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Afghan Woman in Two Worlds - 2002-09-11

English Feature #7-35428 Broadcast October 15, 2001

About 100,000 immigrants and refugees from Afghanistan live in the United States. Today on New American Voices, Oksana Dragan talks with one of them, 24-year-old Humaira Jahani, about her experiences in America and her feelings for her native country.

Humaira Jahani says that as an Afghan Muslim living in the United States she has experienced no unpleasant incidents since the terrorist attack of September 11th and the start of U.S. air strikes against Taleban strongholds in Afghanistan.

"No. People have been sorry for me because of what's going on there. Instead of being negative about it they've been positive, you know, they're good to me, they're good to us. People come up to me and ask what country I'm from, and I say Afghanistan, and they're like, oh, I'll say a prayer for you, and this and that. They feel a little bit bad for me because of what's going on. I feel bad for them because of what happened here."

But Ms Jahani also feels a deep sympathy for the people living in Afghanistan.

"I feel very worried, I feel sorry, I live here, I mean I have a good life, I have food, I have everything I need. They're the ones, honestly, I have dreams about them, they don't have food, they have no shelter, they have no electricity, they have no phones, they have nothing. Winter is coming… So it's really hard for me. I don't know what to think, what to say, and how to help them."

Although Humaira Jahani has lived in the United States for almost 10 years, Afghan culture remains a vital element in her life. To all appearances, she is a modern young American woman. She wears khaki pants and a beige blazer, her curly dark hair is tied in a bun on top of her head, her glasses are fashionably small and square and dark-framed. But when Ms Jahani returns home from her job as a salesperson in a gift store in one of the Washington area's large shopping malls, she reverts to a more traditional mode.

"To be honest with you, everything that I do is mostly - especially at home, is all Afghan, Afghan culture. The only time that I am this American is when I come to work. I wear jeans, or I wear suits and stuff to come to work and that's about it. But most of the time I always wear a "punjabi" and be, like, the old culture way."

The punjabi, or shalwar kamiz, that Humaira Jahani wears at home, consists of loose pants and a colorful overdress. But she says that growing up in Pakistan after her family fled Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, she could only go out in public wearing the traditional Afghan head-to-toe covering, the chador.

"Here, no matter what you wear, what you do, no one looks at you. There people stare at you, literally they stare at you. So it's like they have very bad eyes, you just get scared of them, so you'd rather have yourself covered so no one will look at you. It's like you're protecting yourself from the bad people."

After seven years in Pakistan, Humaira Jahani, her parents, three sisters and four brothers, emigrated to the United States. The resettlement agency found a home for these refugees from the hot, arid regions of south Asia in the rugged northeastern state of Maine. Ms Jahani, then fourteen, remembers what impressed her most.

"The snow. In Maine. We came from totally... we'd never seen snow. The only time we'd seen snow was in the winter on the mountaintops. When we came here there were like four or five feet of snow in March. In Maine's it's always cold. So it was like, whoa, we were like shocked."

Ms Jahani now lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, also an Afghan, who works for NASA, the National Aeronautical and Space Agency. They have a five-year-old daughter, Shemla. Ms Jahani wants her daughter to have the best of both worlds, the American one in which she lives and the Afghan one of her ancestors.

"I would love for her to get as much knowledge as possible, go to school, go to college, become a very successful woman. And I want her to keep our culture, I want her to marry an Afghan, that's my dream. Even though she's an American, I want her to grow up an Afghan, to know about her culture and everything."

Ms Jahani herself is comfortable living in the two worlds. Although she keeps her Afghan traditions, she finds much to like in American lifestyles too.

"I like not having anybody tell me what to do, where are you going, what are you doing. I go to work, come back home, have nobody stopping me, like it is in Afghanistan, you know, you can't do anything, basically. But here you can do anything. Going to work I'm not afraid, I'm not afraid at all."

Ms Jahani still has cousins and uncles in Afghanistan, and before the terrorist attacks of September 11th she was planning to visit them, and the country that she fled.

"I would love to go to Afghanistan to see all my relatives. Go there for once, to my country, being safe, no fighting, no war, no nothing going on. I would love to go there, go to different places, go just visit everywhere there is, all the nice places. But right now, there's nothing to go there for, I can't even imagine going back there right now."

Next week in this program we'll talk with an Afghan woman living in the Washington area about how the events since September 11th have affected her work on behalf of human rights and women's rights in Afghanistan.