IV. Afghan Americans and the Heritage of Trauma


"CRY"† © Murtaza Pardais† All rights reserved

 

"I want the older generation to talk about their pain with their children and the children to talk about their pain with the older generation,"

-- Mizgon Darby

††††††††††† To listen to Afghan refugees' stories is to be reminded, over and over again, of how immense and devastating Afghanistan's 30-year catastrophe has been.
†††††††††† In researching this report, I did not specifically seek out people who had lost family members or had suffered some other personal tragedy, but I kept finding them. Here are some of the stories I heard:

†††††††††† When the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979, Tahera Shairzay was living in Saudi Arabia, where her husband was working as an engineer and she taught in a girls' school. But the rest of her family, including her younger brother Naim, was still in Kabul. Naim was in his early 20s, in his fifth year of engineering school. Shairzay and her husband had urged him to leave and offered to support him if he went to study in Europe, but he refused. "He said 'No, I don't want that. If all of us who are educated in this country leave this country, what will happen? I don't want to leave.' He wanted to make a difference, to do something there."
††††††††††† After the invasion, Naim was active in student protests against the Soviet presence. In April 1980, the fourth month of the occupation, he was in a crowd of demonstrators when police opened fire. His family never saw him again. Shortly after the shooting, a friend called his parents to tell them Naim had been wounded and could not run away with the others, so he had presumably been arrested. Later, Shairzay said, a different friend told them that he had been taken to a Kabul hospital. "So they went to that hospital, they asked the doctors, they asked everybody," but the only answer they got was "We don't know, he was taken out of here." And there the trail went cold. Periodically his family received notes or telephone calls saying that Naim might be in this or that place, but none of the tips proved true. Bribes to government security and other officials were fruitless too.
††††††††††† The overwhelming likelihood was that like many others who were arrested for anti-government activities in that period, Naim had been taken away, secretly executed and left with other slain dissidents in an unmarked mass grave. The family understood that, but without certainty, their grief could not be definitive. Even now "it's still hard to believe he's dead," Shairzay says, even though they are sure he is. The uncertainty left them susceptible to false hopes that were always followed by renewed disappointment. Two decades after Naim disappeared, Shairzay said, the family heard that a handful of long-missing Afghans had returned to Afghanistan after being kept as prisoners for many years in a remote region of Russia. His mother, by then in the United States, was elated at the news. "Maybe your brother will show up someday," she told Shairzay. But Naim did not come. "These are things that Afghans went through," Shairzay said. "These things happened to many many families."††

†††††††††† Like Tahera Shairzay, Najla has never learned what really happened to her brother. His name was Farid, and he was only 17 when he disappeared. Najla, who asked not to have her family name published, was 15.
††††††††††† Farid had been drafted out of his tenth-grade class in school and like thousands of other young Afghans, became an unwilling soldier in the pro-Soviet government army. In 1985, the sixth year of the Soviet occupation, he was sent on an operation against guerrillas belonging to a U.S.-backed mujahideen force known as the Haqqani Network after its founder, Jalalludin Haqqani.[1] Farid's unit was surrounded and taken hostage by the Haqqani fighters, Najla said, "and he never came home. They didn't give us the body, they didn't tell us if they killed him or if they kept him alive. No matter what we asked, we couldn't get the right answer."
††††††††††† Najla also had a younger brother, four years younger than Farid. After Farid vanished, her father decided to leave Afghanistan, abandoning his jewelry business there, rather than risk losing another son in the war. The family fled to Pakistan and in 1990 reached the United States, settling in Greensboro, North Carolina. Najla, after returning to Afghanistan for a couple of years as an interpreter for U.S. troops there, now lives in Gambrills, Maryland, where I spoke with her at a local mosque and Islamic center a few minutes drive from her home. When I asked if her family has ever learned anything more about Farid, she shook her head. "No, we never found out. Twenty-seven years now...."
††††††††††† Technically, Najla's brother Farid and Tahera Shairzay's brother Naim were on opposing sides in the war, one serving in the pro-Soviet forces and one demonstrating against them. But neither sister thinks of the other's lost brother as an enemy. Farid and many thousands of young men like him "had no choice" about joining the government army, Shairzay said, and she thinks about them the same way she thinks about Naim: they were all victims of the same tragedy. She and Najla have never met but she believes they are mourning for the same reason. "We lost our brothers because of the Russians." Najla agrees. No one in her family supported the Communist regime, she said, and Farid joined its army only because he was forced to. When I asked the same question I'd asked Shairzay, if she felt those two young men were each other's enemies, Najla gave the same answer. "Of course not," she said firmly. "No."

