

I watched her in admiration as she pulled all stops to have this enormous campaign do what was needed.  It is my privilege to know this extraordinary woman, who is vulnerable and exceptionally strong, sensitive with an iron will, all at the same time.  I take in the beauty of her words as she tells me,

God gives everyone an opportunity to serve but only few are gifted with the ability to use that opportunity and serve.  

I have been given that gift, I am God’s chosen child.

If you'd like to support SAFA's incredible work, head over to this link and donate:

naghma mulla

Owner of the loudest laugh in the room and a development sector professional by day, Naghma is a by-mistake CA, who writes what she feels and feels what she writes.