Immigrant Stories: Afghanistan
Ahmad Barekzai, Afghan Refugee
“Afghanistan was once a very peaceful country,” says Ahmad Barekzai, IT worker at the International Institute. He describes Afghanistan as once being so peaceful that during a 40-year period, there was supposedly not one instance of gunfire. Various historical arts and cultures colored the region, education was easily accessible, and women could work and dress as they wanted in large cities. This is a face of Afghanistan most Americans never hear about or experience. Unfortunately for Ahmad, he never experienced this either.
Ahmad was born in Kabul during the early onset of violence in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most of what he can recall is riddled with memories of the mujahideen and their dire impact on his life and the world around him. When the mujahideen entered Kabul, they divided the city by territories, each of which a warlord enforced his reign. Because the warlords were always fighting, it became nearly impossible to go to work or buy necessities like food. You could not even enter other territorial divisions. They would not allow it. ‘If your workplace, the market, or a family member was in a different territory than yours, even if it was just the next street over, you couldn’t go if it was not within your territorial division.’ But worst of all, the mujahideen made it practically impossible for Ahmad to continue is education, a deprivation he found especially devastating. “I wanted to have a higher education, but it wasn’t allowed.”
With these territorial divisions came a number of other difficulties. Different warlords controlled different resources and because they often conflicted with each other, resources such as water and other utilities could not be distributed throughout the city, especially when many of the plant workers could not get to work due to territorial divisions and violence. So to find water, Ahmad and his family relied on digging wells and other primitive ways such as earth-based ovens to prepare meals instead of using the stoves and ovens they were initially accustomed.
Unfortunately, the mujahideen made life even more unbearable. Ahmad recalls, ‘The mujahideen had never seen or experienced women like they had in Kabul. They forbade them from working, they forced them cover their faces, and they disallowed women from leaving the home unless they were accompanied by a male relative.’ This among other humiliations and abuse drove some Afghan women to commit suicide. Ahmad says, ‘It was so bad, women jumped off buildings. I saw it once. I was there when a woman had jumped off her balcony when a warlord intended to kidnap her.’
Ahmad says he did witness violence often, and it was happening everywhere. Homes and buildings often stood scarred with bullet holes. His school burned to the ground twice. Even Ahmad himself survived some close calls. A bullet once shot through his pants, but just missed his leg. Another time, he mentions a rocket hit the ground very close to him, but it was a dud. If it hadn’t malfunctioned, he says it would have killed him. At one point, Ahmad also could not visit his father’s grave because landmines were everywhere. If he would have tried to travel to his father’s grave, he could have easily been traveling to his own.
Ahmad and his family left Kabul and headed for Pakistan in 1996 when the Taliban began taking over the country. Soon after, they lived as refugees in India hoping to make a better life in another country. In India, refugees were not allowed to work, so the only hope for a good future lied in being accepted elsewhere. During his time in India, many Afghan refugees could not be resettled. But Ahmad’s family got lucky. The United States agreed to accept them into their country. To this day, Ahmad believes this opportunity was a result of his father having worked in the American Embassy in Kabul.
When Ahmad’s family finally arrived to St. Louis in 2000, they didn’t know what to expect. They had never heard of St. Louis nor had they ever been to the United States. Like most other immigrants fleeing violence who were resettled in St. Louis, Ahmad and his family received services from the International Institute. In very little time, Ahmad found an opportunity to work as an interpretter for the International Institute. But even with this bit of luck, unlike some newly arrived refugees who recall having welcoming experiences in St. Louis, Ahmad argues his earliest days in the city were difficult and full of setbacks. Ahmad remembers saving money to buy a bike. But when he finally earned enough to purchase it, it was stolen from him. He also recalls a number of times where the landlord threatened his family to be kicked out. He says this was especially the case following the 9/11 attacks and the onset of the US invasion of Afghanistan a year later.
But despite these everyday problems, Ahmad desired to continue his education, which he admits was a very long and difficult journey, but nonetheless important. He enrolled in community college in 2001 and achieved an associate’s degree in microcomputer support all while working full time and taking care of mother and sister who were unfortunately disabled. He later earned his bachelor’s degree in information management at Webster University and is now working on getting his master’s in data analytics. He says, “from a refugee’s point of view, you have no idea the level of achievement this is.”
