Afghanistan as a country has been at war for almost 50 years, resulting in a refugee population of around 2.5 million. Children of those refugees - past and present - often find it difficult to identify with their parent's homeland, in part because they grew up in another part of the world. Alexander Nasserjah discusses with Mena Ayazi their shared experiences and difficulties with growing up as Afghans in America, along with their generation’s role in the future of the community.
Alexander Nasserjah: Welcome, thank you for tuning in. My name is Alexander Nasserjah, coming to you from the Heinrich Böll Foundation's North American office in Washington, DC. Today’s podcast will explore what it means to be an Afghan living in America. Joining me is Mena Ayazi, a good friend and fellow Afghan American. Mena is a graduate student at George Mason University doing her thesis on the nexus of non-violent action and peacebuilding. She is a member of the Afghan Student Union and the Progressive Democrats of America.
Mena, thank you for joining me.
Mena Ayazi: You’re welcome Alex - thank you for having me.
Now, could you briefly tell us a little bit about yourself and what some of your interests are? And a little bit about your studies?
Sure. Like you mentioned, I’m a graduate student at George Mason University. It’s actually a dual degree program, so I’m kind of an undergrad and kind of a graduate student at the same time right now. My main interest is politics, so I’m doing my master’s thesis on the nexus of peacebuilding and non-violent action. Which is kind of confusing because it is a very new area of research, which focuses on how we can be mediators but also stand up for social justice at the same time. Which is something not a lot of people have explored, but there are areas in history where it was possible. So that's where I am focusing on. Aside from academics and my personal life, I am very involved in politics within the Afghan American community and American community.
From what I understand, both of your parents came to the US as refugees from Afghanistan in the 1980’s. Can you tell me a little bit more about their journey to America? And how they ended up in the DMV [Washington, DC] area?
Shortly after the Soviet invasion in 1979, both of my parents escaped. My dad ironically went to the Soviet Union, at the time on a student visa. He also had ear problems, so he was able to get out of military service for Afghanistan. My mom had a more interesting story. Her side of the family escaped through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan in the middle of the night. It was her, her four sisters, her father, her mother, and her grandmother. All of them in a truck, passing checkpoints. Then my mom lived in Pakistan for about seven years as a refugee before she came to America and was sponsored her uncle who was already living here. My father was also sponsored by his older brother who was living in the United States at the time.
So now they are living in Northern Virginia, which is where you grew up. And it actually has the largest population of Afghan immigrants in the United States with over 20,000 people of Afghan origin. What has it meant to you to grow up in that community? How has it shaped your identity as an Afghan American, despite never having a chance to visit Afghanistan itself?
It was weird. It was really weird growing up with a large Afghan community because I never really wanted to be a part of it. Growing up post 9/11, it pushed me away from being Afghan and from really embracing my Afghan identity - whenever my family went to picnics or New Year's celebrations, or we had this thing called the Fourth of July soccer games. Where all Afghans across the United States would come to NoVa [Northern Virginia] to have a soccer competition, where they would represent their states. I hated going to those events, just because I did not want to embrace my Afghan identity.
But I was lucky to have had that community. Because as I grew up and I began to mature, to go to college. I embraced that identity a lot more. I was lucky enough to have students in my classes in college who were Afghan Americans, who helped me embrace that Identity. So I think if I didn’t have that community - like if I grew up in Kansas - I wouldn’t have that opportunity.
I think that’s a great story because I never really had the chance, growing up in Wisconsin, to explore that side of my family or that side of my heritage. Because I grew up in a part of the world that was very divided from where my Afghan family was living. I feel like as I grew older I became more involved and more proud of my heritage and really accepted it as who I am. I think there are lots of parallels but I am really jealous you got to grow up in that community because it’s such an incredible experience. What are some of the things you feel set the Afghan community apart from the rest of the country? What are some of the things that really make it unique?