††††††††† Many others told of similar horrors. Jawid Ahmad was just three years old but he remembers when his family's home in Herat was destroyed by Soviet artillery fire after the neighborhood was occupied by mujahideen fighters. His younger brother, still an infant, was killed; Jawid's grandmother lost an eye, and one of his aunts was also wounded. Jawid, who told his story in intervals between attending to customers at his little kebab restaurant on Central Avenue in Albany, New York, also remembers walking for hours, without shoes, when the family fled to Iran a few months later. Also in Herat, Fariba Nawa was 9 when a mujahideen rocket slammed into her school, called Lycee Mehri. They targeted the school because, the mujahideen claimed, the girls were being taught Communist propaganda there. Though classes were in session, Fariba and her mother happened to be at their home, a few hundred yards away. At the sound of the blast they raced frantically to the school, where her older sister Faiza was in class. In her book Opium Nation Fariba described the scene at the gate to the school grounds: "an ambulance overflowed with injured students. The ground was deep red, and people were running in and out of the school grounds. I saw Maha -- a classmate I often played hide and seek with -- carried out by a man in a white coat; her arm was missing and she was bleeding from one eye. I recognized Jaber -- the son of a teacher and the only boy in the school -- from his clothes; his head had been blown off."[2]
††††††††††† Faiza was unhurt, but after the rocketing, Fariba's parents decided it was too dangerous to stay in Herat. Their son, the oldest child, had already left Afghanistan to avoid being drafted into the Communist-led government army. Two months after the attack on their daughters' school, the two girls and their parents slipped across the border to Iran and then made their way to Pakistan and eventually to the United States.†
††††††††††† Shahla Arsala knows how her father died, so she doesn't live with quite the same void of uncertainty as Najla and Tahera Shairzay. But the family doesn't know where he was buried, so they have no grave to go to and mourn. A general in the Afghan army, Arsala's father remained in his post for a couple of months after the Soviet invasion, but then refused to continue serving under the occupation. He was arrested and imprisoned for a year, then executed along with seven other high-ranking prisoners. After the execution, the authorities notified the family and summoned Arsala's oldest brother to come to the prison and retrieve his Koran and other belongings. But they did not release the body or even let family members view it, and would not tell them where he had been buried. "Till now we don't know," she told me sadly.
††††††††††† Twice, in 2002 and 2003, Arsala traveled back to Afghanistan from California, where she arrived as a refugee in 1980 and now works with a social service agency that assists newer refugees. On both trips, while also helping carry out humanitarian aid projects, she tracked down documents and surviving friends and associates of her father, gathering material for a book on his life. She also searched for information that might help her find her father's grave, but got no answers. But she still has hope, rekindled by news that in 2008, the Afghan government had found and identified the remains of the assassinated President Mohammed Daoud Khan and more than a dozen relatives who had been secretly buried with him during the Communist coup more than 30 years before. If that could happen, Arsala reasons, possibly her mystery will be solved someday too

