Brown Girl of the Month Rafa Farihah on Staying True to Her Roots and Herself

Rafa Farihah is a journalist, fashion influencer and YouTuber based in Houston. Moving frequently while growing up, she attended 12 different schools in New Jersey, Houston, and Bangalore, India. This allowed her to interact with people from all walks of life, sparking her interest in storytelling. She is passionate about social justice and the human impact behind headlines. At 18, Rafa launched her blog and YouTube channel focusing on fashion, lifestyle, and comedy. Rafa’s undeniable ardor for creating content and inspiring others emanates through her work and vibrant personality.
Through her high social media engagement and her raw and honest blog posts, Rafa has always empowered women to see the best in themselves, keep a positive mindset, and pursue their dreams. She has written for Elite Daily, MissMuslim, and Houstonia Magazine, for which she interviewed Simone Biles, Noor Tagouri, Melanie Elturk, and covered celebrity red carpet events. She has since interned with BuzzFeed News, NPR, and CNN, and has been featured on BuzzFeed videos. In 2018, she published a video with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, explaining the process of genetic genealogy and how it is used to solve decades-old cold cases. Rafa is currently a senior at the University of Houston, pursuing degrees in Broadcast Journalism and Management Information Systems.

“Muslim-American. Creative. Although I understood what it meant to be each of those labels individually, navigating with them together was definitely a challenge. After going to 12 different schools and living in two countries, I can confidently say that I have met more people compared to others my age. I launched my lifestyle blog and YouTube channel when I was 18, and have worked with NPR, BuzzFeed News, and CNN in pursuit of journalism as a career, all before I even entered my senior year of college. It’s been a bumpy road, but as you’ll see, the experiences I have had shaped me into the person I am today.

My parents immigrated to the United States only two years before I was born, so naturally, they raised me the way they were raised. After moving to Texas in the 5th grade, I would receive comments about the ‘smelly’ food my mom packed for lunch, or questions about why she wore a headscarf and a nose ring. This would bother me to the point where I would throw away home-cooked meals and use pocket money to buy mini pizzas and overly salted fries from the cafeteria. At one point, I even told my mom to stop visiting me at lunch because my embarrassment overpowered my envy of all the other kids whose moms stopped by. There was a part of me that behaved differently with the popular kids just so I would fit in. I didn’t want to be the little brown girl with the gold earrings, oiled hair, and traditionally printed shirts. And to be honest, this feeling of not fitting in did not disappear even after I moved to India.

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Change can be hard, and making new friends can be harder. Believe it or not, I used to be pretty reserved a few years ago. My family moved around constantly while I grew up, so I was sick of having to make new friends. I didn’t need to make new friends until I moved away for college. What worked for me when meeting new people was to skip the small talk. No one likes it and no one cares for it. Talk to people like you’ve known them for years, and more often than not, they will reciprocate. It’s all about stepping out of your comfort zone and making the first move. When I moved to NY to work at BuzzFeed, I promised myself to have a deep conversation with whoever I sat next to during my three hour long commute. Oh, the stories they had to tell…and all it took was a “Hi, my name is Rafa”

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I never knew what to make of my identity, as I was either too Indian to fit in with the American kids, or not Indian enough to assimilate with my classmates in India. During my time in school in India, the banter among my friends often included a jab at my conflicting mannerisms. I put on an Indian accent when I went to school to avoid standing out, but there were some things I just could not fake. It was always about how I didn’t roll my ‘r’s’ enough or didn’t pronounce certain words the same. Even though I was dealing with this inner conflict, I learned to embrace my culture during the four years I lived in India.

Living overseas gave me a taste of the beautiful customs my parents had grown up with. Celebrating different national and religious holidays at school, engaging with the community wholeheartedly, visiting historical landmarks, and indulging in street foodwhich was definitely worth the risk of diabetesmade me realize how much I enjoyed and appreciated my culture. After opening myself up to embracing my heritage, I saw that making friends at my new school was effortless. I quickly found someone who had similar interests as me, and soon enough we were inseparable. Along with the rest of our friends, we made inappropriate jokes as most teenagers do, listened to rap, formed a band and jammed out to rock music on guitars, and rehearsed to perform for major school events.

As I was learning to love myself and my culture, I also witnessed many issues that plagued the area, such as poverty, sexual assault, and sexism. One of my earliest experiences with sexism was when wanting to attend a mosque not having one nearby that facilitated women. At the mere age of 13, I remember random men on the streets staring at me while I walked to the Amul ice cream booth 50 feet from my apartment, whether I was dressed up or sans makeup in pajamas. Sometimes, they would even circle around me with their motorcycles or jeeps when they found me at the school bus stop alone. These issues stemmed from me being a female, and unfortunately, I could not do anything about it. At school, I faced more problems because I came from the U.S. Teachers would always assume the worst in me, claiming I was bringing ‘Western ideals’ into their traditional classrooms. My first Quran teacher fled after taking an advanced payment, and my family and I were not able to file a police report because of the disorganized system. We were expected to ‘let it go’ and accept that these things happen. Another Quran teacher, who was male and expected to serve as a role model, felt it was okay to touch his female students. He often would play it off with a smile or say ‘keep reading.’ As part of our culture, we are taught to respect our elders, but no one seemed to put a stop to these inappropriate behaviors. While attending a national shopping exhibition, it broke my heart seeing families of laborers weaving baskets in the mud after a rainy day. Destitute women, often missing at least one limb, carried their swaddled babies and walked by auto rickshaws, asking passersby for spare change.

