Shamayel Kargar, a prominent businesswoman who has been elected president of the Afghan Community of Maine, at her home in Falmouth. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Shamayel Kargar fled Afghanistan when she was 16 and newly married to a former rebel with the American-backed mujahideen. He missed their engagement party because he was away fighting the Soviets in a war that killed or displaced millions of Afghans in the 1980s.

The couple met for the first time just before their wedding. It was an arranged marriage and a family-only ceremony that was purposely subdued because so many of their neighbors in Herat were holding funerals. They lived as refugees in Iran and Italy for several years before coming to Maine in 1989 and building a new life from scratch.

More than 30 years later, Kargar – now a prominent Portland real estate investor and landlord – has been elected president of the year-old Afghan Community of Maine. The group represents about 550 Afghans who have settled in Maine since the 1980s, including more than 260 who arrived after U.S. forces pulled out of Afghanistan in August 2021, ending a 20-year war.

Her election is an accomplishment that makes Kargar a role model for women and girls in Maine and in her native country, where the Taliban have regained control and resumed female subjugation. Her leadership plan also shows how one group of immigrants is moving beyond the limits of gender, ethnicity and religion to promote progress.

“It was unanimous and it was shocking to me,” said Kargar, who lives in Falmouth. “I want to bring the community together. All of us have been injured and we need to heal.”

The Afghan Community of Maine organized one year ago in response to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the expected arrival of evacuees who would need help resettling. The group registered as a nonprofit and elected a board of directors, headed by Abdul Rahman Qani, a physician assistant who lived in Westbrook.


When Qani moved out of state recently for work, he nominated Kargar to take his place. She was elected late last month without reservation, along with five other women, to a 12-member board that includes residents of Greater Portland and Lewiston.

Kargar was an obvious choice, according to Sami Shahed, who is the board’s vice president and a counselor in Portland’s immigrant resettlement program.

The fact that Kargar is a woman didn’t factor into her election, he said. The group’s 40 or so members were more interested in tapping her experience and enthusiasm as they set out to unify a growing community and help loved ones still in Afghanistan. The group is especially concerned because under the Taliban, women and girls once again are kept from going to school, working and being alone in public.

“She has been in the U.S. a long time, she knows the rules and she and her family have a successful real estate company,” said Shahed, who lives in Westbrook. “She’s a hard worker and she is very eager to help the Afghan community. And she’s always on time. Sometimes with volunteers that’s not the case. Shamayel is always on time.”


Labina Faizizada, 22, is one of six women elected to the group’s board of directors, including Kargar. Born and raised in Portland, Faizizada graduated from the University of New England this year and is applying to medical schools. She joined the group because she felt it was important to stand with and become a leader of her community.


“We want to make the newcomers feel welcome and provide a cultural bridge to integrate into society here,” Faizizada said. “My parents didn’t have that when they came here in the 1980s. The people coming now, they’ve been through a lot. They deserve our help and it’s important for them to feel a sense of community.”

As board president, Kargar is prepared to lead the group with a work ethic she traces back to her teen years in Iran. That’s where she landed with her husband and his family after they fled Afghanistan.

Eager to establish her own home, she was still only 16 when she sold some jewelry given to her as a wedding gift and used the money to lease a house before her first child was born. Family members intervened and the landlord returned her money before she and her husband moved in.

She and her husband, Mohammad, moved to Maine in 1989 with three children. They followed her mother and father, who had studied in the U.S. and worked for an American agricultural company in Afghanistan. Mohammad worked while she took care of the kids; eventually they would have two more.

“We left everything behind,” she said. “I didn’t have a dollar in my pocket when we got here.”

She closely managed their savings and in 1997 they bought a modest single-family home on Brighton Avenue in Portland. They fixed it up and used the equity to buy a six-unit apartment building on Woodford Street, then another six-unit on Gilman Street.


Throughout the 2000s, she worked long days, buying and flipping apartment buildings. At 56, she’s slowing down a bit and taking time to enjoy her four grandchildren, but they still own and manage about 50 rental units, she said, including the house on Brighton Avenue.

“That house was such good luck, I will never sell it,” Kargar said, sitting in the kitchen of the sprawling modern colonial home in Falmouth that she designed.

Shamayel Kargar, newly elected president of the Afghan Community of Maine, at her home in Falmouth. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


Kargar’s goals for the group include unifying a diverse membership that has experienced great trauma over the last 50 years. The group welcomes members of all ethnicities in Afghanistan, she said, including Pashtuns, Tajiks or Hazaras. Some Afghans have been persecuted for not being part of the Sunni Muslim majority, or for speaking a different language in a country of many languages.

“For me, all my people are as one,” Kargar said.

She believes the group can provide a support system to help Afghan families achieve success in the U.S., especially women who have been held back in the past. She hopes to establish a community center where Afghans can hold meetings, celebrate together and offer educational programs.


The group will continue to help newcomers navigate the immigration system, find housing, enroll themselves and their children in school, apply for jobs and learn about technology that was largely unavailable in Afghanistan.

It’s an approach that other immigrant groups have taken throughout the centuries.

“In the U.S. we have a long tradition of newcomers helping each other,” said Reza Jalali, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center.

“The Afghans in Maine, with all the trauma they carry, they still have a sense of community and a desire to build on that,” Jalali said. “It’s an organic response, unifying to solve common challenges. We often hear of the divisions they bring, but this sense of unity is also true.”

Kargar said she is inspired by the faith and confidence that the group has placed with her.

“I think they see that I am strong and I will fight for them,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who is in front of me, whether it is my child or someone else’s child, I will fight for them.”

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