††††††††††† Moments of hope during the decades of conflict were few and fleeting. A woman I'll call Afsana (a pseudonym, at her request) remembered one brief interval of optimism in her Kabul neighborhood after Afghanistan's Communist government collapsed in 1992, when she was 18. "We were all very happy that the mujahideen were coming," Afsana said. But, she went on, "When they came, the rockets started." Rather than peace and national restoration, the mujahideen victory brought an even worse nightmare of violence. In Kabul, fighting between different factions broke out almost immediately and continued for four terrible years, killing tens of thousands of civilians and turning large areas of the city into lakes of blackened rubble. Early in the fighting, a stray rocket destroyed Afsana's father's small clothing shop, a half-hour's walk from the family's comfortable two-story home. By luck, her father was not in the shop when it was hit. Neither was her brother, who often worked there. But her father's hired helper was at work and was killed. When they found him, Afsana said, his body was cut in half. A few months after that, heavier fighting broke out in the neighborhood where they lived. For four days, until the factions declared a ceasefire, she and her family stayed in the basement of their home. During lulls in the gunfire, her mother would go upstairs and cook a meal and bring it back down to the basement for the family to eat.
††††††††††† After that battle, they fled to another neighborhood and rented a house there. But after only six months in their new home, a neighbor came one day when Afsana was home alone and warned her that fighters from another mujahideen faction were coming to kill Hazaras, her family's ethnic group (although Afsana says they had no connection at all with any military or political group). In a panic, she packed a plastic bag with a spare set of clothes for her mother and herself,† grabbed the portable radio/tape recorder her father liked to use to listen to the news and play music, and bolted with her packages into the street, which was already jammed with fleeing people. As she ran, her headscarf blew away. Rockets began falling. One landed a few dozen yards in front of her, where a street vender -- a familiar figure in the neighborhood -- was standing with his children around him next to his cart. Running toward him, Afsana saw the explosion and then the shredded bodies of the vender and his children, who were blown to pieces by the blast. There was nothing she could do but keep running past the bodies.
††††††††††† And then there's Murtaza Pardais's story. The casualty list in his extended family, spanning different sides and all the chapters of Afghanistan's wars, reads like a kind of capsule chronicle of more than 20 years of bloodshed. Among the numerous sons of his father's four wives, one died in the fighting that took place after the 1978 Communist coup. During the Soviet occupation, two more of Pardais's half-brothers were killed by mujahideen fighters while serving in the Soviet-backed government army. Then his father died in the civil war between mujahideen factions that devastated Kabul after the last Communist government collapsed. That was also the time when one of the mujahideen armies burned down Kabul university, including its art faculty, where Murtaza Pardais was a young but prolific and already distinguished teacher. Pardais's home, which was on the university grounds, was also destroyed, along with several hundred of his paintings. He was able to rescue several hundred others, mostly smaller works. After selling some of them to raise money for his escape, he hid the rest in piles of blankets and pillowcases and loaded them and his family onto a rented truck for the dangerous trip to Pakistan, where they would live for the next seven years before relocating to the United States.†
††††††††††† In October 2001, one more of Pardais's half-brothers died during the U.S. invasion following the 9/11 terror attacks. He had been living in Peshawar, Pakistan, but when the invasion began, he went back to the Afghan city of Jalalabad to find one of his daughters who was living there and bring her to safety. Instead, during the journey, he was killed, apparently in an American bombing attack.†
††††††††††† Memories of his country's and his family's long arc of violence run like a discordant musical theme through Pardais's paintings and sculptures, hundreds of which, representing a wide range of subjects and artistic styles, are stacked floor to ceiling in the garage next to his modest home in a suburb of Rochester, New York. In one piece that directly commemorates the first of his half-brothers to die, sleeves from a shirt the dead man had worn are draped around the forearms in a sculpted image of two clasped, bloodstained hands with a padlocked chain circling the wrists. Another work, a painting, shows five missiles, marked with the numbers 1 through 5, slanting downward from a dark sky. Below them are luminous images of historic Afghan sites, one of them recognizable as a famous 15th-century tomb in the city of Balkh, and another as the arched gate that has stood for a thousand years outside the city of Lashkar Gah in southern Afghanistan. There are also crosses, symbolizing Christianity, and an image of the great pre-Islamic Bamiyan Buddha statue that stood until it was blown up by the Taliban in 2001. He put those in the painting, Pardais says, to show that before the rockets started falling, different religions coexisted peacefully in Afghanistan. Filling the lower left quadrant of the canvas is a frightened child's face, streaked with blood and seen in profile with her mouth open in a terrified scream, reminding me a little bit of the faces in Picasso's "Guernica." Behind the figures, disembodied eyes look out through what look like splotches of red and orange flame. Pardais put himself in the painting too, though I didn't notice that until he mentioned it in a much later conversation; next to the frightened girl's eye, and between the streaks of blood running down the side of her head, there is a faint outline of the artist's face and below it, his palette.
††††††††††† When he showed me the painting, Pardais explained the numbering of the missiles, which represent all the outside countries that have been involved in Afghanistan's spiral of conflict. No. 1 was from Russia, no. 2 from the United States, no. 3 from Pakistan, and no. 4 from Iran. Missile no. 5, he said, was from the Arab world, the region that sent al-Qaeda and its violent religious extremism to Afghanistan. That conversation took place before I learned any of the details of his father's and half-brothers' deaths. But later I thought that as well as a general view of recent Afghan history, that painting could express the history of this particular family history, too, which had suffered so much violent death at the hands of not one but several different sides in the conflict. (A similar theme is in another painting that shows a grieving mother sitting in front of framed photos of two sons, one with a neatly trimmed mustache and dressed in military uniform, and the other with a full beard and wearing a pakol, the flat woolen beret-shaped hat that was typical headgear for mujahideen fighters.)
††††††††††† Not all of Pardais's work reflects violence or tragedy. There are peaceful images too -- portraits in the style of Persian miniatures, impressionistic landscapes, happy scenes of life in Afghan villages or quiet springtime streets in Rochester. His painting has helped him live with terrible memories, Pardais said; he thinks it's true of all artists that expressing pain in their art makes them feel better. But easing his own pain is not why he paints, he added quickly. He paints to show people the reality of what has happened to his people and his country.
††††††††††† Murtaza Pardais kept painting during his seven years as a refugee in Pakistan, at first selling his work at an open-air market in Islamabad but eventually showing in several major galleries. Since coming to the United States, where he lived briefly in Chicago and Cleveland and then settled in Rochester, he has continued making art, showing at several important arts festivals. When I met him, he was in the last stages of publishing a kind of visual autobiography,[3] reproducing several hundred of his paintings with an accompanying text by his son Shansab. He showed me an advance copy, and as he leafed through the pages to show me particular images, I realized that in keeping his profession, Pardais had kept being who he was. His identity was still artist, not refugee. With all the things he had lost -- his brothers, his home, his teaching -- he had not lost himself. In that, despite all the tragedy in his life, he seemed more fortunate than many other Afghan refugees. Fariba Nawa's father, for example....

