Afghanistan celebrated its Independence Day for the first time in more than two decades Monday. In New York, Afghans living in the northeastern United States gathered on Sunday for their annual celebration of Afghanistan's independence from Britain in 1919. This year, some members of the Afghan diaspora honored their American identity as well as their Afghan heritage.
For a few hours, a New York City park in a neighborhood that is home to an estimated 10-thousand Afghan immigrants is devoted to everything Afghani. The sounds of Afghan music and the smells of Afghan food permeate the area. Scores of men and women dressed in traditional Afghan clothing, stand out in the crowd. The colorful embroidery patterns adorned with sequins represent different regions of Afghanistan.
Here, Afghan Independence Day has become an occasion for Afghan émigrés to pass on their heritage to children, and to reunite with others in a now scattered community.
Twenty-one-year-old Maryam Ahmadi traveled nearly four hours from the U.S. state of Maryland to participate. "We are Afghans, and we do not find anything like this usually. This is rare," she said. "And you see everyone -- family members. It reminds you of your country. I have never been there [as an adult]. I was five, when I came here. So, it reminds you of things."
This year, organizers in New York changed the name from "Afghan Independence Day" to "Afghan Heritage Day." The decision reflects the idea that independence from the British seems remote after decades of war and repression in Afghanistan. Several young Afghan-Americans in New York even said they thought the holiday marked independence from the Russians.
Organizer Rameen Javid Moshref, who runs a magazine called "Afghan Communicator," says the annual tribute took on special meaning this year, since most Afghans are celebrating the fall of the repressive Taleban in Afghanistan. But in an effort to welcome all Afghan-Americans, including those who supported the Taleban, organizers tried to keep the event apolitical. "Our celebration is a celebration of our culture, our heritage, us as a people, as a united people, who have had enough of civil war. And, now, we are seeing a hopeful future, so that Afghanistan can be whole again," says Mr. Moshref.
The participants in the event represent the diversity of the Afghan-American community, with immigrants from various ethnic groups, and from all socio-economic classes.
Abdulhay Ghani is a teacher in the northeastern state of Pennsylvania. He says, under the surface of the event, lies real concern for the future of Afghanistan. "People might seem like they are celebrating the event. Deep down, we are still thinking about our country, and we are all curious [to see] what is going to happen in that country," he says. "Because, for 24-years of Afghanistan's history, within the last 24-years, we have experienced nothing but hard-core war."
While Afghan-Americans remain engaged in the events in Afghanistan, community activists say that integration into life in the United States continues.
Mr. Moshref, the organizer, says that, like other ethnic groups, Afghan-Americans, who have recently come under focus, are trying to introduce themselves to U.S. society. Mr. Moshref says that, for over two decades, they have bought homes, held jobs and studied in the United States. Now, many Afghan-Americans are realizing that they are here to stay. "The other thing is that, as much as we are rooted back in the past in Afghanistan, Afghanistan is free now, and no one is leaving. No Afghan-American is leaving. So, this is our home," he says. "But we are celebrating our Afghan heritage, being Afghan-American."
In an effort to help organize the community, Mr. Moshref brought a voter registration drive to the Afghan Heritage Day celebration, and invited members of New York's fire and police departments. He says that Afghan-Americans in New York plan to join the city next month in remembering victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the one-year anniversary.