Stories of resilience behind immigrants’ lives

Ashna Sharma

Staff Writer

    The aromatic smell of kabob fills the crisp air while children and adults play with their kites that graze across the blue spring skyline “in a scene reminiscent of the way it was at home, long ago when there was peace and life was good.” Many students at AHS have heard of the novels A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, but do not always know that many people around us at AHS share similar stories. Fremont has the largest Afghan population outside Afghanistan. The Kite Runner ends with a family celebration at Lake Elizabeth, but the path to that happy ending is often an arduous one.

      Many adult Afghan immigrants in Fremont escaped the war between Afghanistan and the Soviets during the early 1980s. Mr. Noori is a popular history teacher at American, but many students do not know his life story – he immigrated to the United States when he was only seven years old.

    He recounts, “I don’t remember much, just a lot of noise. We first immigrated to Pakistan, then to the U.S.”

         The Soviet and Afghan War lasted over nine years, and began in December 1979 in the midst of the Cold War. Rebellion groups collectively known as the “mujahideen” rebelled against the Afghan communist government which created social reforms deeply resented by the Afghan people. The Soviets bombed several Afghan cities to decrease the mujahideen support, eventually rendering many middle-class Afghan families into refugees. This turmoil caused families to immigrate to other countries, leaving behind their beloved, but war-torn, country.

    Fleeing to Pakistan was a tumultuous process. Mr. Kohistani, an AHS parent who in his youth left Afghanistan to seek safety, remembers: “In the middle of the night, we had to wake up and leave for Pakistan. It was scary because I don’t know when a bomb was going to explode. We rode on horses and had to travel during the nights, during the day we hid inside caves in the mountains.”

    Mr. Kohistani left Afghanistan when concerns for his family’s safety escalated intensely. “My dad was on the side of people that fought against the communist party, the government at that time. We had to leave because they were going to kill him,” he recalled.

    Bibi Hawa Wardak (11) is an AHS student who moved here from Afghanistan two years ago. She cited other reasons for her family’s immigration. Her father wanted her to be educated in the United States. “[Girls] couldn’t go to school because of the Taliban. There were bombs they would throw at female schools, like maybe once a year. We would stay at home for safety. Older boys would eve-tease [catcall] girls as they walked to school.”

    But if danger and threats plagued life in their home country, hostility and xenophobia were constant in the lives of Afghan immigrants even upon fleeing.

    Mr. Kohistani remembered, “We were not welcomed; kids picked on us because we didn’t speak the language. We couldn’t go to school at the beginning.When I got to the United States, the kids were very mean to us. We had to fight and defend ourselves. We didn’t have the most expensive clothes so they picked on how we dressed.”

    This intolerance towards newcomers–a clear delineation of “outsiders”–appears to be a universal feature.

    Even in Pakistan, “Since we weren’t from their country, we dealt with a lot of racism. We didn’t speak the same language. We stayed in Pakistan for about four years. Then, we moved to Virginia where the kids were also very racist to us. There were mostly white people and they would make mean faces. They were like ‘what country is that?’ My dad homeschooled us for about half a year. We were one of the only Afghans. Then, we moved to California, where things got much better,” said Mrs. Kohistani.

    During the war, many families had to separate as well.

    Mrs. Kohistani said that she had to leave behind her brother in Afghanistan when she was eight years old.

      “We had to leave him because he was old enough to be fighting in the war. He ended up joining us later. It was difficult for guys in the military to leave,” she remembered.

    Adding to the turmoil was the fact that entire Afghan communities were dispersed.

   “Some went to Pakistan, India, Europe. Our thinking was when the war was over, we would go back. But the war was never over,” Mr. Noori said.

    Mr. Noori spent half of his teenage years in Alameda, where many refugee families from Afghanistan, the Philippines, and other countries resided together in a mixing pot of cultures, but he too recalled facing prejudice. He and his family lived in poverty, relying on food stamps and other social programs. Teachers had few expectations of immigrant students, while sometimes treating immigrant families with discourtesy and blatant discrimination.

     “The teachers figured ‘Oh, they wouldn’t amount to anything,’ like we would become labor and warehouse workers and kids would snicker and laugh at our accents,” Mr. Noori stated, “We were still learning English. We went from a middle class family in Afghanistan to poverty and living in the ghettos in really poor conditions– not the best neighbors, and not the best time in the 1980s. We went through financial turmoil,” he said.

    Mr. Kohistani too recalls similar conditions upon moving to the U.S. “[My teenage years] were very difficult because I grew up in Hayward and it was a rough neighborhood. The school was very dangerous and full of gangs,” he stated.

    Simply put, life had gone from hard to harder. Many people had doubts about whether they had made the right decision by immigrating.

    Mr. Noori recalled, “My mom and dad fought all time over money, and my dad yelling at my mom that he wanted to go back to Afghanistan. He would question her if it was really worth  moving because she pushed for it. My dad still loved the old country.”

    Moving back was impossible and immigrants found themselves with no choice but to plow on and make the best of their new situation. In middle school, Mr. Noori and his class had a field trip to UC Berkeley — and it was there he was inspired to eventually go there for college. His sixth grade teacher changed his life.  

      “There were couple of good teachers, the diamonds in the rough. One of the teachers who actually cared about us took us to a sixth grade field trip to Cal. The atmosphere, the classes…She made us believe that anyone could go to college,” Mr. Noori reminisced.

    When Mr. Noori was a sophomore in high school, he and his family moved to Fremont and he attended American.  

    “I felt welcomed by events like international week and community events,” Mr. Noori said.

