Interviewed by: Eirini Giannaraki, Fall 2019
Life before Migrating
Nasreen was born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan. She left Afghanistan when she was 16 years old following the Russian invasion of 1979. Currently, Nasreen lives in the Washington, DC metro area and works as a teacher.
Her childhood years with her family had a major impact on her life and shaped her current identity. Nasreen’s family was cosmopolitan and was close to the last king of Afghanistan. She remembers that her family met frequently with diplomats and other international visitors. Her grandfather was a politician. Nasreen remembers his open-minded character when it came to the marriage of her parents -- who were from different ethnic groups-- something that she says does not happen often today in the country. She highlights how certain traits and values of her ancestors – his open-mindedness, the powerful character of her grandmother and mother, the advice that her father gave her regarding the relations between men and women -- followed her throughout her life and significantly shaped her identity.
Her grandmother and mother were role models for Nasreen. Her grandmother was a very strong woman, “a matriarch,” as she says. Her mother received a French education, was fluent in French, and later became a nurse. She had five children and did not leave her job. Nasreen says: “My mother was a first-generation woman who went to school. Her father was a high-ranking government official so he had close ties to the King. My grandmother used to go to the palace. They met a lot of international people, diplomats. So, for my mother being a woman did not mean that she had to stay home. My father, on the other hand, was from the country and went to study in the city. He grew up so differently, and back then I thought that my dad was a bit conservative, but today I appreciate his views. When the Soviets invaded, he told me “our culture is not ready.” He knew that Afghanistan was not ready for Communism nor Western influence. He kept telling me that things are different in the countryside compared to Kabul. Back then I did not agree with him, but now I know I can understand him. I do not wear a scarf, but if I know it saves my life and I don’t get attacked, then why not? For me it is important what I believe inside. So when I was growing up, I was against that. I would tell my dad, “why do you say that?” He would always tell me that I was a fighter and free-spirited and should never let a man tell me what to do. He was a country boy and the son of a landowner; he did not have a college degree and can show you that you do not need a university degree and communist and western views to know about freedom.”
Nasreen emphasizes: “For my father to marry my mother was a big deal. However, my grandfather was very open. He did not have a class system mentality. He was humbled when my father’s father asked for my mother’s hand. Plus, my father was from a different ethnic group. Today the marriage would not have happened easily since they were from different ethnic groups. So, I can see the open-mindedness because some of the things that I was so proud of, today it is impossible to happen. There is a lot of violence between these ethnic groups and that makes me so sad”.
Nasreen and her other four siblings lived in Kabul with their mother and in the countryside with their father. During her childhood, Nasreen focused on studying, learning French, and watching movies in the French and the American cultural centers in Kabul. She remembers: “I used to go the American center... I used to watch all the Chaplin movies, French movies, we talked a lot about books, literature, and philosophy. A lot of my life was about reading and knowing philosophers. I used to tell my mom, ’give me a book and I will be happy.’ My brother was an example for me because he is very intellectual. At a young age I was introduced to great writers like Chekov, Jack London, Alexandre Dumas, Balzac, and Albert Camus and all that existentialism...”
Reasons for Migrating
During the Russian-Afghan War of 1979-1989, Nasreen’s family was threatened and was severely affected because of their social position. Nasreen says: “Both of my grandfathers were the King’s friends. One grandfather was a landowner and my other grandfather was a politician; he spoke five different languages. When the King was overthrown by his cousin, Prince Daoud, in a coup, my father was devastated and knew our country’s future was in danger. After Daoud was killed by the communists a few years later, I was up all night praying and crying. I could hear the shootings, and I was thinking that people are getting killed every minute. After a few days I went to school but everything had changed. The school principal, our teachers, and my friends and I started protesting. We went to the school yard and we were shouting that we do not want the Russians to take over our country. Then the police came and they started shooting and all that. When I went home, the school called my mother and said ’your daughter is not behaving,’ and that she and your father have such a good reputation and we do not want to send his granddaughter to prison. When you go to prison, nobody knows what can happen. So my mom comes to me and says ’Nasreen behave yourself. I know you are passionate and you love our country, but be careful for your brothers. Do you want them to die or go to jail?’”