Shortly after I moved back to the U.S. before junior year of high school, news sources reported that my former physical education teacher was fired for ‘touching girls,’ but they only vaguely informed the parents why he was fired and neglected to report him to the police to avoid tarnishing the school’s name. It was frustrating when I realized just how much injustice pervaded my own community that went by unreported. Nothing is done about it because no one knows about it. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to do to help, but I did cope by detailing my thoughts in numerous journals tucked away in my bedside drawers. In retrospect, that is when I began to use my words to put things into context for myself.

Being back in the U.S. was different this time. As an incoming junior in high school, I felt more comfortable being myself, bringing my mom’s homemade food to school, and talking about the latest Bollywood movie I was obsessing over. I was quick to share my favorite Bollywood music to my non-Indian friends. I wasn’t trying to fit in; I was being me.

Even though I made progress in becoming my own individual, there was familial pressure when it came to choosing my career path. In my family, there were only two career options presented to me. As you already know: doctor and engineer. Thus, not having the courage to go against my parents, I joined the Texas A&M Engineering program, as I was told it would be perfect for me considering how great I was at math. Let’s just say, I ended up dreading it and decided to shift gears to a field that I was always passionate about, journalism. This was what I wanted to do, and I was sure of it with every ounce of my being. If I had learned anything from the constant moving and shifting schools, it was that I was able to empathize and socialize with people on a different level, making them feel so comfortable and safe that they felt at ease sharing the deepest of hardships in the first meeting. And I wanted to hear these stories, ask questions, and learn more about what makes them who they are. I didn’t care for small talk; I wanted to get to the things that really matter. Seeing so much injustice go unreported and shoved under the rug, and hearing how much people deal with despite how happy they seem on the outside, I needed to talk about these important issues like sexual assault, sexism, women’s rights, discrimination, substance abuse, and more.

The transition from engineering wasn’t as effortless as I make it seem. My decision to switch out of engineering was paired with endless judgment and criticism from my family at home and in India. I felt humiliated and unsupported, although that has changed over the years. As South Asians, this is how we are conditioned. We seek validation through other people’s approval of us. Of course, I can’t speak for all South Asians, but this is how it worked as far as I was concerned. We’re always so concerned ‘Log Kya Kahenge?’ which is Hindi for ‘What will people say?’ It’s always been about hiding how you’re truly feeling, putting up a front and showing the world that everything is ‘perfect’ and in line with traditions, whether it’s with your career, mental health, sexual orientation, or gender roles.

Despite not receiving the support I’d hoped for from my family, I pushed forward and kept working diligently to gain journalism experience. The encouragement I needed was provided to me by my close friends and followers on social media. I’d drive 30 minutes to campus throughout the summer to write for the college newspaper. Later that coming fall semester, I was a crime beat reporter and eventually had the honor of covering the 2016 presidential election. In spring 2017, I was selected as an editorial fellow for Houstonia Magazine, where I fact-checked stories, published online and print articles, reviewed plays, attended galas and fashion shows, critiqued the Super Bowl menu and interviewed celebrities on the red carpet during Super Bowl parties, which happened to be in Houston that year. This experience paved the way for my next internship at BuzzFeed in New York, where I worked as a digital video news intern. I was assisting producers on video shoots, being featured in entertainment videos, and helping launch their AM to DM Twitter show. In the summer of 2018, I landed an internship with CNN in their digital video news department as well and produced a news video nearly every day. Shadowing different teams, traveling to the Stewart Detention Center for a shoot, and working with Dr. Sanjay Gupta were moments I will never forget. Seeing how my experiences kept building up, my parents started to become big fans of my work, like my own personal cheerleaders.

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I caught up with an old friend after two years, and as we were about to part ways, she stopped for a moment and looked deep into my eyes before uttering the words “you inspire me so much, like you don’t even know. I wouldn’t be where I am without you.” I felt my heart stop for a moment as I processed the soft words escaping her lips. How could I have such an impact on someone? Did I do anything spectacular to deserve this level of respect? Probably not. This goes to show that there’s always someone out there looking up to you, even when you don’t look up to yourself very much. Your actions, even as small as pursuing your passions, have a monumental impact on others. So live your truth and be yourself. You may not move mountains just yet, but you sure can touch hearts

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Feeling confident about my decision and my identity, I launched a personal blog and YouTube channel where I posted about modest fashion and lifestyle. Soon after, I began a business Instagram where I post photos of outfits, food, and travel spots with personal captions, treating them like blog posts. Through these outlets, I wanted to share my experiences navigating the world as an Indian American and inspire others to pursue their goals. I am so grateful for this small but close-knit community I have built online, where we all feel comfortable enough to talk about important issues like mental health, diversity, self-love, sustainable fashionissues the South Asian community deals withand promote positivity. It warms my heart to see how I am positively impacting the South Asian community, and I hope to continue doing so in any capacity. I strive to be unapologetically myself, create content that pushes boundaries and starts conversations, and report on issues that make a difference in people’s lives.”

– Rafa Farihah

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