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Afghan Refugees and the American Dream
The soon arrival of thousands of Afghan refugees reminds me of interviews I did with three young men from Kabul back in 2016. Each of them were part of the Afghan Special Immigrant Visas program (SIV) that provides a path to American citizenship for Afghan nationals who assisted the United States military during the war.
SIV applicants are required to demonstrate that they were employed by or on behalf of the United States government in Afghanistan for a minimum of one year, and that, because of their employment, they face an ongoing and serious threat to their lives. Names and specific details of their stories have been changed in order to protect their identity.
When I first met these young men, they had been living in the U.S for less than a year. They were young children when the Taliban took power in 1994. They, along with their families, were forced to flee the country because their parents worked for the Afghan government. When the U.S. removed the Taliban in 2002, all three returned to Afghanistan as young adults. Each of them recalled watching the news reports of the U.S. invasion, and upon returning to Kabul all three secured prestigious jobs assisting the U.S. in rebuilding the Afghan government. Both Ibrahim and Yusuf worked for defense contractors in Kabul and Ahmed worked directly with the U.S. military as a translator throughout the country. Both Ibrahim and Yusuf had professional degrees and were some of the highest paid Afghan civilian contractors in Kabul. They loved their jobs because they felt like they were seeing their country transformed for the better, particularly the city of Kabul. Ibrahim put it this way, “It’s not because Kabul is very modern, but there is a deep connection for a lot of Afghans. Friends in Kabul are different. If you have a friend there, they are friends forever. Even after my dad died, his friends would still come to my house to check on us and take care of us.”
The truth is, these young men loved living in Kabul. They described the city as being cosmopolitan and that the ethnic and religious differences that dominated rural areas of the country did not matter in the city. However, as time went on, the threat of retaliation by the Taliban became an ever present reality. They applied and were given visas to come to America but none of their family members could join them. This has resulted in an incredible sense of loneliness and concern for their family back in Afghanistan.
Prior to coming to the U.S., each of these young men believed that the diversity they experienced in Kabul was an American value. However, during their first six months in America, this belief was disconfirmed. Upon entering the U.S., they were resettled into a low-income apartment complex in Columbia, South Carolina. According to them, their neighbors were primarily African American, Latino, and other refugees. They were disappointed that the social gatherings, at least in their perception, were centered around racial or ethnic boundaries. They had hoped to make a variety of friends like they had back in Kabul, but instead, they found themselves only welcomed by fellow Afghans. They were thankful for the small Afghan community, but they felt isolated from the broader American community. Yusuf told me that some of his Afghan friends who came to America for college warned him not to come. “They said ‘don’t go there because you will feel homeless.’ I have been trying to adjust, but I miss my home.” In six months, none of the three had made any significant friendships with Americans. At first, they wondered whether it was because they were Muslim immigrants. However, they eventually concluded that it was more likely that American culture was not friendly in general. Ibrahim explains:
“Here it is really quiet and very slow. We grew up in the middle of Kabul city—it is like New York, busy all the time, very crowded with people. Here you don’t see people on the street, neighbors do not talk to each other. We have a neighbor and a couple of times we said hi and she just ignored us. I don’t think it is because we are Afghani. I think neighbors here just don’t talk to each other. In our culture, you have to have respect for your neighbor. If your neighbor is sick or has a need, you have to try to help them. Even if you are not in a position to help them, still you have to try your best. That’s the culture. I think it comes from the religion.”
Anyone who has lived in the Muslim world would likely agree with Ibrahim’s assessment that hospitality is a Muslim value. It is also a Christian value despite the fact that many American Christians may not do it very well. Nevertheless, these young men did find that some Christians went out of their way to welcome them and even invited them to church. However, the experience left them feeling even more discontent and further in culture shock. Ibrahim described the church service as a party. He didn’t understand why everyone was dressed up like they were going to a nightclub. Yusuf shared how, after the service, one person asked him to explain the Qur’an to him. He replied, “That is not something we can discuss in one hour. We need at least one year to discuss the Qur’an.” The person then proceeded to explain the Bible to him, and, according to Yusuf, he was trying to convert him by convincing him that Christianity was better for him than Islam. Yusuf was not convinced. On the contrary, they left the church more convinced of Islam’s superiority over Christianity.
In addition, the guys were surprised by how Christians handled their Bibles. Ibrahim shares how he felt that the church he visited had no respect for the Bible: “When we carry the Qur’an, we carry it with respect. But in the church, I saw that the Bible was on the ground. I even picked up a couple of the Bibles and put it on top because this was disrespectful. We believe in all four books, and it is disrespectful when you see a Bible lying in front of you on the floor. These are words from God. You can’t leave them on the floor. You even have to clean your body, your hands and mouth before you read the Qur’an. I don’t know how it works in the church but I was really surprised when I saw Bibles lying everywhere.” The church experience was further confirmation for these young men that America was not the place they imagined it would be.
Struggling for Meaning and Purpose
In addition to not making meaningful friendships, finding meaningful work is also a challenge. Neither Ibrahim nor Yusuf have been able to find work in their field of study. Ibrahim is currently working as a grocery bagger while he continues sending out resumes. Both Yusuf and Ahmed are working in fast-food restaurants. While they are all grateful to have jobs, none of them are finding much meaning in their current employment.
The ease of computer-mediated communication back home provides some respite from the daily struggle with culture shock. However, this regular communication may be a barrier to Ibrahim, Yusuf, and Ahmed integrating into American society. They spend a significant amount of time on social media with family and friends back in Kabul. It is rare to see Ahmed not wearing his Bluetooth earpiece. Sometimes he has friends or family connect with him online just so he can listen to their conversations as if he were sitting with them in the room. The ability to maintain significant relationships back in Kabul through social media may be hindering them from pursuing meaningful relationships in their new socio-cultural context. All three are homesick and are struggling to cope with their sadness. They do not feel like they belong in America, but they know that they cannot return to Afghanistan.
For practical tips on helping Afghans resettle, see our Field Guide for helping Afghan refugees. If you would like to read an in-depth study on the transnational experiences of Afghan and Pakistani immigrants, check out Trevor’s recent book Narrative Identity: Transnational Practices of Pashtun Immigrants in the United States.