After this incident, Nasreen stopped going to school out of fear that she may be arrested or sent to prison along with her brothers. Her mother arranged for her to travel to France and live with her older sister and her husband. Her father lost all of his property and then was jailed because he refused to join the Communist Party. That was the last time that Nasreen saw her father. When he was released from prison, Nasreen was already in the United States. Her father became a freedom fighter and migrated to Pakistan. Her mother had to continue working in order to take care of her children. After a while, all of the family left Afghanistan. Nasreen remembers: “My older sister left six months before me to join her husband, but my mother had to pay a bribe for all of us to get our visas. I went to visit my sister and my other sister went to stay with uncle in Germany. So everybody left that way, but my grandmother, mother, and brothers were the last to leave for India because my grandmother was sick and had a medical excuse to leave Afghanistan. We left everything behind; we did not bring anything, not even pictures and degrees, anything. We also left our dog. To this day I think of her and miss her. So, this is how we left one by one. It was very painful. The day that I left, I saw my mom from the plane. My mother was crying, I was crying… I was thinking when and if I was going to see her again.”
Life in Paris
In 1980, when she was 16 years old, Nasreen moved to Paris to join her sister and her husband who already lived there. She remembers: “At some point, while still in Paris, my sister and her husband were called by the government to go back to Afghanistan. They knew that they could not go so they applied for asylum to the U.S.[i] They put my name in their case too. After a while, I learned that the case for asylum was accepted and that I would go to America.”
Thinking about her time in Paris, Nasreen mentions: “It was difficult. My biggest worry was that I did not go to school when I was in France because every day we thought that our asylum case will be accepted and that we will leave Paris very soon. Also, the fact that I was living with my sister and did not have my own space and privacy was also challenging for me. I kept busy with helping my sister and my nephew. He was born when I went there. I would take him out, take care of him. But the problem was that when I was going out with the stroller people thought he was my baby and I was embarrassed that everyone thought I was a teenage mom. I would tell everyone ‘he’s not my baby but my nephew.’ Sometimes I would hear racist comments about foreigners. I was not feeling comfortable at all.”
Life in the United States
Nasreen arrived in California with her sister, nephew, and her brother-in-law when she was 18 years old. Gradually, most of the family reunited. “We went to California. My sister and her husband moved to their own house and I went with my aunt and sister who came from Germany. All of us waited for my mother and brother to come from India.”
The first years in the United States were challenging. Nasreen remembers: “At the beginning, we stayed with my uncles who were already here. It was a small house again, but at least we had somewhere to stay. Then, we had to search for a place. My uncles took us to the Department of Social Security and we got a check for two months, and food stamps. After a short period of time, I got a job at a big fast food chain. I did not mind this change that much, although it was a very different life in comparison to how my life was back in Afghanistan before the war. What hurt me was when somebody would look down at me. When I was in this job, I was always thinking, ‘what if my dad could see me?’ I always had my dad in my mind…he was somebody who could always lift me up. One night, I was cleaning the floor at the restaurant and, you know, we do not do that back in Afghanistan. These people came and they were Persian speakers. Oh my god, that was the hardest moment. I put my head down because I didn’t want them to see me crying. I felt so bad because I knew how these people think, as if I was a servant, like I was nothing. Those were the moments. But other than that I don’t think that anybody else made me feel bad.”
Asking Nasreen how she imagined her life in the United States while still in Paris, she mentions: “I just wanted to go to school. Education was so important for me. I did not want to become a housewife. I did not think about marriage until I was 35. I was so focused on politics and what was happening in Afghanistan.” She continues: “My sister once told me, ’Every time that you open your mouth it is about Afghanistan. You should also discuss something else.’ I said, ‘but this is me.’ I think that even today she sees that this is still me. I was so afraid to lose myself and my identity at the expense of my new life and to become somebody that I did not want to be.”