I think the biggest thing is the Afghan American community is dealing with some serious generational trauma. So mental health is a really big stigma in the Afghan community. When a lot of our parents came here as refugees, they never necessarily went to seek professional help for the trauma they dealt with, with the violence. That changed the dynamics of the community and it really affected the way, as first and second generation Afghan Americans, we were raised. That prevented us from becoming involved politically; it prevented us from learning how to balance American and Afghan culture because we were so stuck. I like to think we were a sort of stuck community.
So it was really hard to break out of that, and it was only recently in the past five to ten years where the Afghan American community has begun to move past that. For example the Afghan American Conference - it just hit its fourth year this year. So it’s the first time the community has begun to embrace it, compared to say the Indian American community or the Chinese American community. They have been here for a lot more time so they were able to get past the traumatic experiences.
Just to clarify, the Afghan American Conference you mentioned. That’s where you mentioned a bunch of young Afghans get together. Can you explain a little more about that?
So it’s really cool. They try and bring Afghan Americans from all over the United States together for a weekend-long conference, to talk about issues facing the community. One of the topics they talked about was generational trauma, or what it means to be mixed Afghan. Or other issues, like what it means to date in America when you know back home we would be married off at age fifteen. So it’s really meant to help us tackle a lot of the conversations we fail to have with our parents and to help us embrace that Afghan American identity. With this conference becoming more annual and becoming a much larger event for the Afghan American community, it is going to be interesting to see our younger siblings - how it’s going to affect them. And how they’re going to be able to see what it means to be both Afghan and American, which is something we never really had.
Sounds like an incredible opportunity, I would love to go to that someday. What sort aspects of American culture do you feel have been embraced by the Afghan community here in the United States? Because they are two very different cultures. How do you see American culture influencing Afghans while they are here?
I think the biggest thing would be marriage and dating. Like I said, if I were still in Afghanistan I would probably be married with like four children sitting on my lap right now. But coming here, I was given the absolute freedom to do what I want with my own life. My parents have never pressured me into marriage. My parents are also different from a lot of Afghans - a lot more liberal.
But at least from what I’ve seen with my other friends and family members, parents aren't pressuring people into arranged marriage anymore. Children are being had later in life, late 20s early 30s. It’s not necessary that you have to go through your family to find a significant other. You can go out to bars, and you can go to school events, and you can meet someone at college. And the families are okay with that. Aside from that, Afghans are very prideful people - like extremely prideful people. So we’ve begun to really embrace American national pride in a good way.
So in more of a patriotic way.
Yeah, very patriotic. Fourth of July is the [quintessential] American holiday, right? So we took a sport that we love back in Afghanistan and we turned it into something we can celebrate here in America. I think that’s a nice example of the blend between the two cultures.
As first generation American born Afghans, you and I belong to a population that has lived in the United States for our entire lives. Events like 9/11 and the ongoing war in Afghanistan have had a significant impact on our experience growing up. For you, what has been the most difficult part of confronting the negative rhetoric surrounding the Middle East? Have you ever felt pressured to choose one identity over the other?
Most definitely I have been pressured. Like I mentioned earlier, I didn’t want to be called Afghan. I didn’t want to be labeled as Muslim. Honestly, there were times where I’d walk in the mall with family members who wore a hijab and I would walk far away from them because I didn’t want to be seen with them - I didn’t want to be labeled. That’s something I was embarrassed about. I pushed my identity away so much. Growing up it sucked sitting at the lunch table in second grade, and people are asking, “What did you get for Christmas?” and you’d be like, “I don’t celebrate Christmas.” And they'd go, “Oh, okay.” In high school, one kid was like, “I’m so sorry for your loss” after Osama bin Laden died. And I was like, “What? What do you mean?”