††††††††† Nawa is actually a pen name, though the family adopted it as their legal surname in the United States. It means tune or voice, Fariba explains in Opium Nation; another meaning is solution. Her father used it to sign his essays, written in beautiful Farsi calligraphy and not meant for publication but for self-expression and his own pleasure and to give enjoyment to the relatives and friends, many of them writers or scholars or poets, who read them. He went to work every day as an administrator for a state-owned fertilizer company but his real place in life, as his daughter puts it, was as a personality -- an irreverent intellectual; a warm, exuberant storyteller; and an entertaining host who loved far-ranging discussions about Afghan culture and history and a vast number of other subjects.†
††††††††††† Fazul Haq Nawa was 52 when Fariba's school in Herat was rocketed and he decided his family had to leave Afghanistan. He had no illusion of finding a better life in another country, she writes, "but life wasn't about him anymore -- it was for his children." And he was right not to come with illusions. After the family arrived as refugees in Fremont, California, Fariba recalls, he was an active and attentive father to his two daughters, but otherwise his life became empty. Except for two years as an assistant at a refugee-aid agency, he did not work. The gregarious conversationalist "became homebound and reclusive. He no longer cared for parties or entertainment. The skills he had could not get him a job in the United States. His respected family and intellectual background, both so important in Afghanistan, did not matter any more." From time to time during his early years in Fremont, he was able to recapture snatches of his former life in gatherings with relatives and other refugees who shared his love of literature and knowledge. But those occasions faded away as families dispersed and he and his friends grew older, lonelier, and more depressed. "For my father's generation of Afghan men," Fariba sadly concluded, "America was not the land of opportunity but a place to die. Exile was the end."[4]
††††††††††† I heard many similar stories. Mizgon Shahir Darby, who directs the mental health program for the Afghan Coalition in Fremont, sees that pattern of loss and depression every day at work -- and in her own family as well. When her mother was a young woman in Afghanistan, working as a secretary, "she was a very modern woman," Darby told me. "She went to work every day, she was actually one of the providers of the family." But that life, and the satisfactions and feeling of self-worth that came with it, disappeared when she came to the United States. She never learned English, and became isolated, chronically fearful, and "incredibly depressed." Those feelings have persisted. Even now, Darby said, "I can't have a normal conversation with my mother without her telling me about how sad or upset she is. So in turn I prepare myself. Every time I call my mom I know I'm going to be sadder and upset after I get off the phone with her."

