A Social Media Influencer Supporting Afghan Women from Queens

Zahra Sahebzada had a view of the Manhattan skyline long before she moved into her Long Island City apartment. “It was on my vision board a few years back,” she said. “I’m all about manifesting.”

Previously she was living in Hicksville, N.Y., on Long Island, where her family moved 20 years ago. Around 2016, she got into the habit of taking the 45-minute train ride into the city so she could go to Queens and stand at the water’s edge, staring at the skyline across the East River.

“It wasn’t just a magical city view,” Ms. Sahebzada said. “It was a view of hope. I always prayed, standing there, and I said, ‘God, I don’t know when, but allow me to live here one day.’”

Queens, after all, was where her family first landed in the United States when Ms. Sahebzada was 8. Her mother fled Afghanistan near the end of the Afghan-Soviet War, traveling ahead of her husband, and gave birth to Ms. Sahebzada in Nantes, France, where the family settled briefly. Undocumented and feeling unwelcome, they moved on to Hamburg, Germany, for a few years, before settling in Queens and eventually becoming U.S. citizens.

Sometimes on her sojourns back to the borough, Ms. Sahebzada would stop into the leasing office where the developer TF Cornerstone was welcoming applicants to fill 2,614 apartments along Center Boulevard. She knew she couldn’t afford to move into one — not yet — but each time she saw a new apartment it motivated her.

Ms. Sahebzada, now 31, splits her time between working as a special events manager for Tory Burch, the designer known for preppy and bohemian fashion, and as a social media influencer, known primarily for her makeup tutorials. She posted her first video in 2009. “At that time,” she said, “it wasn’t at all about monetizing it. It was a hobby that I really enjoyed.”

It took her a few years to get comfortable in front of the camera. “When you put yourself out there,” she said, “different opinions come in, and you have to build a thick skin. But that’s the beauty of being a content creator: You get to have an authentic, organic relationship with your audience.”

Eventually, she wanted to connect with a bigger audience, and was frustrated by how difficult that was. “It was never about asking, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ but instead asking, ‘How do I change the industry?’ That goes for the world of influencers and beauty and fashion — everything,” she said.

Ms. Sahebzada, who speaks five languages (English, Farsi, German, Hindi and Urdu), took note that there were far more tutorials in English than in Farsi, the language she grew up speaking: “So I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to take advantage of who I am — let me do it in my native language.’”

From there, her audience grew. Now nearly all of her videos are in Farsi, and 80 percent of her followers are in Afghanistan, most of them in Kabul. “Girls back in Afghanistan say to me, ‘You give me hope.’ Doors open for them, and that’s my main purpose,” she said. “It isn’t even about the makeup or the technique — it was more about having the courage to go on camera and identify as an Afghan woman.”

As she found success with her YouTube channel, Ms. Sahebzada became more serious about renting an apartment in Long Island City. She wanted to make it happen before she reached 50,000 followers on Instagram. In January, after she had 43, 000 followers, she signed her lease, and a few months later she posted a video celebrating 50,000 followers. (She now has 54,000 and counting.)

Her studio apartment is well lit but small; she had to be creative to squeeze in a Covid-era home office, living space and a good spot to film her videos. “I’m the editor, I’m the videographer, I’m the talent, I’m the IT department,” she said. “It’s a one-woman show, for sure.”

The space where she makes her videos is adorned with personal effects and fashion statements, including a cross-body handbag with a brass-chain strap, Tory Burch pumps with metallic heels and a sketch of a young girl with her face turned backward — an image Ms. Sahebzada identifies with. “I wanted to give a feeling of being in my home.”

Sometimes she makes use of the building’s shared spaces — a roof deck, a lounge — to film her videos. She feels at home in the larger, diverse community that makes up the cluster of five high-rises. “I see people with my skin color, same religion and similar cultures. I don’t feel uncomfortable walking into the building,” she said.

$2,300 | Long Island City

Occupation: Ms. Sahebzada is a social media influencer and special events manager for Tory Burch.

Career path: After majoring in theater arts at Five Towns College, Ms. Sahebzada struggled to find her way. “As an Afghan-American woman,” she said, “it was very hard to break into that industry. So I had to create a space for myself and find my own audience.”

Benefits of a good boss: Ms. Sahebzada is grateful for the support her employer has shown Afghan women. “I’m incredibly honored to be working for Tory Burch,” she said.

Her favorite aspect of the makeup tutorials is what she sees as their empowering essence. “It’s not just about having a pretty face,” she said. “It’s about being confident. Because when you feel good, you do good.”

Ms. Sahebzada’s profile grew enough to catch the attention of producers at Tolo TV, one of the largest television broadcasters in Afghanistan. And in the spring of 2020, her tutorials became a regular Sunday morning segment. “I was trying to show the girls they can be themselves in whatever creative way they want,” she said.

Her role as an influencer has been her way of connecting to what she described as “the homeland I’ve never seen.” But that connection was severed last summer, as the U.S. military left Afghanistan and the Taliban regained control of the country.

Around the time of the withdrawal, Ms. Sahebzada received a late-night call from her producer at Tolo TV, telling her that the Taliban had informed the network that women were not to appear on the air until further notice — and Ms. Sahebzada had been singled out.

“The producer told me they specifically mentioned my name: ‘Zahra is forbidden to be on this program,’” she said. “I’m across the world. The fact that the Taliban knew my name, that was a scary thing.”

In September, after a few months away from social media, she started posting videos again. She is grateful that she still has access to these platforms, but she knows that much of her audience has been cut off from YouTube and Instagram.

“The fact that there is someone trying to shut the door on Afghan women — I am blessed to be in a safe space,” she said. “All I can think about are the girls who are there, who are not in a safe space.”

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