So definitely up until college, I didn’t want to be labeled as Afghan. I didn’t want to be labeled as Muslim. But when I got to college and I met more Afghans, and I joined the Afghan student union, I realized that I could be both - that I don’t have to pick and choose. Sure, I’ve never been to Afghanistan, and I’ll never truly understand what it means to be an Afghan. But I was born and raised in America. This is my country. I bleed as much red, white and blue, as I do green, red and black. And I think that was really hard to find. But like I said, our community is really helping young Afghans in America develop that embracement of both identities.
I think, especially growing up in the post 9/11 world, with the ongoing war in Afghanistan, it was definitely really hard growing up.
I bet, even in Wisconsin. I was lucky enough to have grown up in a large community. But I couldn’t even imagine growing up in a place where there isn’t a large community.
It’s very unique to our generation and our population, where we are these children of those immigrants from the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. We are this population and we’ve had this very specific experience living in America. And I think that’s incredible. Going forward, what do you feel is our generation’s role in representing Afghanistan in America politically?
Our role is extremely important. The people of Afghanistan are now entering their fifth decade of violence, and they have not had the opportunity to get out. So for them to be represented on the international stage is largely up to us. We’re never truly going to understand what they’re going through. But we’re also going to have a much larger role in influencing the decisions the United States and the western world make in regards to what’s happening in Afghanistan - as we enter the State Department, as we start becoming diplomats and ambassadors. Even when we’re voting, we need to be conscious of what’s happening over there. And we need to take into consideration what policies we want to put forth to influence what’s happening.
Aside from that, we need to make it our responsibility to go out to Afghanistan and to go back. I’m sure it’s dangerous, but there have been many, many Afghan Americans who have made their first journey to Afghanistan. They have built NGO’s like Zam Zam Water, for example, that goes out and builds wells in rural villages. Or Kandahar Treasure that my Aunt started, where she went back and tried to empower women in Kandahar City through the recreation of hand embroidery. So it’s not just on a policy level, but it’s also on a grassroots level. It’s how we can take our education, our experiences, and our privilege and give back in Afghanistan.
We can do that from America as well. So like holding fundraisers on our college campuses, selling brownies and cookies and donating that money to charities - even refugee organizations that are helping Afghan refugees.
On the topic of refugees, I think that’s one of the biggest things we can do. We can really represent that population because we have this direct connection to them. But we also have this incredible opportunity where we’re in this place where we are in America and we have a voice. And we have a true say in what our government can do and say. I think it’s our responsibility to really step up for those people who don’t have a voice, those refugees who are trying to come to America and are trying to start a new life. I think that’s our biggest role right now - is really standing up those people and being a voice for them. Because we have a voice.
There are around 2.5 million registered Afghan refugees across the globe, making them the second largest refugee population. All while, the US continues to allow fewer and fewer into the country. What would your message be to those who still want to immigrate to the US? How would you pitch the United States to a refugee who is looking for a place to come? Is this a welcoming place? Should they consider coming to the United States?
I would say yes. America gave my family an opportunity that it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. And it gave many other families like your own opportunities they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. Right now America is going through a weird political phase. This has been a nation that has opened its arms to refugees from all walks of life, all religious backgrounds, and from all conflicts around the world.
Sure, right now the rhetoric might be negative and the political atmosphere might be negative towards refugees. But this phase will pass. There are advocates, and people who love you. And people who will be waiting at airports to welcome you and support you in that journey. So keep faith, stay strong, and don’t give up. Just understand this is not who we are as a nation, and it’s just a rough patch. And it will pass.
I completely agree. I think America is a great place, and I think no matter what people say, everybody gets a good shot at freedom. And they really have a chance at that American dream. I think that’s incredible. I think the American dream is something that can be achieved and is something that was achieved by both of our parents.
Well, that’s all questions I have for you today. It was great to talk. I think us as young Afghan Americans have a really important role, and I think having these dialogues are important in sharing our story - making sure we get heard, that we’re represented, that people pay attention to the Afghan situation. Because it has been ongoing, and people don’t necessarily pay as much attention to it as they use to.
I agree, thank you Alex.