Everywhere I have gone in life, I have carried myself living and breathing Afghanistan. Often times when I step into well-equipped classrooms in the U.S., I think back to my decrepit overcrowded school in Kabul, enlivened with students electrified for learning. When I drive on empty roads, sometimes the lush green hills morph into beige rocky mountain faces. At once I find myself in our 1993 Camry wagon kicking up dust on windy dirt roads leading to my birthplace in the heart of Afghanistan; the journey sweetened by fresh apricots from a roadside stall. I ride my mountain bike on trails punctuated with roots under a dark forest canopy, but it is really fantasizing the thrill of descending an animal track in the Hindu Kush Mountains, sparsely dotted with adobe homes under a deep deep blue sky, that my mouth waters. I am not in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is in me.
When we lived as refugees in Pakistan, some twenty years ago, my grandfather’s only wish before death was “to quench his thirst from a natural spring in Afghanistan.” He was a lucky man; upon returning to Kabul after nine years living in exile, we drove out to our village five hours away to fetch him a pitcher of water from the spring above our farm. He died two years after that.
In 1995, my family escaped the Taliban to seek shelter in a rickety corner of a Pakistani city. I was barely a toddler. From the saga going through checkpoint after checkpoint of Taliban fighters who specifically hunted Hazaras (the ethnicity I belong to), my mother’s most pronounced memory is how a moment’s neglect of me almost had my thumb chopped off under the sliding door of the van we were escaping in. What I read from her recounting of this story over and over is that even in circumstances of death, a mother’s only concern is preventing the mildest scratch on her child—the reason people take on the dangerous refugee path in the first place.
In Pakistan, my father, a medical doctor, used whatever cash we had fled Afghanistan with to set up a practice. Six months passed before any patients walked in to see him. In 1999, he sold all our assets to pay a smuggler for a chance to jump on a fisherman’s boat and cross the vast Indian Ocean, navigating many near-sink situations, in hopes of making it to Australia. Once there, he worked the backbreaking (he literally broke his back) job of a meat packing factory and various other odd jobs before he racked up enough savings to open his own shop. But just as he was beginning to build a comfortable life, and relocate the rest of our family to join him, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan on the grounds of eradicating Al-Qaeda and a moral obligation to liberate the Afghan people, particularly women, from Taliban tyranny—a move that Afghans by and large celebrated. One fall day in 2003, instead of going to Australia, we packed our belongings on the back of a jingle truck and piled into a minibus to take the bomb-scarred road home.
In Afghanistan, we bought a parcel of land in a poor neighborhood of Kabul and built our house. There were no running water, electricity, and proper roads. My father began working in a state hospital with a beginning salary of $65 a month. He chose a meager existence in Kabul over an affluent life in Australia because he loved Afghanistan so much. He came back because realizing his dream for a better Afghanistan was far more enriching than a comfortable life abroad. Later on in his new role in the government, every year he planted thousands of trees in Kabul, partnering with schools to promote a national arbor program. Among his legacies is banning wood and coal for commercial energy use in Kabul. His dream was protecting Afghanistan’s natural beauty. He pushed for these changes, amid frequent suicide bombings and rampant corruption, on the good faith that the international community would remain an ally until the hard work of ordinary Afghans like him formed a solid foundation on which our fledgling and fragile democracy could thrive.
How I ended up in the U.S. is a rise-from-ashes story in itself. In Kabul, I began my schooling under the scorching heat of a tent. My teachers, who were more often absent than not, got more out of pushing a fruit cart than teach us. Us students didn’t mind it. Rather, we empathized with their struggle to provide for their families. Easy schooling allowed us to become laborers too—going in and out of tents as we pleased, sometimes genuinely listening to a soft-spoken bearded teacher, and other times for mischief. I manned my father’s pharmacy; stocking shelves, fulfilling prescriptions, and injecting IV in patients. With my father, who practiced in the adjacent room, I had an agreement: any given day he had more than five patients (at a rate of $1 per visit), we would buy fruits that night.