When asked what one of his happiest moments was, Ahmad answered the day he earned his American citizenship in 2007 because he was no longer stateless. As a result of his education and hard work, Ahmad was able to provide a better life for his mother and sister as well as help provide a pleasant life for his two children alongside his wife, which he met in 2004. To this day, Ahmad continues to work at the International Institute in various positions and recently as a tech support. He continues to talk about the importance of education as well as the cost of war and its effects on other countries.
Fahime Mohammad, Afghan Asylee
Fahime Mohammad was only a child when the Soviets rolled into Afghanistan in 1979. Brought in to support the newly-established socialist government, the arrival of Soviet troops marked the beginning of a decade-long conflict that would divide the country between state forces and various insurgent groups, known as the mujahideen. Growing up in the capital city of Kabul, Fahime was forced to undergo mandatory training for the Soviet military during high school. As the conflict grew more desperate, involuntary conscription became widespread, and Fahime learned that he would be inducted into the Soviet forces to contend with the mujahideen groups. Utterly disgusted by the thought of fighting other Afghans over a foreign power’s ideological interests, Fahime instead chose to flee the country. Together with his brother, several other family members, and a couple neighbors, he managed to slip past numerous border checkpoints for both sides. Hiding underneath the seats of a bus zigzagging through the countryside and hiking across snow-dappled mountains, they finally found themselves safely in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1989.
Fahime and his brother stayed in Pakistan for two years, but were not legally allowed to work or go to school. This, along with discriminatory attitudes against the growing population of Afghan refugees, prompted them to search for a way to emigrate. Using Pakistani passports, the two brothers hopped on a plane and flew through several major Asian cities before arriving in LAX in California, where they immediately declared their status as refugees. Fahime and his brother then took an Amtrak train to St. Louis to live with their uncle, and began to peruse the vast body of American cinema while waiting for work authorization. Realizing that they were just biding their time, Fahime decided to enroll at Roosevelt High School to finally attain his diploma (since he left before finishing his senior year in Afghanistan). Though he knew very little English at first, he managed to pass with the help of ESL tutors from the International Institute.
Fahime and his brother found jobs at Old Warson Country Club, where they worked for several years as Fahime earned a degree in IT from St. Louis Community College. After graduating, he found a position with Edward Jones, which is where he stayed until 2005, when his brother had the idea of opening Missouri’s first Afghan restaurant. Despite fears of failure and some rocky times, they now manage Sameem Afghan Restaurant, the critically-acclaimed spot in the Grove. Grateful for the hospitality he received as a newcomer in America, Fahime encourages the people of St. Louis to continue welcoming new immigrants and refugees to the city. When the diverse neighborhoods of St. Louis flourish, the entire city reaps the benefits.
Facts about Afghanistan
Ahmad Shah DURRANI unified the Pashtun tribes and founded Afghanistan in 1747. The country served as a buffer between the British and Russian Empires until it won independence from notional British control in 1919. A brief experiment in democracy ended in a 1973 coup and a 1978 communist countercoup. The Soviet Union invaded in 1979 to support the tottering Afghan communist regime, touching off a long and destructive war. The USSR withdrew in 1989 under relentless pressure by internationally supported anti-communist mujahidin rebels. A series of subsequent civil wars saw Kabul finally fall in 1996 to the Taliban, a hardline Pakistani-sponsored movement that emerged in 1994 to end the country’s civil war and anarchy. Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, a US, Allied, and anti-Taliban Northern Alliance military action toppled the Taliban for sheltering Usama BIN LADIN.
Despite gains toward building a stable central government, the Taliban remains a serious challenge for the Afghan Government in almost every province. The Taliban still considers itself the rightful government of Afghanistan, and it remains a capable and confident insurgent force despite its last two spiritual leaders being killed; it continues to declare that it will pursue a peace deal with Kabul only after foreign military forces depart.
Population: 34,940,837 (July 2018 est.)
Location: Southern Asia, north and west of Pakistan, east of Iran
Languages: Afghan Persian or Dari (official) 80% (Dari functions as the lingua franca), Pashto (official) 47%, Uzbek 11%, English 5%, Turkmen 2%, Urdu 2%, Pashayi 1%, Nuristani 1%, Arabic 1%, Balochi, Shughni, Pamiri, Hindi, Russian, German, French (2017 est.)
Religions: Muslim 99.7% (Sunni 84.7 – 89.7%, Shia 10 – 15%), other 0.3% (2009 est.)
Ethnic Groups: Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution recognizes 14 ethnic groups: Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Baloch, Turkmen, Nuristani, Pamiri, Arab, Gujar, Brahui, Qizilbash, Aimaq, and Pashai (2015)
Information from the CIA World Factbook