The Art of Translation

Fairhaven’s Rukhsar Sadat plans to make a career in advocating for immigrant and refugee families like her own
Frances Badgett
Damani Johnson standing under dappled sunlight in red square

The Dr. J Scholarship was established in 2020 in honor of beloved teacher, mentor, scholar, advocate and friend Political Science Professor Vernon Damani Johnson.

Johnson’s research and teaching have centered on the politics of Africa, the Global South, and American race and public policy. He is also a passionate advocate for social justice and racial equity through his work with the Washington State Rainbow Coalition, the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force, the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity, and numerous other activities.

The Dr. J Scholarship is awarded each year to deserving students in the Political Science Department.

“The moment I learned English I became an adult.”

Rukhsar Sadat was born in Afghanistan, a country torn apart by war due to Western imperialism. Her Shia Muslim family was persecuted by the Taliban and victimized by a war waged over decades. Her mother, suffering from trauma and determined to give her seven children an education and a brighter future, made the courageous decision to leave Afghanistan in 2001.

“My mother settled onto the back of a pickup truck in Kabul with as many of us as she could hold. I was still outside. My uncle yelled, ‘Don’t forget Rukhsar!’ and handed me to her,” she says. “I was 2 years old. My life would be so different if I had been left there.”

Today, Sadat is a devoted daughter, caretaker, volunteer and senior at Western. She remembers only bits of her time in Afghanistan, but serving her family and community fills her days and plays a central role in her plans for the future. Those plans have come into shape at Western.

Immense Expectations

After spending several months in a refugee camp in Pakistan, the Sadats were accepted for asylum in the U.S. and initially settled in Michigan. Since becoming fluent in English in first grade, Sadat began her journey as a translator, family caretaker, and serious scholar. Even then, she knew her family’s expectations were immense.

“The moment I learned English, I became an adult” says Sadat.

During Sadat’s freshman year of high school, her mother was hurt on the job and Sadat assumed even greater responsibility, helping her family with forms, claims, and medical appointments.

Sadat attends all her mother’s doctor visits.

“They have translators, but we speak a specific dialect,” Sadat says. “And the information is so personal, my family is just more comfortable having me there rather than a stranger.” Sadat does the same kind of translation work for others

in the Whatcom County’s small Dari-speaking Afghan community.

“I speak a language very few people in the area speak, so I’m serving our community as well as my family. Taking care of my parents is a full-time job, on top of schoolwork and the part-time jobs I need to stay in school,” she says.

Since October, Sadat has been helping her father, a packer in a bakery, achieve citizenship. It’s high-stakes work—and time consuming.

“I had three upper-division classes and a bunch of work due at the end of the quarter, and I had to complete all the paperwork for my dad’s citizenship application. Not only is the process expensive, I had to write an entire legal memo for any missing documents,” she says. “I had to postpone schoolwork to meet the deadline.”

Another big responsibility last year was to help her family vote. “My mom, my siblings, my cousins—I made sure they knew who the candidates were and how to fill out their ballots.”

Sadat is also very active with local nonprofits and campus clubs. She represented Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies on the AS Student Senate and is well known on campus for student advocacy. As a Student Senator, Sadat coauthored the first Ramadan resolution for Muslim students on campus, urging the university to allow them to reschedule exams during the month-long observation of fasting and prayer.

She worked as an office assistant at the Ethnic Student Center, which she calls “the perfect hub to meet other students and get involved, and it’s the perfect center for students of multicultural backgrounds to meet as a social networking opportunity and to grow the BIPOC community at Western. We had planned a WWU Ramadan banquet this year, but COVID happened,” she says.

There are times she needs deadline extensions, extra flexibility in her schoolwork, and an understanding for her unusual home life. A driven student who is deeply achievement-oriented, the pressure to deliver on time with perfect grades can take its toll.

“The pressure to succeed is the same narrative for every immigrant child,” she says. “In taking care of my parents, there is so much at stake all the time, and it’s like, ‘What do you negotiate?’ Dr. Johnson understood that well.”

Sadat found a mentor in Political Science Professor Vernon Damani Johnson, known on campus as “Dr. J.”

“He has done incredible things in our community that I’m inspired by,” says Sadat, who took Johnson’s political science course, Race, Politics, and Public Policy. “After lectures, I often had questions for him. I saw him at the Human Rights Conference and various social justice gatherings, and we always spoke. He’s an amazing leader.”

Johnson is impressed with Sadat and her activism as well: “She distinguished herself right away with the energy and compassion that she brought to class discussions.”

In addition to her advocacy for students on campus, particularly Muslim and Black students, Sadat has already become involved in politics, Johnson says, interning last year for the election campaign of former Fairhaven College faculty member Raquel Montoya-Lewis for the Washington State Supreme Court.

A Life of Advocacy

Sadat will be the first woman in her family to graduate from college, a particularly meaningful achievement given the limitations on education for girls and women in her birth country, which she refers to as “back home.” She sees herself one day giving back to Afghanistan, sharing a piece of her own experience with girls who were just like her. Inspired by Dr. J’s example, she wants to focus on social justice.

“I want to be an attorney and to advocate for families, particularly immigrant and refugee families. A law degree would also give me the social and human capital I would need to follow my dream—to build schools for girls back home. A lot of people want to build schools for girls in Afghanistan, but not a lot of people who do are from there, speak the language, and understand how to negotiate,” she says.

When she thinks about graduation in June, she feels layers of gratitude and responsibility. Being the first woman in her family to graduate with a college degree is a monumental achievement, she knows, but she also thinks about the obstacles for women of color who follow a career in the law. She’s grateful to people like Johnson for encouraging her—and grateful to be the recipient of this year’s “Dr. J. Scholarship,” which recognizes a student who is active in social justice on campus and in the community, who maintains an excellent G.P.A. and demonstrates financial need.

“We started a conversation when I was in his political science class, and we had so many little random interactions on and off campus,” Sadat says. “I look forward to continuing those conversations for the rest of my time at Western and throughout my career. I feel so honored. This scholarship is a tremendous achievement, and it’s all a part of his legacy.”

Sadat’s legacy will be the beautiful way she keeps her focus on social justice, her immigrant identity—both Shia and Afghan— and her sense of “home” while weaving together responsibility to her family, service to her community, her academic achievement and a career in law and advocacy.

Meanwhile, she and her family are still waiting to hear on her father’s citizenship application.

“I look out for the mail every day,” she says.

Frances Badgett , assistant director of Communication and Marketing for University Advancement, has published short stories and poems in various literary journals and is the fiction editor of Contrary Magazine.

Photos by Rhys Logan, '11

“I speak a language very few people in the area speak, so I’m serving our community as well as my family.”
Three people stand together and pose for the camera among the trees in soft evening light
“I want to be an attorney and to advocate for families, particularly immigrant and refugee families,” says Sadat, here with her parents.