It was in that pharmacy when someone told me about a scholarship to the US. “Just apply! If you get accepted, they will send you to America”, the guy had said. I didn’t want to believe it would be that easy. For my teenager mind back then, going anywhere like America or Europe demanded paying a smuggler, crossing half a dozen countries under barbed wires and an ocean on a fisherman’s boat. The way my father had. But I sent in an application, and was accepted.
In the US, everything was a first for me: choir concerts, libraries in every small town, after school sports programs, and more. It was on a tennis court where I had one of the biggest revelations in my life: that until that moment, I had lived like a 40-year-old in the body of a teenager. Afghanistan’s politics and war had consumed me so much that it had robbed me of my youthfulness. That day, to bring play and joy to Afghanistan’s young generation became a life goal. That summer, I returned to Afghanistan to build a tennis court at a girls’ high school in Kabul. Prior to that, there were just three courts in the entire country: at five-star hotels and the U.S. embassy. On the first day of the court’s construction, more than twenty of my friends, boys and girls of high school age, showed up to dig and lay down concrete. With bare hands, we were rebuilding our country.
That was 2011. Kabul in those days—despite having frequent power shortages, suicide bombings, corruption and poverty—was more exciting to be a young person than anywhere else in the world. We scavenged scanty bookstores in search of volumes with such titles as Gandhi’s Satyagraha, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Pilgrimage to Nonviolence. People, still living in poverty, had become masters of online piracy, downloading pdfs in hourly paid internet cafes. These books traded hands or were shared in thumb-drives before getting discussed in coffee shops popping everywhere, also by young people.
Kabul was exciting because decades of progress elsewhere (women’s rights, celebration of diversity, and advancement of film, music and arts) was being pumped to life there in a matter of years. What made the fast-paced change meaningful was its execution in the face of ever-present life threats to the activists themselves, particularly for women. So many paid the price with their lives. People took to the streets to protest knowing that they may not return home in one piece. And many didn’t. In one protest five years ago, more than one hundred Afghan activists were killed and several hundred injured. My father and cousin were there, but miraculously survived the attack.
What so many championed and paid for with their lives was snatched away overnight on Aug 15, 2021 when the Taliban took over Kabul. Since then, there have been so many tragedies it is hard to keep up with any. The humanitarian crisis in Kabul airport, horrors of a kind the world had never seen before, was just the tip of the iceberg, visible only because the Western Media turned it into a theatre stage to feed a cycle of nonstop breaking news while mostly ignoring what was going on in the rest of the country. Beneath people falling from airplanes, there were and still are: ongoing massacres of innocent people across Afghanistan; hundreds of thousands of families who are displaced from their homes; closure of workplaces and educational institutions for women; and millions of people who are waiting for the first opportunity to leave the country, through routes that are just as, if not more, dangerous than hiding at home. Keeping up with these layers of tragedies is a task that my body frequently fails. I barely begin processing one when my mind is invaded by another, and another. Then it circles back to where it began: the execution of an eight-months pregnant policewoman before her family.
But among our long list of disasters, the most painful is the death sentence of our dreams. We have lost loved ones in this war, and became exiled. Nothing hurts more than seeing our collective dreams vanish. Without dreams, everything else—becoming a refugee or enduring tyranny—becomes a symptom, not a cause to our pains. It is dreams that build roads and kingdoms, give life to poetry and art, and spring to life a community to reopen their classrooms the morning after their school is hit with a suicide bombing. Today, I realize that in all the years we struggled, we did so because Afghanistan to us was synonymous to dreaming. Today, we are robbed from our dream, that invisible driving force behind our identity as Afghanistan’s young generation. Without dreams, we are left in bodies that are numb. Without dreams, we just are. With dreams, we were Afghans. And that meant a huge deal.
Since their takeover, the Taliban have already massacred minorities, asked female workers—including journalists—to stay home, whipped female protesters, banned music, destroyed instruments at the National Institute of Music, and more. I am utterly hopeless about the future and whether the changes we implemented for a better, free and equal, Afghanistan will stay. What will become of the tennis court my peers and I built with our sweats? Will two schoolgirls carrying racquets and wearing smiles ever step on it again, or will it be men with Kalashnikovs and fear? There is, however, one thing that I am certain about: the thousands of trees my father planted all over Kabul will provide shade for years to come. To friends and foes alike.