†††††††††† Stories like those of Fariba Nawa's father and Mizgon Darby's mother and many many others reflect a common experience in immigrants' lives: a loss of status and loss of identity that can be more deeply painful than any material loss. It's an aspect of the immigrant experience that Americans often don't recognize. When we see an immigrant taxi driver or a hotel maid, it seldom enters our minds that we might be looking at a scientist or a nurse or a teacher or a skilled craftsman -- though with immigrants, that is not at all an uncommon case. When Americans experience that loss of status in their own lives, it can be a shock. I once heard a highly trained nurse describe what happened when she was finally evacuated after voluntarily staying in her hospital in New Orleans through the worst days of Hurricane Katrina. When she and her colleagues became evacuees, her knowledge and skills and professional qualifications and dedication became invisible -- making her feel invisible too. "We were no longer citizens of the United States. We were refugees. We were herded like cattle, we had to go through checkpoints, we had to be frisked. We had to stand outside of porta-potties to guard the doors for each other. It didnít matter that we were people who worked in the hospital. We were combined with the people from the housing projects. We were all put together. So Katrina really was the great equalizer. It didnít matter that I came from an affluent African American community here in New Orleans; it didnít matter that I worked at the hospital. We were given a ration of food, we were all equal." She may or may not have realized it, but that perfectly describes the experience of many, many immigrants -- except that the New Orleans nurse could expect with some confidence to resume her professional life and identity after the crisis, while many immigrants will never have that chance.
††††††††††† Loss of status and identity is not only an issue in people's working lives. It arises in their family lives as well. Parents' authority as guides and caretakers is upended when their children have to help them navigate American life. When children translate for their parents at doctors' appointments or in meetings with teachers, fill out forms for them, or drive them to places they could not find by themselves, it leaves parents feeling inadequate and not infrequently angry and resentful -- angering the children in turn at their parents' ingratitude. Family conflict also arises when wives or daughters depart from traditionally restricted women's roles. A wife working outside the home, for example, can be threatening for a husband whose culture taught him that supporting the family is the man's responsibility.
††††††††† Losing the breadwinner's role is another loss of status and self-respect, and can become part of what psychologist Nahid Aziz calls "complex traumas" in Afghan American families. Aziz, who became a refugee herself at the age of 15, teaches and practices in the Washington, D.C. area and has written widely about mental health issues among immigrant and refugee women and also about women in Afghanistan. Many men feel they have lost their pride when their wives go to work or become too independent, Aziz said, and become angry, depressed, and "highly traumatized," while women may be traumatized in turn by physical abuse from their husbands. (Not a few Afghan women brought the trauma of domestic violence with them from Afghanistan as well. One young woman told me that she has never learned her grandfather's name -- her grandmother won't say it, because of the violence she had experienced at his hands. "Every time I'd ask her his name, she would say 'the man who sits and eats.' Till this day I don't know my grandfather's name. He's the man who sits and eats.")

