Afghanistan to the U.S. a local migrant story:

I met my interviewee through a friend I made at ASU.  She is my friend’s sister.  Their names will not be used in this paper due to some personal discomfort that could arise should their parents read the website and be embarrassed that other people know their lives.  These are very private people, which is something we can all understand on some level.  I scheduled the interview through my friend, and both her and her sister were both present when the interview was conducted.  We kept the setting friendly and social to remove any clinical feeling that could have been uncomfortable.  I wanted to hear the story, not stare at her under a microscope.  Only the respondent spoke or offered any information and the interview with this lovely Afghan migrant led to the compilation of the following story, her story:


My family originated in Afghanistan.  They were there when the Soviet Union invaded and all the trouble started that would eventually become the Soviet Viet Nam.  My maternal grandparents fled the country at that point and went to Iran.  It was in Iran that my parents started their own family by having my sister.  That was in 1983.  My parents and my sister then moved to Pakistan, where my brother and I were born.  I was born in 1985 and he was born in 1987. 


My mother worked in the refugee camps there trying to promote women’s rights.  This was very unpopular with the fundamentalist Muslims in the area.  They threatened her, and threatened our family because of what she stood for.  It got dangerous, and the U.N. came and moved us out to Holland, but not as refugees.  We lived in Holland for six years, learning the Dutch language and becoming a bit westernised.  It helped us when we moved to the U.S. because many other Afghans that moved straight from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran to the U.S. had a lot of trouble overcoming the culture shock.  We came to the U.S. in February of 1996. 


I thought that the U.S. was going to be really cool because I had seen many movies.  I thought the whole country was going to be like this big beach scene, like all of it was like Los Angeles.  When we arrived in Phoenix, I was sort of disappointed.  My siblings and I were put into American schools, and it took a couple of months to pick up English.  They tried putting us in the ‘English as a Second Language’ classes, but since no one there spoke Persian or Dutch, it didn’t really help at all.  I think the best thing about coming to the U.S. was that we all grew as people, and learned a lot more about life.  The worst part, was that in that learning process, our childhoods ended. 


No one ever suspects you to be an Afghan.  Living in Arizona, people often assume you are Mexican or Latin in some way.  The people didn’t really give us much of a hard time as Afghans in the U.S. until 9/11.  At that time, we would hear people saying stupid things.  They were ignorant. 


My Dad still has family in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.  He sends them money even today.  He doesn’t go to Afghanistan to visit.  He hasn’t been back to visit Pakistan since he went about four years ago to visit my grandmother.  She died a few months after he left.  Those countries don’t really seem to care –politically- about who comes and goes, or if you left and are back visiting.  But the people probably care a lot.  They are very traditional and do not like to see people become westernised.  I wouldn’t go there!  I am definitely westernised, and don’t feel any need to go back.  I don’t even try to keep any of the Afghan cultural traditions alive.  My family does these Afghan parties every so often, but I don’t go.  I have too much spirit, and am too accustomed to having choices as a woman.  I don’t think I would be popular there as a westernised Afghan lesbian!! 


I don’t even hang out with any other Afghans besides my older sister and younger brother.  I am friends with some people from other countries besides the U.S. and Afghanistan, but mostly my friends are Americans.  I don’t even really think of it all like that until you ask me.  The Afghan people that come here try to be all traditional, and they keep mostly within their own groups.  So you never really hear their issues or see what they have to offer out in the general American public.  That’s not for me.  I’m here.  I’m western, and that’s how I live.  I got my American citizenship this year, so I don’t even need to think about it now.  They gave me a bit of a hard time getting the citizenship because my brother and I had no birth certificates.  We had to have blood tests done to show we were our parents’ children.  But other than that, we just waited through the process. 


As far as strain from moving from one country to the next, one culture to the next, it varies.  It is different from person to person, but over all I would say that the older people have a much harder time adjusting than the younger ones.  My mom went from advocating women’s rights in a Pakistani refugee camp, to denying those rights as a “traditional” Afghan woman here in the U.S.  It’s almost like a bit of backlash from the culture shock.   Some of the Afghan men that come here still want to own their women and make the women do what ever the man wants.  Some of them can accept the change.  I have an uncle that married an American woman, so not all of them have difficulty with the western lifestyle. 


Education here in America is where we learned to speak English.  I don’t even have an accent really.  Not that I know of.  I was young when I learned these languages, so my English, Dutch, Persian are all pretty good. 


I think my life is much better here than it would be in Afghanistan or Pakistan.  I have rights and the freedom to be gay.  I can do my own thing.  I would say that it was definitely worth coming to the U.S.  I didn’t have a choice anyway, I was a kid.  But I am glad to be here.  My parents are headed more and more towards the traditional Afghan values, which makes it difficult on the children because they raised us western.   My sister was almost married off to a guy from California by my parents, but she just moved out rather than be sold off like that.  I don’t know why my parents are taking that direction all of a sudden.  Thankfully my sister and I are well over 18, and my brother will be in a few months, so we can do our own thing now.   



