Project FINE Director Fatima Said was nervous and afraid when she first set foot in America 19 years ago as a refugee of civil war and genocide in Bosnia. A welcoming party of strangers carrying signs, flowers, and bowls of fruit earned her tearful thankfulness. She could not believe strangers would be so kind to her. Now, she feels again the waves of gratitude and emotion she felt on her first moment in America, but for a different reason.
Said has been selected as one of six Minnesotans to receive the 2013 Virginia McKnight Binger Award for Human Service. The McKnight Foundation gives the awards to Minnesotans who commit themselves to uniting, empowering, and serving others in their communities.
"She is so passionate about helping people who are new to our community that are coming from a different cultural background," said Winona Area Public Schools Superintendent and former Project FINE Board President Scott Hannon. She has a passion, an energy, an ability to inspire people that is "magical," Hannon said. When Said explains her cause and asks for your help, it is hard to say "no," he said.
Hannon, former WSU interim president and Project FINE Board member Connie Gores, and Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman nominated Said for the award. Those nominators all mentioned that they "did not even want to know the amount of hours that Fatima puts in," said McKnight Award committee member Daniel Yang. "It's really much more of a calling than a career for Said. She dedicates almost every single minute she has. This award is really to acknowledge people in service that go above and beyond, and she is the epitome of that."
When the McKnight Foundation called to tell Said that she had won the award, she did not know she had been nominated. "I truly believed they had the wrong person," she said.
"It is such a big deal for me that people recognize the importance of helping the immigrant community," Said said. She said she is grateful for the opportunity to give back to other immigrants and the community that helped her so many years ago.
Said invited friends to join her for an upcoming award ceremony feast. She said she invited her nominators, of course, but she also invited the men and women who greeted her when she stepped off the plane from Bosnia 19 years ago.
Her voice faltered with emotion as she explained, "I thought of all those amazing people who invested in me and I just needed them to be there and to thank them and to let them know that they made the right decision in supporting me all those years ago."
They did make the right decision, Gores, Hannon, and Sonneman told Yang. "Fatima is an example of why it's not only good to be open and empathetic to immigrants, but why it's really a great asset to have immigrants and refugees — that she not only just improved her life but the lives of everyone around her in the community. It's really a shining example of why we should continue to be an open state."
Said credited the support and dedication of the Project FINE board, her staff, and the Winona area community for her award and the organization's success.
Project FINE is a Winona area nonprofit that is dedicated to welcoming immigrants and other newcomers. The organization received awards for excellence in transparency and accountability last winter and has been invited to share its arts and gardening program with the national organization for celebrating and integrating immigrants, Welcoming America, so that similar programs across the country can learn from Project FINE's success. For more on Said's story and Project FINE, search "Project FINE celebrates success" at www.winonapost.com or www.projectfine.org.
The McKnight Foundation supports service organizations, community building, the arts, and environmental protection, through grants.