After working a couple of jobs to support her family, Nasreen went to the community college without having finished high school. “I got my Associate Degree in French and English, and then one year later I moved in the DC metro area. I wanted to become a diplomat so I went to George Mason University where I graduated with a Bachelor’s in International Relations.” While she was still a student at George Mason, Nasreen was offered a job at a major international non-governmental organization to work with refugees in Pakistan. “They interviewed me and I got the job and I was shaking with excitement. I was so happy. I was thinking that I will do something that I am passionate about, but also be close to home after all these years. But then, the reality hit; I had some American friends who had been to Pakistan and they were telling me about atrocities committed against female aid workers and that going there was like committing suicide. My father was in Pakistan, and I was afraid that my being there would put my dad's life in danger. So again, I wanted to go but because of my family I couldn’t. Because again I had to be practical; I just could not hurt somebody else.”
Nasreen worked as a flight attendant for many years. “The first airline was a charter, so I traveled around the world and found out that the world is like a family, and I could belong anywhere I went. I found out there is a universal language; if one is respectful and believe we all have so much in common. I am very happy that this happened because I was able to see the world and meet people from different countries.”
Thinking about the first years in the United States, Nasreen remembers, “I used education, the college, as my comfort space. I still remember one of my professors, who was also a mentor for me. One day I was in the writing center and when she saw me she told me, ’You are different. Keep writing stories.’ She was so encouraging. I felt very comfortable in the university; it was my safety.”
Connection to Afghan Culture
Thinking about her own identity, Nasreen emphasizes: “I was very conscious of my life. I have always been very honest to myself. I am very Afghan, but there are times and things that I did not agree with and tried to find a middle ground between the Afghan and the American culture. I have my list (laughing). I always tried to bridge the gap between these two cultures and find some place that I am comfortable, without compromising my values and my beliefs. At times, I found it impossible, but I have tried my best of both worlds--the good Afghan and the good American--and keep it.”
Nasreen did not have a close relationship with the Afghan community in the United States: “The reason why I do not have many Afghan friends is mainly because of my thinking. I am a free thinker and not good at being politically correct. I might be one of the few Afghans who have not forgotten what the Communists and others have done to Afghanistan, and it shocked many who could not believe that after all these years, I still cared so deeply and had not forgotten. So I am kind of on my own and, as you can see, I am more Afghan than most Afghans that I know. That kind of made it hard. The other thing is that it is hard to relate to the Afghans who are here. I find Afghans on two extremes, too Americanized or too conservative, and I want to be in the middle.”
Nasreen commented on her daughter’s relation with the Afghan culture. “My daughter is more Afghan than I would have thought. It is interesting because she grew up here. For me, it is understandable since I came here at an older age, but for her, she surprises me. She follows Afghan ways and tries to practice the religion and her friends are all around the world. She is well-rounded and strongly believes in fairness and justice.”
Nasreen highlights that the Afghan immigrants coming to the United States today are rather different than the Afghans of her generation: “The current generation has adapted better than we did. When we came here, we were more hesitant to come because we did not really want to come. We were forced to leave Afghanistan. But the new wave really want to come to the United States. They are very determined to succeed. For instance, my neighbors are recent Afghani immigrants. They are very nice, very polite, they look extremely happy. So they are adapting, and they have been here only for one year. ”
Thinking about her future, Nasreen says: “I want to make a difference. I want to help people as much as I can, everywhere and every day. I try to do that through my job as a teacher here.” Nasreen continues, “There are so many unknown names, widows, children, people who die because of wars. Unnecessary wars even today. If I go to Afghanistan again--I do not want to go as a tourist--I want to make a positive change. I want to do what is good for the Afghans. Independent, unbiased, true help, based on humanity. I think compassion is the number one thing that defines me.”
Nasreen concludes, “I think that as human beings we have to better our society; I think that we are here for a reason and to make a difference, not to just eat, sleep, work. Life is more than that. Otherwise, it would be very boring. If you just come to the world, get a job, get married, have kids, and then go--no, there has to be more than that. Or maybe it is my life story that makes me think like that.”
Would you like to learn more about Nasreen’s story? You can read her memoir, My Journey: From Afghanistan to America, published in 2016.
[i] The exact legal process by which Nasreen and her family arrived in the United States is unclear. They likely arrived as refugees. However she used the term asylum, so we kept her terminology.