To put this story into perspective, here are some points about Afghanistan to consider:


As of 2003, the purchasing power in Afghanistan (per capita) was $700.  In comparison with the United States (per capita) purchasing power of $37,800, one can see why there is a migrant labour force in Afghanistan.  Since the person I interviewed was also from Pakistan, we can look at their purchasing power in 2003, which was $2,100.  Not a lot better than Afghanistan.  This is why her father still sends remittances back to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  He can support his family here, and have a middle class American lifestyle while still sending money off to relatives in these places. 


From 1979 to 1989 the Soviet Union was trying to take, and hang on to Afghanistan and caused a great deal of stress in the area.  From 1996 to 2001 the Taliban dominated Afghanistan, stripping away virtually every right that women in that country had.  Women had to be covered from head to toe if they went outside, and they had to have a male escort.  They could not educate themselves or have professional jobs.  These two major events spanning decades kept many migrants from returning to Afghanistan after leaving in search of jobs, or leaving to escape one or both of these catastrophes. 


Afghanistan today is struggling to pick up the pieces.  Women’s rights have been restored to a large degree in the urban areas, but almost completely unsuccessfully in the rural areas.  Rural women are still under tremendous pressure to remain subservient and uneducated. 


Afghanistan has elected its first female governor and is pushing for more women to get into politics.  There is still a bit of instability though, and women there know that they could be putting their lives at risk by running for office.  To their credit, many women are up to the challenge of putting Afghanistan back on its feet. 


A once religiously and culturally diverse nation, Afghanistan has suffered major set backs and still has a long road of recovery ahead.  People who have emigrated away are still reluctant to move back just yet.  Some, like the woman I interviewed, have distanced themselves so far from it that they will never even seek to return.


An interesting point about this particular migrant story, is that the respondent considers herself a migrant from Afghanistan even though she has never set foot within the boundaries of that country.  Her family’s sense of cultural history and nationalism is so powerful and invasive, that the story becomes that of a whole, not of an individual.  Technically, the respondent is a Pakistani migrant, having been born in Pakistan, and making her first international journey from Pakistan.  Her sister was born in Iran, and also considers herself to be Afghan.  This is a relevant point to illustrate the power of identity. 


That identity is tested when you come to America.  People of European descent often do not realise how much of the rest of the world is not “white”.  My respondent indicated that she is mistaken for a Mexican from time to time.  This is not uncommon.  In Crossing the BLVD by Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan, we hear an Afghan woman named Shekaiba say “I’ve had people assume that I’m anything from Greek to Italian to Spanish or Native American.  Maybe Hindu.  But very few people ever guess that I’m an Afghan.” (p.164). 


In my interview I heard the respondent talk of a change in her parents from being westernised to becoming more ‘traditional’ Afghan.  She expressed that this was not a welcome change.  This idea is also addressed in Lehrer and Sloan’s book on page 168, “My father was liberal when he came here but I guess America brought out the patriarchal Afghan in him.  I couldn’t date.  I couldn’t wear skirts or make-up.  Couldn’t go out on my own.  They wanted to find a boy for me to get married to and I didn’t want that.  …I switched from a political science major to art and announced that I was moving out.”  It is almost a second migration that happens here.  Parents migrate their children away from a physical place, where perhaps they were in physical danger, and then the children migrate away from the culture where perhaps they are in emotional danger. 


Remittances sent back to the home country are done solely by the men in the family, the father and the uncle of the respondent.  Many other cultures send their women out as the migrant labour force, and the women end up in factory jobs, or in domestic positions.  This is not often the case with Afghan migrants.  What is more true to the form of Afghan migrants is the “push-pull” theory.  In the book Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy by Grace Chang, the point is “Moreover, the “draw” of the United States is more accurately described as a calculated pull by the United States and other First World countries on the Third World’s most valuable remaining resource: human labour.  This “pull” or extraction is often facilitated by a desperate “push” or expulsion of people by sending countries, which are also often the result of First World economic and military interventions.”


What is being said here is that the First World (1979 U.S.S.R and 2001 U.S.A.) goes in militarily and destroys Afghanistan’s economic stability and Afghanistan freely sends its people out to go work in Europe and the U.S. because they know that the remittances sent back will aid their economy.  In return, the U.S. and Europe get cheap labour and people willing to do the jobs that westerners don’t want.  


So when the interviewee is talking about her family moving away from Afghanistan when the Soviets arrived, and her father sending back his remittances to this day, she is talking about her family’s involvement in this “push-pull” theory.


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