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Ending the cycle

Tasneem Rahman strives to halt poverty, illiteracy
by: Vern Uyetake, Lake Oswego resident Tasneem Saeed Rahman co-founded the One Ummah Foundation with her husband, Mohammad. Their non-profit partners with other organizations to build schools in seven countries, including her native country of Pakistan.

It's hard not to be amazed by the way Tasneem Saeed Rahman balances a schedule of work, food, family and faith, yet still manages to emerge looking impeccable.

But when you ask how she does it, she just laughs. Her dark brown eyes twinkle as though it's all in a secret she won't tell.

Rahman's close friend of 26 years, Salma Ahmad, describes this phenomenon best.

'Even when she's stressed out, she covers it very well,' Ahmad said. 'She just has this incredible smile.'

Ahmad went on: 'For me, anyone can be an excellent wife and mother, but a friend is something truly exceptional … She will always be there for you, for anyone who needs her.'

To say Rahman will help 'anyone,' even on her busiest day, is an understatement.

Besides working to meet the needs of her Muslim friends in the greater Portland area, Rahman also helps build schools in other countries with the One Ummah Foundation, a non-profit she co-founded with her husband, Mohammad.

Through partnerships with other organizations, One Ummah (which means 'One People') has helped build more than 200 schools to educate kids in Sri Lanka, Cameroon, Cambodia, Indonesia, Pakistan and India.

'Whoever enrolls will be given the chance,' Rahman said.

Rahman's goal is to end the cycle of illiteracy and poverty in those countries through education. She also wants to show everyone that - with a little bit of money and passion - it can be done.

'We only focus below poverty level, otherwise these children would be in child labor,' said Rahman, a native of Karachi, Pakistan. 'The need is so great, and not just in Pakistan … education is the best gift (Americans) can give another country.'

Rahman will share her experiences growing up in Pakistan, moving to America and the cultural challenges she has faced as part of 'One Woman's Journey,' a Lake Oswego Reads lecture Wednesday.

For fans of Greg Mortenson's story in 'Three Cups of Tea,' Rahman's hands-on involvement with One Ummah is sure to intrigue and inspire.

As a young woman, Rahman earned her bachelors of science degree in psychology before marrying and moving to Oregon in 1982. Two years later, her family moved to Lake Oswego.

'We wanted to be close to the mosque for our children,' she said.

While raising her children, Rahman became actively involved with the local Muslim community, which was relatively small in those days. She especially became driven to address issues concerning poverty, education and community building.

But in 1999, the Rahmans were devastated when their 11-year-old son Mustafa died in a car accident involving a drunken driver on Kruse Way.

The Rahmans, who were already funding the care of orphans in Pakistan, knew that creating a foundation to help children around the world would be the best way to honor their son's memory.

'We've always supported places where people had a need, but it was nothing under any organization. Wherever the need was (we helped),' she said. 'Religiously, Islam is very big on charity.'

In Zakat, the Islamic concept of tithing or 'giving to the poor,' it is an obligation for Muslims to pay 2.5 percent of their wealth when their annual income exceeds a minimum level. Zakat, one of the Five Pillars of Islam, can also be ongoing in form of a charity.

The Rahmans began One Ummah by refurbishing three schools in Pakistan, including the Al-Khair school, which provides an education for 1,500 children.

'It was a complete shantytown and the schools were scarce,' she said. 'That's where it all started.'

Since then, One Ummah's work has expanded to seven countries where it takes a holistic approach to provide support through charitable donations.

'The difference between Greg Mortenson and us is that he focuses on schools and we provide whatever the need may be, including uniforms, milk, food, construction,' she said. 'Or, it may be all of those issues.'

The American dollar goes a long way - an annual donation of $40,000 from a Portland couple, for example, helps fund a school and a hospital in Pakistan.

One Ummah is based out of a downtown Portland office, where Mohammad also runs Rubicon Global Asset Management, an investment banking company.

Rahman, who serves as One Ummah's vice president, has lent her hand in school construction, school refurbishment and the donation of food and textbooks to families.

'We know all of the local people who run the program (abroad),' Rahman said.

Soon, One Ummah will be beginning a micro-finance program that uses profit-and-loss sharing rather than debt-based finance to assist the poor. The Rahmans also hope to establish a $25 million endowment program within the next 10 years.

In Portland, Rahman works with young women of the Masjid Al-Saber, The Islamic Center of Portland. An avid cook, she teaches Pakistani cooking classes and has overseen Muslim-based projects including an art mural of a mosque entrance at Jackson Middle School.

She also started an Islamic-based counseling service with the help of a grant and a local imam, or Islamic leader.

'With the grace of God we've helped a lot of different issues, from cultural issues to disorders, to finding jobs and empowering women,' Rahman said.

Her oldest son, Nabil, lives in Dubai with his wife, while her 16-year-old daughter Hibah plans to graduate early from Wilson High School in Portland and attend Skidmore College. Rahman's youngest child, six-year-old Abdullah, attends the Arbor School in Tualatin.

When she heard that this year's LO Reads selection was 'Three Cups of Tea,' Rahman decided to get involved. For the kick-off party, she prepared Pakistani snacks. She also loaned Pakistani artwork, which adorns the shelf behind the library's check-out desk.

And when co-authors Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin visited Lake Oswego last week, Rahman cooked them dinner. The get together allowed the Rahmans to discuss their work with someone who understood Pakistani culture, language and people.

'There were a lot of common threads,' Rahman said.

At the evening talk at Lake Oswego High School, she presented Mortenson with a plaque to honor the work his organization, the Central Asia Institute, does to educate children in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Rahman family takes regular trips to Pakistan and other countries to visit relatives and see One Ummah's efforts first-hand. They hope to one day work with the CAI and Mortenson to further their cause in Pakistan and beyond.

'Education is so valued, so desired there,' Rahman said of her home country. 'It's their only hope to come out of poverty … You can get the most in life, the best high, out of giving. If we can give education to these countries we will be much better off.'

Tasneem Rahman's lecture takes place Wednesday at 11:45 a.m. at the Oswego Lake Country Club. Reservations are required by Feb. 15 by calling 503-636-3634. Cost is $15, which includes lunch.

For more information about the One Ummah Foundation, visit www.oneummah.com.