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This Muslim-American Woman Is Running The Boston Marathon On Behalf Of Syrian Refugees

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Rahaf Khatib will run her seventh marathon in the past two years when she hits the pavement in Boston next week. But this time, she’s running on behalf of Syrian refugees.

The Michigan native immigrated to the United States from Damascus, Syria in the 1980s, when she was just an infant. Now, the 33-year-old marathoner boasts a sizable following on her Instagram, @runlikeahijabi. She was the first woman to appear on the cover of Women’s Running wearing a hijab, and she was a cover search finalist for Runner’s World in 2015.

Khatib is running with the all-female Hyland’s Leg Cramps team and has already raised $16,000 for the Syrian American Refugee Network.

Khatib chatted with Boston.com about her marathon fundraising efforts, her life as a stay-at-home mom, and what it means to her to represent diversity in the running community.

Q: What prompted you to start running regularly?

A: I was a stay-at-home mom of three kids, and I joined a gym, and I didn’t really go to lose weight. I just went to get outside the house and meet more people and just be active all around. I like to be challenged, and so I thought that was the best way to do so. And the gym had babysitting, so I thought that was the best way to do that. And then my son’s school was registering for a race – a one-mile race, local race – and [she] said why don’t I join and do either the 5K or 10K? And so I thought that was an awesome idea to challenge myself even further, since the gym wasn’t really cutting it that much. I was ready to move on to the next level, and so I registered for the 10K, and that was in April 2012. And I just registered for it, and just every day ran. I had no training plan, no coach. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just going outside and running. I didn’t even have a Garmin watch or anything like that. I just used a simple app, and so I crossed the finish line of that race and I was instantly addicted, felt euphoria and felt so proud of myself for challenging myself, setting a goal and meeting that goal, and I was like, ‘I want to do this again.’ And I came back the next year at that same race and did the half-marathon, and the year after that I did my first full marathon. So I’ve only been running full marathons since 2014.

Q: What other marathons have you run?

A: Well, Boston will be my third world major, and my goal is to complete all six world majors. I’ve done Berlin, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Paris, and now Boston.

Q: What was your favorite one to run so far?

A: You know, I love traveling, so Paris and Berlin were really high up my list, and Chicago as well. Chicago was amazing.

Q: How is the Boston Marathon different from the others you’ve run in so far?

A: I think that [the Boston Marathon] will be different in the sense that it’s just an epic, prestigious marathon. Just to say that ‘Oh, I’ve run Boston’ is just an honor in and of itself. The other marathons have a different flavor, and Boston has a different flavor. Boston is my first marathon that I actually fundraised for, and I’ve never ever been a charity runner. I’ve never fundraised for anything ever before in my life.

Q: What made you decide to run for charity, and specifically for the Syrian American Rescue Network?

A: For a number of reasons. Because it’s just a personal thing for me. My parents were immigrants, and my dad has been here since the 1980s. And looking at all the refugees that are here in Michigan: Michigan is the second-largest state to receive refugees, and I see them around me and I see that they need so much help. They have no resources. The charities that do support them have so, so little. The government doesn’t give them anything, hardly, and I know some that are literally sleeping in their apartments on the floor because they have no furniture. So what these organizations do is they give them resources to start a new life here. They buy them a used car, they’ll buy them a bike – some are biking to work – and, you know, driving them to appointments. giving them English classes, providing babysitting, and things like that. So those resources are lacking, and hopefully, with more fundraising causes like mine, it’ll help the fundraising help the refugees in return.

Q: I was reading on your blog and in the fundraising campaign that originally you missed the charity deadline for the marathon, right?

A: Yeah, so I got in contact with BAA in December, and I said to myself, ‘You know, I want to run Boston, but I want to run it for refugees.’ But I looked at the list of charities that the BAA has, and none of them support refugees. Same with New York. And so I thought, well maybe I can get a charity to connect with BAA so that I could run Boston for this purpose. But when I contacted them, there were so many rules about how you get a charity started with BAA and I had also passed the deadline as well. And then I thought, ‘Okay, well maybe it’s not meant to be.’ I said, ‘Maybe next year, I’ll set it up.’ But then Hylands emailed me in December, and they said, ‘Hey, we want you to be on our team. We want to sponsor you to run Boston this year in honor of [Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon], who crossed the finish line 50 years ago. Would you join our team?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely, I’ll join your team, only if you let me fundraise.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, of course,’ and so I started my campaign and everything started from there.

Q: So you’re on an all-female team. What does it mean to you to be running in the marathon for your first time as part of a team of all women?

A: I think it’s absolutely amazing. I couldn’t think of a better reason to run this for–celebrating womanhood, and our accomplishments. And every single teammate on my team has a story, and it’s so inspiring to see so many women come together, lift one another up, support one another. And you know, just listening to their stories is amazing.

Q: You talk in your blog and in interviews about being a stay-at-home mom of three. How has that affected your journey as a runner and as a marathoner?

A: First of all, I feel like even though I’m doing this for myself, it really isn’t, because I realize that my three kids are looking up to me, and every time I come back home from a race or something with a medal around my neck, you can see the smile on their faces. Their eyes light up and they’re like, ‘Wow, Mommy did that,’ or ‘Mommy ran this,’ or ‘Mommy was on the Reebok calendar,’ and ‘Mommy was on the newspaper. Mommy was on the news.’ So, just because I don’t have a career, per se, it doesn’t mean that they can’t look up to me. I’m trying to break the stereotype about stay-at-home moms that all you do is just stay at home. No, that’s not the case. We volunteer. We’re marathon runners. We do so much with our time at home.

Q: You have a pretty sizable following on your Instagram page, that grew after you were on the cover of Women’s Running. What role has social media played in helping you get your message out to the world?

A: Oh, a tremendous role. It’s been incredible, because I initially started this so I could gather votes to be on the Runner’s World cover search contest for their magazine cover search, and that’s why I opened up the Instagram page. I also opened that up because I saw no one who looks like me who’s on there. There are so many celebrity Instagram running personalities, but yet, no one that looks like me: who’s Muslim-American, who covers from head-to-toe, and who’s a marathoner. And so I thought, ‘Why isn’t there? We should represent.’ So I opened it up for those two purposes, and instantly it was a hit, and I’ve had several brands reach out to me – Reebok, Adidas – for several things, and it’s been so successful and I’m so blessed to have that. And I’m really blessed to be able to represent the underrepresented. And it’s also helped me in fundraising as well, so that’s the most important part.

Q: What advice would you give to anyone who has just started running?

A: Just do your own thing. Don’t worry about what others are doing. Try to join a local running group for information, for tips, and things like that. And do some research online as well in terms of shoes and what you need to wear. Visit your local running shoe shop. And just start slow, basically.

Q: What are your personal goals for the Boston Marathon?

A: I just want to have fun. Cross the finish line, and take it all in. I don’t necessarily have a finishing time that I’m leaning towards. I’m not racing. In general, 90 percent of us do this as a lifestyle. We’re not Olympians, or anything like that. We just want to make an impact. We want to feel that emotion that runs through us while we’re running a marathon. And for me, charity running is going to do that for me, hopefully, when I cross the finish line. I want to give back to the running community, give back to humanity, and by fundraising, that’s what I hope to accomplish.

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