 Afghan families have a strong love for their culture and celebrate with food and family on occasions such as Eid and Persian New Year. Respecting and treating others with hospitality is a value that Afghan immigrants and children of Afghan immigrants believe in.

  “What I specifically like about Afghan culture is how we treat guests very well. We make sure they are taken care of very well and feel comfortable in our home. I celebrate my culture in Fremont by going to a New Years party filled with Afghans every year in Lake Elizabeth. You get to socialize, play games, and eat delicious Afghan food,” Haseeb Sayed (12) said.

     Mr. Noori initially joined community college and earned a 4.0, then transferred to his dream school UC Berkeley and studied history. “I saw students like me, who looked like me. Before that I thought only white people could go to college. In highschool, I was a B student and got admitted into a few colleges, but I really wanted to go to Cal,” he said.   

    Mr. Noori was in college when the tragic incidents of 9/11 occurred.

       “9/11 was when I saw the difference between me and mainstream culture. In my 20 years, there was no difference. Before, people thought Afghanistan was India. It didn’t matter to them,” he stated.

   People’s ignorance of other cultures often manifests as racism – whether intentionally or otherwise.  

     “Some people may joke around that ‘Oh you’re a terrorist,’ but I tell them – that is not funny,” Hamza Kohistani (12) said.

   This lack of awareness of Afghan culture and issues is something that Elias Kamal, (AHS ‘14) works tirelessly to combat. He was motivated by hearing the stories of those in his community.

    “I attended a conference a few years ago in Washington DC where hundreds of Afghan-Americans gathered to discuss what it means to be a part of this diaspora. I was surrounded by motivated intellectuals from my own community who were similarly passionate about learning our ancestral history, culture, and the assimilation of Afghan-Americans into Western society,” Kamal stated.

    Moved to action, he continued, “I began to learn about the challenges facing Afghan refugees, as well as first generation Afghans. I began hosting educational events and workshops at my college, informed friends on social media on political issues facing Afghanistan, and brought concerns from the Afghan community to Fremont’s City Council.”

    All of Kamal’s activism, as an advocate for the Afghan community, is rooted in his intimate knowledge of the challenges and stories of Afghan-Americans. “Being Afghan-American has affected my entire lived experience. I grew up hearing the stories of how my parents fled Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and found a life for their growing family here in the United States. As a child I learned to speak both Dari (Farsi) and English, while practicing traditional Afghan customs with family and the local Afghan community,” said Kamal.

    As the son of immigrants, Kamal also recognized the fierce challenges that his community has faced. It’s not just Afghan adults, who immigrated during the eighties, who suffer from these hardships. The more profound issue, in his view? “Generational trauma. The psychological trauma many of our parents faced from fleeing war, violence, and other issues is ingrained and often continues to affect them for decades in the form of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.”

    Kamal himself is outspoken about his own struggles with mental health. In his words,  “Increasing studies, along with my own personal experience, demonstrate that this psychological trauma is passed onto future generations, through genetics and learned behavior. We [young Afghans] have a personal stake in these injustices and they will continue to afflict us, and our communities for years to come unless they are addressed.”

   These psychological pressures simply compound the adversity that immigrants have already faced. But whether it is first or second-generation Americans, immigrant families often demonstrate extraordinary resilience. Ms. Woo, ELD teacher at AHS, states, “My ELD students have shown me that bells of different types and sounds can create harmony because their common trait is perseverance. Every day is an accomplishment when one has to translate for their family members, learn to speak/read/write in a new language, help more recent immigrant students adjust to AHS on top of navigating through teen years and academics.”

    Mr. Noori certainly navigated successfully and resiliently through his life thus far, and is loved immensely by many of his past and current students.

    “Mr. Noori supported me in the musical as a member of the audience. It was a great feeling seeing him as a supporter and also like family to me. He’s a really fun and funny teacher. He uses real life connections towards lessons and cracks some jokes here and there so the class could be more comfortable. I felt like this was the only class I was genuinely happy in and to just be myself.” said James Lacdao, Mr. Noori’s former TA.

     Mr. Creger is a sophomore English teacher, advisor of the Afghan Students Association at AHS, and a close friend of Mr. Noori’s.

    He stated, “Wali is a very steady person. He is very good-natured. When he smiles at you and asks “How are you?” he really wants to know. He won’t just ask it out of formality. The History project and the Creed project (my project) are very closely related. He shared his history to the students. I admire how he cares about student’s personal development as well as their academic development.”

    In part due to his own turbulent, inspiring life story, personal and familial history is very important to Mr. Noori. He directs the History Project, which of a compilation of a student’s history and culture.

This skill of reflecting on our personal stories and interweaving them with our values is an important one, not only for Mr. Noori’s students but for anyone in the world with a voice and a story. But perhaps the broader issue is not only telling our stories, but turning them into action.

   Using our voices to fight is some of the most important work that we can do. As Elias Kamal stated, “Equity encourages justice and increased attention to disenfranchised peoples. I want social justice and liberation for all oppressed communities.”

    Kamal acknowledges that this strong desire for change is one way in which his generation differs from that of earlier Afghan generations, who tend to be more traditional and conservative. Kamal’s social media post sums up this simultaneous interconnectedness and generational shift between Afghan immigrants:

“to be Afghan is to carry the scars of your ancestors. your blood, coursing with anguish from generations of battle. your soul, aching with wounds that have yet to heal.”

But remember, we too are warriors. though our fight is that of radical self-love, this in itself is a form of resistance.”

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