Refugees I’ve Known: My Afghan Family

My partner and I were visiting my grandparents in their new little apartment in a retirement community in Coastal Maine. Grandpa took us on a tour of his wedding photos, his medals from the South Pacific, his brother’s paintings and his own stained glass. We stopped in front of a collage of snapshots from the late Eighties.

“Hey, that’s Fakhria!” I said.

“Yes, it is.” Turning to my partner, Grandpa said, “You probably don’t know that in the Seventies we had an Afghan student live with us for a year named Fakhria. That was the year Maryah’s mother was in high school.” She’s the youngest of three sisters. “Fakhria lived with us for a year, and then she went back to Afghanistan. Now she lives in Virginia.”

He led us out into the little hallway, showing us Fakhria’s Senior portrait, and I heard something in his voice that I hadn’t noticed before. I know that family is important to him and Grandma. “They’re the only people who were there with you from the beginning and will be there till the end,” she always says. I know that Grandpa is proud of his daughters and their families. What I heard in his voice that afternoon was that he loved Fakhria as much, was as proud of her accomplishments as of his own girls.

I grew up hearing stories about Fakhria. When my mother’s family first found out where their exchange student would be coming from, Mom says, they knew nothing about Afghanistan. “We looked it up in the encyclopedia, and the entry for Afghanistan was less than an inch long. That was all we knew.” Fakhria came with Afghan embroidery, Afghan clothing. She taught my mother’s family about her country, about Islam.

She sometimes cooked Afghan foods for them, but finding the right spices was a linguistic challenge. Grandma would go through the spice rack with her, letting Fakhria smell each one, until she had found the ones she recognized. There was one spice, though, that they simply couldn’t identify. Finally, Grandma took Fakhria with her to the grocery store, and she sniffed bottles of spices until she found the right one—cardamom.

As a girl, one of the only things I knew about Islam was my favorite Fakhria story.

Grandpa had a well established interest in punctuality, particularly of meal times. All the cousins knew that his lunch sandwich hit the table at precisely noon, and dinner was always ready at six. It regimented his retirement and kept our yearly vacation in Maine on schedule, too. Grandma complained sometimes at his inflexibility, and Mom laughed about his predictability, but I think we were all drawn in by his consistency.

Thanksgiving fell within Ramadan in the year of Fakhria. In this month of the Islamic calendar, the world’s Muslims are called upon to fast from first light to sundown. “So we moved Thanksgiving to four o’clock!” my mother said. I remember thinking as a little girl what a big deal it seemed to be, that Grandpa had changed his sacred dinner schedule in respect of Islam. As an adult, of course, I see that it was a relatively small thing a father might do for a daughter he loved, as he clearly loves his fourth daughter Fakhria.

~ ~ ~

Another story I loved was first time the family took Fakhria into Boston. She looked left and right everywhere they went, and got increasingly agitated. Finally, she said, “Where are the beggars?”

Fakhria had filled her pockets with nickels and dimes, as she had always done in the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan. Her parents had taught her that as a muslimah, as a Pashtun and as the daughter of a privileged family, she had an obligation to give to the less fortunate. She wanted to know where the needy were in Boston so she could contribute. I think of Fakhria often as I pass the homeless in the New York subway.

~ ~ ~

As a linguist, I’ve also always loved another story about Fakhria. When she arrived in America, she already spoke Pashto, and Farsi, the language of Afghan intellectuals, and English that was getting better and better every day. I know this process well, because I would do the same, first immersing myself in German in Switzerland, then in Arabic in Jordan.

My mother and Fakhria, as I remember this story, shared a bedroom. In the middle of the night, she sat bolt upright in bed, screaming. My mother woke up, too, and asked her what was wrong.

“I dreamed in English!” she panted. “I’m forgetting all my Farsi!”

This has been sort of a life goal for me, to wake up one morning and realize that I have started dreaming in a foreign language. Although I’ve occasionally woken up knowing that people in my dreams are speaking in German or Arabic, I wouldn’t say I’ve ever had that Fakhria moment.

~ ~ ~

At the end of the year, Fakhria thanked my grandparents for a wonderful experience and said, “but I won’t be coming back. My people in Afghanistan need me too much.”

gilgit-chitral-0035Back in Afghanistan, she became an ER doctor. Then, the Russians invaded and tried to conscript her boyfriend, another ER doctor. Though her family did not entirely approve the match, they were quickly married and Fakhria’s father walked them over the Hindu Kush Mountains into Pakistan. They volunteered their medical expertise in the Afghan refugee camps while they waded through the laborious, years-long process of refugee resettlement. By the time they arrived in northern Virginia in the Eighties, they had two lovely school-aged daughters.

They wanted to work as doctors here, but like so many immigrants, their advanced degrees and experience didn’t count here in the States. They had to repeat more than half their medical educations and then their residencies: first Fakhria, and then her husband Ali.

