BY HELIA HAMIDI
What does the word “Afghani” mean? Whenever I think about this term, I think about courageous and inspirational people who have lived through decades of war and unrest. This was the same question I posed to my parents 10 years ago when I came back from preschool in Iran, as I was puzzled as to why my teacher had used this term to insult and discriminate against me.
Iran currently hosts one of the biggest refugee populations in the world with more than 2 million residing Afghans, according to UNICEF. Despite the large size of the Afghani diaspora, they continue to face xenophobia from both the native community and system as residents. But what is the reasoning behind this? Why is it that after all these years Afghans are considered second-class citizens when there are many hard-working people who have the potential to make the country flourish?
My father’s family fled Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War. He recalls anecdotes of countless bombings and seeing corpses outside his home in his early adolescence. Finally, after bearing many years in the war, they decide to flee from Afghanistan in search of a more promising future. They chose to emigrate to Iran because the culture and language are akin to Afghanistan’s compared to other neighboring countries. After risking their lives to get across the border, they finally settled down in a more destitute part of the city and started their new life. Unfortunately, even after fleeing, they constantly had to deal with racism in the community and from the system. For example, when my father went to the local school to get a basic education, he was denied access, but after many months of persisting, the principal let him in out of the kindness of his heart. In school, he dealt with kids not wanting to be his friends and thinking badly of him. Consequently, at home, he had to deal with poverty and the consequences of a negligent government. His older siblings had to go out and take up many different labor jobs to make ends meet. Although my father faced many trials and tribulations, he still managed to excel at the top of his class and persevere.
In Iran, there is a country-wide university entrance test (known as Konkoor) in which your score determines how prestigious of a university you will be admitted to. When my father took this test, he scored 30th out of the 1 million people who had taken the same test that year. This score permitted him entrance into a very rigorous college. You would think that things would have gotten better from that point onwards, but even after being admitted to the best university and scoring so high in the entrance exam, he still faced discrimination among his peers and with the system. For example, he had to pay much more for the same education than a native Iranian would, despite having earned his position rightfully. His fellow students also showed prejudice towards him repeatedly, which made him hesitant to introduce where he was from to people when he first met them, out of the risk of discrimination.
After graduating, he met my mother, who is Iranian. When they wanted to marry, the rule was, and still is, that on paper, if a foreign man marries an Iranian woman, he will have to be imprisoned for three years. Fortunately, this rule is not currently enforced since it is a very outdated law, however, they still had to go through a year of police investigations and endless court dates with both of their families until they finally could obtain their marriage certificate.
Later on in their lives, when I was born, I was not granted an Iranian passport even though I was born in the very capital of Iran, and that land was all I knew. For all my life, I have been subject to holding an Afghani passport, just because my father was born 250 miles due East.
Wanting to flee from all the discrimination and prejudice my family went through, my parents obtained visas and put everything on the line by immigrating to the United States. One summer. me and my mother decided to go to Iran for a couple weeks in 2012 to see my grandparents because it had been a while. We had a one-way visa which allowed us to leave, but not return back to the States. During that time, many of our friends had also gone to see their families, and had gotten a visa just fine on the way back home. So we decided to follow their example and go for a couple weeks, apply for our visas, and go back home.
Unfortunately, we did not get the visa back until eight months later, stranding us in Iran. I had to enroll in school in Iran and quickly become comprehensive in Persian reading and writing in less than two weeks. For eight months, my dad was in the States, while my mom and I were stuck in Iran. At any time, I could have been denied an education. I remember my principal inquiring for my certification biweekly, and my mom would have to devise an excuse each time so I would not face expulsion. At the time, I did not really think much of it, but now I truly understand how my education could have been compromised for most of the school year. On various other accounts, I have been at the risk of deportation and losing everything, which has led me to develop a deeper appreciation for my parents for bringing me here to America.
If I wasn’t fortunate enough to be here today, I would be facing the same discrimination my father had experienced decades ago--and my cousins currently do--to this very day. Similar to my Father, my cousins have also been admitted into prestigious colleges and are even natively born in Iran, yet they still face discrimination. My family steps in to financially contribute to their tuition because they have to pay unfathomable sums of money, while many other students are eligible for scholarships. They also deal with having no insurance, no retirement funds, and have to make multiple payments for basic necessities such as WiFi.
Witnessing all of this has impacted me in two ways. The first is allowing me to truly understand how privileged I am compared to a lot of the world. I strive to make the most of my days here in the United States, because I know there are millions of kids where I used to be who dream of living a life as freely as I have it now. Secondly, it has led me to become more sensitive when judging others as to never discriminate against anyone regardless of how different they are to me, because I have seen first-hand how discrimination can halt people from reaching their fullest potential and further hinder the flourishment of society.
So, if I had a chance to answer my preschool self’s question with what I know now, I would tell her that I am what it means to be an Afghan, which is in no way a bad thing. However, I am also Iranian, and above all, I am human, just like every other person on this earth.