††††††††††† Inevitably, the experience of Afghan refugees has led to high rates of physical and emotional problems. A study of refugees in California reported that nearly half of the study sample -- 31 percent of the men and a startling 58 percent of the women -- met the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, although only a small fraction had been diagnosed or treated for it.[5] Another report from the Washington-based Cultural Orientation Resource Center noted that "many Afghans suffer physical symptoms of stress caused by culture conflict, family role change, isolation, financial and job problems, and loss of family, property, privacy, and social status. Common symptoms include back pain, other body aches, asthma or breathing problems, headaches, and stomach problems. An increase in mental problems among the educated elite is associated with a severe drop in social status." For men, it continued, "the sense that they have lost control over their lives and over their wives and children is a source of great stress. Alcohol abuse is not uncommon. Domestic abuse has been an issue all along, but until recently it was not acknowledged." Also unacknowledged is a need for mental health treatment: "Although it is agreed that mental health is a problem in the community, families seek psychiatric care only as a last resort, as the need for mental health care is often considered shameful."[6]
††††††††††† The burden of traumatic memories is especially heavy in the more recent wave of Afghan refugees in the United States. By comparison with the earlier arrivals, the newer refugees lived through many more years of conflict in their homeland and spent more time in demoralizing conditions in camps in Pakistan. Beyond that, changes in U.S. refugee policy meant that many were admitted precisely because they had suffered particular forms of terror or abuse. Instead of the broad, Cold War-inspired guidelines that gave refugee status almost automatically to Afghans fleeing the Soviet occupation, U.S. refugee policy in the post-Soviet era set narrower criteria. The new guidelines gave preference to two groups: those persecuted because of ethnic identity or for political reasons, and a category called Women at Risk that included widows with young children, victims of sexual abuse or domestic violence, and other women in dangerous or damaging circumstances.
††††††††††† By definition these were people who had gone through particularly harrowing experiences. As the Cultural Orientation Resource Center report noted about the women-at-risk category, "they have experienced physical and sexual abuse, the persecution and loss of family members, detention, forced marriage, harassment, destruction or loss of property, and landmine injuries." In a very large number of cases, the emotional consequences of those events are made worse because, for reasons of fear or social or family pressure, they are wrapped in silence. Victims of sexual abuse, in particular, do not speak about their experiences. One doctor, herself a refugee, recalled that during the five years she worked in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, not a single one of her female patients ever reported a sexual assault, despite ample anecdotal evidence that rapes occurred in the camp.[7] Victims of domestic violence are similarly silenced.
††††††††††† Violent abuse and physical danger and destruction were not the only seeds of emotional wounds. A sense of having no future, no chance for self-realization, also led to demoralization and depression. This may have been most visible among women and girls who lived under the suffocating restrictions of the Taliban era. "Life basically stopped for women" under the Taliban, said Esmael Darman, one of Afghanistan's small community of clinical psychologists. "Most of them got depressed" -- like his older sister, "an A student, a very bright student"† who was homebound for six years after girls' schools were closed. For her, Darman said, losing the chance to learn was like "seeing your dreams evaporating before your eyes."
††††††††††† Though strict Taliban policies fell most heavily on women, the regime's rigid ideology and practices constricted men's futures too, especially if they belonged to ethnic minorities. In Afsana's family, it was her brother who lost his dreams. Despite coming from a largely uneducated family (their mother had some ability to read and write, but their father was illiterate, and so was Afsana, who never went to school) and despite the years of violent chaos they had lived through, he had managed to get enough schooling to pass the entrance exam for medical college. But as he was walking away from a ceremony at his school, still wearing the flower garland he had been given to celebrate his success, a Taliban follower walked up to him, put a gun to his head, and roughly informed him that Hazaras had no right to study medicine. If he tried to go to classes there, the man told him, he would be killed. He never went.