U.S. immigration policy has traditionally been one of family reunification, which for Fakhria and Ali meant that they were able to sponsor family to join them. Over time, they were able to bring almost all their brothers and sisters and Fakhria’s parents to join them in northern Virginia.

~ ~ ~

Once, when my grandparents had stopped at our Pennsylvania home on their way to their Florida condo, we all went down to Virginia to visit them for the day. The extended Afghan family had taken over much of a subdivision, all within a short walking distance of each other, easily able to share childcare responsibilities.

That had been important when Fakhria first started working, pregnant with their third child, supporting their family while Ali went back to med school halfway across the country. Once they were both re-certified here, their son a toddler and daughters in school, that family support became even more important when Fakhria and Ali opened an urgent care clinic, the kind of small business that sucks up all your time and more.

Specializing in treating patients without insurance, they intended to serve the Afghan community in DC, but found that most of their patients are Hispanic immigrants. That didn’t really matter. Their intention had been to serve the community that had given them a home after they’d been forced out of Afghanistan, and the details of how they did that were less important.

objectiveI hadn’t paid attention to any of that when we visited their little subdivision. I was perhaps ten or twelve years old. I remember learning to play karrom, a South Asian version of shuffleboard played on a beautiful lacquered wooden board. I remember the food, too, especially what my mother called “Afghan rice.” Mom’s version was white rice with carrot spears and raisins. Fakhria’s version was made with brown rice and a rich mélange of spices, chief among them the sharpness of cardamom.

We, for our part, had brought apple pies, which are not just an American classic, but a specialty of the women in our family, and especially Grandma.

Most of all, though, I remember Fakhria’s mother. She was a tiny, bird-like, brittle woman with a regal bearing who sat cross-legged in the middle of the living room. She didn’t speak any English, so she sat mostly in silence, observing the swirl of activity around her, frequently readjusting a long, filmy cotton scarf always slipping from the crown of her head. Otherwise, of all the women in the room, only Fakhria’s sister covered her hair completely with a securely pinned hijab.

Years later, my mother told me about a conversation she had on that visit with Fakhria’s sister, who had just returned from the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Standing in the great mosque, gazing at the ka’aba temple to which all Muslims pray five times each day, Fakhria’s sister said she was overwhelmed by the enormity of all these people of all different colors, speaking all different languages, from all over the world, who had come together for this one great peaceful purpose. She wore hijab, she said, as a physical reminder every day that she was part of this immense, global, peaceful movement.

~ ~ ~

On 9/11, as I watched that second plane hit, I remember thinking, “They’ll trace this to bin Laden, and bin Laden’s in Afghanistan. We’re about to bomb the hell out of

Afghanistan. Haven’t they suffered enough?” One of the first things I did was get Fakhria’s address from Mom and write her a letter of support. I don’t remember what it said, but years later I remember Fakhria saying how much it meant to her.

Before I left for Peace Corps in the Arab Muslim kingdom of Jordan, I wrote to her again. My lifetime awareness of Afghanistan and Islam were part of why I pursued Peace Corps, and if it ever returned to Afghanistan, I would stop everything and go.

~ ~ ~

After Peace Corps, the next time I saw Fakhria was at my grandparents’ house in Maine. Fakhria and Ali had come for Thanksgiving.

At dinner, Fakhria turned to my father and said, “You’re a small business owner. What’s your secret?”

“The only thing I know about running a business,” my father said, “is that you’re supposed to bring in more money than you spend.”

Fakhria and Ali looked at each other, then back at my father. “I don’t know if we’re doing that….”

Of course, small businesses operate on slim margins, and often in the red, but I also thought about all that I had learned about Islam, and about the story of young Fakhria with the coins in her pockets for the poor. It was hard not to see their clinic in the same tradition of generosity and commitment to community above self.

We gorged ourselves on turkey, stuffing, vats of mashed potatoes, three kinds of squash, creamed onions, and of course cranberry sauce. Clearing the table and stowing the leftovers in the fridge was almost as great an endeavor. Then, slumped and sated in our seats, there was tea and coffee as the catching up continued.

After about an hour, my aunt straightened in her seat. “Are we ready for pie?” As usual, there were plenty of choices: pecan, mincemeat, berry, pumpkin, and at least one apple. My brother was still on “double desserts,” according to my aunt who always thought he was too skinny, but almost everyone had at least two kinds of pie. “A sliver of everything,” said my aunt, as usual. Ali, though, only wanted apple.

Once everyone was served, a la mode, and the ice cream was back in the freezer, we dug in. Ali took one bite of his apple and looked up at Grandma at the other end of the table. There was a puzzled, almost concerned look on his face. “This is different.”

“Different from what?”

“From the pie you brought to Virginia. This crust is different.”

Grandma and my mother looked at each other. That had been more than ten years earlier.

Finally, my mother perked up. “Of course,” she said with a bemused smile. “Grandma made this crust, and I made the crust we brought to your house. I use butter, but she uses Crisco.”

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