Written by Neghena Hamidi.
Some nights my father would drive home and talk about the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan — a war that displaced 6.3 million Afghans to neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Iran. He would talk about his service in the fire department in Kabul, and how some nights he would find bodies on the streets because of a landmine. How he and his team would have to find human remains and clean up the city before anyone was awake. He gets lost sometimes in sweet memory talking about Fridays in Kabul, and his wedding at the Continental Hotel.
Casually, he would talk to me about leaving. “We were one of the last to leave. We left everything behind thinking we may come back in a year or two,” he would say, as we exited out of the Whitestone Bridge. But they did not come back in a year or two. They left Afghanistan for India, and sought asylum in the United States.
In fact, they never went back.
Here they are, 28 years later. They sent three daughters to university, with one son applying to college as I write this. They provided a home, an education, a proper living, and invaluable experiences. All of this because of their hard work.
Being a child of the diaspora is often overlooked. Our feelings, our attitudes, and the obligation we feel toward our parents is much different from those outside of the community. There is a reason we go about certain things. There is a reason we struggle with balancing identity. There is a reason we often self-hate. That reason is survival.
I look back at all the times I concealed my Afghan identity at a young age post 9/11; not because I was not proud of being Afghan, but because I did not want to constantly explain to people that Osama Bin Laden was not from Afghanistan and I had nothing to do with him. He was not my uncle. He was not my friend. I did not know who he was.
Yet, from the start of second grade, after the Twin Tower attacks, my identity was a punchline. As much as I wanted to hide it, my brown skin was too visible for ignorant teachers and gullible students. The assumption that everything brown was one was still there, from seating an Urdu speaking student next to me to translate, to assuming my sister was not my sister because she was light-skinned. I self-hated for a reason. I wanted to survive.
Being Afghan, being a Muslim, being a child of immigrants, meant your identity was more than complicated. It was a story on its own. Every encounter started with, “Have you ever gone back?” — even if you were born here. People assumed you had broken English when your name was too complicated for their tongues. Co-workers talked about the Afghan restaurant they went to last night with the cool couches but cringed when you heated up last night’s Kabuli Palau. Friends never understood why you “just can’t call out” of your father’s store on the weekend to hang out.
Nobody outside the diaspora could understand this — how your identity was both your pride and source of embarrassment all at the same time. How your hard work stemmed from the identity your parents gave you, but your self-hate came from others. How you could never be 100 percent American even if you wore red, white and blue, and wrapped the flag around your body. If you looked like you spoke broken English, then society would take a step back before determining your cultural citizenship.
Yet you have your parents and the stories they tell you. Your parents who escaped war, who escaped poverty, who escaped murder, who left their homeland, to start life in a country that would never claim them even if they carry a blue passport. Your parents. You look back at that sacrifice and suddenly, your identity makes sense. It’s rooted from hardship, from struggle, and from sacrifice. And this is what it means to be a child of immigrants and a child of the diaspora.
Neghena Hamidi is the author of the recently released “Child of Immigrants,” available now.