†††††††††† As the first generation of Afghan refugees grows older, their emotional difficulties often grow worse. Those who were middle-aged when they arrived in the 1980s are now in their 60s or 70s or 80s, typically with less autonomy and even more dependent on their children than in earlier years. Even if they are economically secure, aging can mean loneliness and depression and weakened defenses against traumatic memories. To the extent that their children have established themselves as middle-class Americans, many have also become more dispersed in American society, and less tightly connected with the network of first-generation friends and relatives who once formed their parents' community. So, ironically, the more successful the second generation has been, the lonelier life may be for their aging parents.†
††††††††††† As in most traditional cultures, old people in Afghanistan are respected, Tahera Shairzay points out, and are not cut off from friends as they often are in America. "They have people to take care of them, they can go everywhere. There is some dignity." In the United States, by contrast, the elderly "do not have that dignity and that pride.... They are all dependent on their children. They are lonely.... They cannot do anything by themselves, they are totally totally dependent. If they want to visit somebody their own age, one of the kids has to drive them there." In the American pattern of life, where both men and women of working age usually work outside the home, older people tend to be homebound by themselves, which would be rare in Afghanistan. "Everybody is stuck in their own house," Shairzay said. "The kids go to work, the grandchildren go to school, and these people are completely lonely."
††††††††††† Shairzay's own mother, now approaching her mid-80s, is a case in point. She spent most of her life in America in Worcester, Massachusetts, where one of Shairzay's brothers had settled after coming to the United States as an engineering student in the early 1970s. As her other children arrived, they came to Worcester too, so in their early years in the United States the family was together (except for Shairzay's father, who could not bear to leave Afghanistan without knowing what had happened to their missing son). In Worcester, Shairzay's mother learned fairly good English, became an active volunteer, and moved around independently on local buses. But meanwhile the next generation scattered. When no one was left who could give her the care she needed as she grew older, Shairzay's mother had to leave her life and friends in Worcester and follow her children to other states. She first joined one of her sons in North Carolina and then, after her health deteriorated -- and with it her English -- moved to a nursing home in Missouri, where another son practices medicine. There are no other Afghans in the nursing home, Shairzay said, no one her mother can talk to or understand, no activities she can comfortably join, no food that she is used to, no prayer rug for her daily prayers.† Sadness, an Afghan refugee once said, "is the sickness Afghans are faced with."[8] If so, like many other illnesses, it particularly afflicts the old.

††††††††††† If the first generation of Afghan refugees in America is haunted by memories, the second generation, in many families, is haunted by their parents' silence.
††††††††††† "I want the older generation to talk about their pain with their children and the children to talk about their pain with the older generation," said Mizgon Darby of the Afghan Coalition's mental health project. As she spoke, it was not hard to hear her own pain in her voice. When the parents don't speak, she went on, that silences their children too. "None of the younger generation dares say anything about how that makes them feel, that their parents are doing things that are as a result of their trauma.... you're not supposed to ask, how dare you ask and bring up that kind of pain."
††††††††††† The silence may reflect several things: an unwillingness to speak openly about being afraid or helpless, a culture that doesn't foster easy communication between parents and children, a wish to shield the children from painful knowledge. "The first generation is so private and secret they don't communicate this to the children, they don't communicate this to the second generation," Darby said. "There 's this excessive pride, this huge hubris, this thing they call ghairat" -- a Farsi word imported from Arabic, usually translated as honor, self-respect, dignity, with an implication that one must make any sacrifice to keep it and never give the slightest hint that it might have been lost. But along with concealing grief and shame, one can guess there is another reason for the silence: that memories are not articulated because there is no explanation for them, no way for people to make enough sense of their experiences to put them into words that can be understood by someone else. So when their pain is transmitted to their children, its incomprehensibility is too.


 

"A part of me had always hoped that the suffering of my fatherís generation would turn out to be for something great and good after all. I had hoped that one day those men and women would be able to return to a peaceful country of which they could be proud. But my hopes were in vain. Afghans had collectively failed to make sense of their suffering, and so it not only continued, it was also handed down to the next generation."

-- Nushin Arbabzadah, "Making Sense of Suffering"

 


