Mich. Muslim runner joins Boston Marathon for refugees

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Decades before Rahaf Khatib crossed the finish line in high-profile races and graced major magazines as an inspirational model of physical fitness, she was among many children whose families left the Middle East seeking a fresh start.

The Dearborn native was born in Syria and relocated to the United States as an infant in the early 1980s. So at a time when the entry and resettlement of refugees from her former country grab headlines and spark controversial government measures to temporarily bar them, the 33-year-old is eager to aid those now in Metro Detroit.

She plans to generate money for the nonprofit Syrian American Rescue Network through competing in the Boston Marathon next month — and is nearing her $12,000 goal on the LaunchGood website.

“The cause is near and dear to my heart because I’m an immigrant,” Khatib said. “This was a no-brainer for me to raise money for refugees. Just thinking about the executive order, that could’ve been me on a plane here.”

The Farmington Hills resident is pushing ahead after having garnered plenty of attention in the few years since she starting running competitively. Her impressive feats, including six marathons and two sprint triathlons, all were finished as an “hijabi,” or Muslim woman who dons the traditional head covering.

The mother of three attracted a sizable following through her Instagram page, #runlikeahijabi. And last year, Khatib’s stature expanded exponentially by landing on the cover of “Women’s Running.” Photographed in Detroit while wearing a black hijab and mint-green top, she was featured in the publication as among the “20 Women Who Are Changing the Sport Of Running (And The World).”

Around that time, the Wayne State University graduate started planning to run in the East Coast contest for charity. “Running and humanitarian causes go hand in hand,” she said.

Much to her dismay, she missed a deadline to apply. Not long after, though, Hyland’s Leg Cramps emailed Khatib about sponsoring her to run on their all-female team launched to honor the 50th anniversary of the first woman to cross the finish line, she said.

“We were inspired by women like Kathrine Switzer and Bobbi Gibb, who came before us in the sport and made possible the achievements we now witness from female athletes every day,” said Lisa Shapiro, a senior brand manager with Hyland’s. “Our goal was to feature real women who are presently pushing boundaries and inspiring new generations through their accomplishments. As one of the first influential women in the fitness world to run wearing a hijab, Rahaf certainly fits that bill.”

Khatib had already reached out to the Michigan-based SARN, which launched in 2015 to help refugees become self-sufficient. The mostly volunteer-led nonprofit relies on donations to offer a host of services, including help finding furniture, rent and utility assistance, even health workshops, said Dr. Ayesha Fatima, its vice president and a co-founder.

The extra boost to help refugees start over “is really going to be very beneficial,” she said. “They’re just families like us. … Even displaced, they just want a chance.”

Running six days a week to prep for the marathon, Khatib reflects on her role in helping others while also on shifting attitudes about Muslims.

“It’s giving me a platform to help break barriers and smash the stereotypes, especially now in this negative political environment,” she said. “I’ve gotten so much love and support. People who are donating are mostly strangers. That really tells me there’s a lot of love out there regardless of what’s going on and that love definitely trumps hate.”