Zahra Sahebzada had a view of the Manhattan skyline long before she moved into her apartment in Long Island City. “It was on my vision board a few years back,” she said. “I’m about manifesting.”
She previously lived in Hicksville, NY, on Long Island, where her family moved to 20 years ago. Around 2016, she got into the habit of taking the 45-minute train ride into town so she could go to Queens and stand at the water’s edge and stare at the skyline on the other side of the East River.
“It was not just a magical view of the city,” said Ms. Sahebzada. “It was a hope of hope. I always prayed while standing there and I said, ‘God, I do not know when, but allow me to stay here one day.’
After all, Queens was where her family first landed in the United States when Mrs. Sahebzada was 8. Her mother fled Afghanistan near the end of the Afghan-Soviet war, traveled in front of her husband and gave birth to Mrs. Sahebzada in Nantes, France, where the family settled briefly. Undocumented and felt unwelcome, they moved to Hamburg, Germany for a few years before settling in Queens and eventually becoming US citizens.
Sometimes on his stay back to the neighborhood, Ms. Sahebzada entered the rental office, where developer TF Cornerstone welcomed applicants to fill 2,614 apartments along Center Boulevard. She knew she could not afford to move into one – not yet – but every time she saw a new apartment, it motivated her.
Ms. Sahebzada, now 31, divides his 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 primarily known for his makeup tutorials. She posted her first video in 2009. “At the time,” she said, “it was not about making money at all. 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 pop in and you have to build a thick skin. But that’s the beauty of being a content creator: You get an authentic, organic relationship with your audience.”
Eventually, she wanted to get in touch with a larger audience and was frustrated at how difficult it was. “It was never about asking, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ but instead I ask, ‘How do I change the industry?’ It applies to a world of influencers and beauty and fashion – everything, “she said.
Ms. Sahebzada, who speaks five languages (English, Farsi, German, Hindi and Urdu), noted that there were far more tutorials in English than in Farsi, the language she grew up speaking: “So I said, ‘You know what? I want to take advantage of who I am – let me do it in my mother tongue. ‘”
From there, her audience grew. Now, almost 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 is my main purpose, ”she said. “It’s not even about makeup or technique – it was more about having the courage to go on camera and identify as an Afghan woman.”
When she got successful with her YouTube channel, Mrs. 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 counts.)
Her studio apartment is well lit but small; she had to be creative to grab a Covid-era home office, living space, and a great place 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 definitely a one-woman show.”
Afghanistan under Taliban rule
With the departure of the U.S. military on August 30, Afghanistan quickly fell back under Taliban control. There is widespread fear of the future across the country.
The room 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 backwards – a picture Ms . Sahebzada identifies with. “I wanted to give a sense of being in my home.”
Sometimes she makes use of the building’s common room – a roof terrace, a lounge – to film her videos. She feels at home in the larger, diverse community that makes up the cluster of five high-rise buildings. “I see people with my skin color, same religion and similar cultures. I do not feel uncomfortable walking into the building, ”she said.
$ 2,300 | Long Island City
Zahra Sahebzada, 31
Employment: Ms. Sahebzada is a social media influencer and special events manager for Tory Burch.
Career path: After taking a major in theater arts at Five Towns College, Mrs. Sahebzada struggled to find her way. “As an Afghan-American woman,” she said, “it was very difficult to break into that industry. So I had to create a space for myself and find my own audience.”
Benefits of a good boss: Sahebzada is grateful for the support her employer has shown Afghan women. “I’m incredibly honored to work for Tory Burch,” she said.
Understand the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan
Who is the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including whipping, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more about their origins and their record as rulers.
Her favorite aspect of makeup tutorials is what she sees as their empowering essence. “It’s not just about having a beautiful face,” she said. “It’s about being confident. Because when you feel good, you do well. ”
Ms. Sahebzada’s profile grew enough to capture the attention of producers on Tolo TV, one of the largest television stations in Afghanistan. And in the spring of 2020, her tutorials became a regular Sunday morning segment. “I was trying to show the girls that they can be themselves in the 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 have never seen.” But that connection was severed last summer when the U.S. military left Afghanistan and the Taliban regained control of the country.
Around the time of the withdrawal, Mrs Sahebzada received a late-night call from her producer on Tolo TV, who told her that the Taliban had informed the network that women were not allowed to perform in the air until further notice – and Mrs Sahebzada had been appointed.
“The producer told me that they specifically mentioned my name: ‘Zahra is banned from participating in this program,'” she said. “I’m all over the world. The fact that the Taliban knew my name 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 a large portion of her audience has been cut off from YouTube and Instagram.
“The fact that someone is trying to close the door on Afghan women – I’m blessed to be in a safe room,” she said. “All I can think of are the girls who are there who are not in a safe room.”