 †††††††††††† The American-born daughter of Jewish Holocaust survivors once wrote about her inherited grief: "for years it lay in an iron box buried so deep inside me that I was never sure just what it was. I knew it carried slippery, combustible things... more dangerous than any shadow or ghost. Ghosts had shape and name. What lay inside my iron box had none."[9] Many children of Afghan refugees would recognize that feeling, though with this difference: with Afghanistan's catastrophe continuing, the outcome of Afghans' suffering remains unknown, so it's not just personal tragedies that remain unexplained and unresolved, but their historical meaning as well. After visiting her father's grave in Germany, where her family fled during the Soviet occupation, the author and essayist Nushin Arbabzadah wrote an essay for the American public television show Frontline, called "Making Sense of Suffering." In it, she wrote: "a part of me had always hoped that the suffering of my fatherís generation would turn out to be for something great and good after all. I had hoped that one day those men and women would be able to return to a peaceful country of which they could be proud. But my hopes were in vain. Afghans had collectively failed to make sense of their suffering, and so it not only continued, it was also handed down to the next generation who inherited their parentsí unresolved conflicts."[10]
††††††††††† Like other survivors of violent, tragic events, some Afghan Americans are haunted and emotionally troubled by their personal and collective past. Others are numbed, locking away their memories in their own iron boxes. And still others somehow manage to emerge from sadness and trauma with a greater capacity for goodness and compassion. Mizgon Darby is one of those. Obaida Omar is another. †††††††††
††††††††††† Omar was 6 when her family fled Afghanistan and her memories are fragmentary, but she vividly remembers a scene in the mountains between Jalalabad and the Pakistani border, where she and her mother and sister had to climb over piles of bodies lying on a stretch of ground that had just been struck by Soviet bombers. Her mother tried to cover her eyes so she couldn't see where she was walking, Omar said, but she saw the bodies, including several dead children. That memory, she went on, is what made her want to become a nurse, and spend her life helping people.
††††††††††† As it turned out, Omar was unable to finish nursing school, mainly because of the demands of caring for an autistic son. But she did not lose her desire to help others who need help. She works with refugee families as a volunteer for the Catholic Family Center in Rochester, New York; is studying for a degree in counseling, and dreams of someday doing humanitarian work in Afghanistan, perhaps to help people with disabilities, like her son.
††††††††††† Toward the end of our conversation, Omar mentioned that her 19-year-old daughter, Deena, plans to study medicine and become a scientist. Her ambition, Omar said, is "to invent something to cure autism." When she set that goal, I thought, Deena was exactly recreating her mother's path, transforming early experience with tragedy into a wish to make things better -- a sign that if trauma's pain and sadness can be inherited by the next generation, perhaps the capacity for a more humane response can be inherited too.††

*†††††††††††††† *†††††††††††† *



 

[1] The network was one of the resistance groups that received strong CIA support when it was fighting against the Soviet occupiers, but later joined with the Taliban and is now one of the leading insurgent groups opposing the U.S.-led military effort in Afghanistan.

 

[2] Fariba Nawa, Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Womanís Journey Through Afghanistan. New York: Harper Collins, 2011, p. 14-15

 

[3] Murtaza Pardais and Shansab Pardais, A Diary on Canvas, Xlibris Corp.: 2012. It is available for purchase at http://www.amazon.com/Diary-Canvas-Shansab-Pardais/dp/146916440X or at other online bookselling sites.

 

[4] Nawa, Opium Nation, p. 69-73. See also "An Exile Finds Home," Nawa's moving videotaped talk about her father at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAgwg2TPQM4&feature=youtu.be

 

[5] Carl Stempel, "Health and Mental Health Needs of First Generation Afghans in Alameda County," Photocopy, N.D

 

[6] Barbara Robson and Juliene Lipson with Farid Younos and Mariam Mehdi, "Afghans in the United States," in "The Afghans: Their History and Culture," Cultural Orientation Resource Center, Center for Applied Linguistics, Washington D.C.: 2002; https://archive.org/stream/ERIC_ED482787/ERIC_ED482787_djvu.txt

 

[7] Nooria Mehraby, "Counselling Afghanistan Torture and Trauma Survivors," Psychotherapy in Australia, Vol 8, No. 3, May 2002

 

[8] quoted in Juliene G. Lipson and Patricia A. Omidian,† "Health issues of Afghan refugees in California," Western Journal of Medicine, September 1992, p. 273

 

[9] Helen Epstein, Children of the Holocaust. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1979, p. 1

 

[10] Nushin Arbabzadah, "Making Sense of Suffering," Nov. 1, 2011; http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2011/11/region-making-sense-of-suffering.html

 

 

V. A Clash of Civilizations? -