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Photo: UNHCR
Shukria Rezaei, an Afghan Hazara refugee in the UK, with Kate Clanchy, writer-in-residence at Shukria’s school.

Years ago, my husband’s company ordered his department to move to Dallas from upstate New York. We decided not to go, which was a big no-no in the corporate world at that time. Other wives got a laugh when I said, “I don’t transplant well.” That’s probably true of many people who get used to their place. When I think of the thousands of migrants leaving home now, I know they are not doing it just for fun but because there is no other choice. Most people love their home.

The young Afghan refugee in this story longs to go home someday. In the meantime, she is learning all she can, including how to write poetry in a new language.

Caroline Brothers reports for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that a few years ago “no one, not her family, her teachers, nor any of her 900 schoolmates, was more surprised than Shukria Rezaei herself, when she was judged the best poet in her year. A shy, 15-year-old Afghan girl, who was still grappling with an adopted language.

“Oxford Spires Academy, a secondary school whose catchment area includes deprived localities, had just run a poetry competition to discover what talent might lie hidden in a student body speaking 54 different languages.

“ ‘Everyone was shocked, even myself,’ said Rezaei, now 20 and a scholarship student at the University of London, recalling the moment when Kate Clanchy, the school’s writer-in-residence and the competition’s judge, announced Rezaei had won first prize.

“Less than a year before, Rezaei and her mother – Hazara refugees – had arrived in Oxford from Quetta, Pakistan, which hosts a large population of displaced Afghans. The two were reunited in 2011 with Rezaei’s father, who had been granted asylum in the UK, after a three-year separation.

“Rezaei, for her part, was still struggling to master a language whose barest bones she had learnt at Afghan primary school and refugee school in Pakistan. As a child in the Afghan province of Ghazni, she awoke to the tap-tap of sheep trooping past on their way to the fields; a few hours later, she would set off through the mountains with a dozen other girls.

“ ‘School was two mountains away, and it snowed a lot,’ Rezaei told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. ‘We went on a rocky mountain path and it took an hour and a half.’ …

“In England, in the thick purple jumper of a strange school uniform, she was struggling to keep up.

“ ‘I could only understand what was written down,’ Rezaei said of her first year. She survived, she said, by reading rather than speaking, copying everything she saw on the blackboard: ‘I just did as much as I could.’

“With the poetry prize, however, things shifted. From feeling invisible, Rezaei suddenly had an identity within the school. Clanchy, meanwhile, invited her to join a poetry group she had formed on a hunch that the quiet foreign girls at Oxford Spires might in fact have something to say.

” ‘At the beginning, I couldn’t talk,’ said Rezaei. But seated among 15 or 20 aspiring poets, she began to express herself. …

“Since then, Rezaei has had work published in Oxford Poetry, the emblematic literary journal that has showcased many of the country’s greats. She will be included in an anthology, England, to be published by Picador in June; one of her poems, ‘Homesick,’ has already been translated into German. …

“Like many children of refugees, Rezaei is acutely aware of how much hope her parents have invested in her. Even in the bleakest moments, amid profound dislocation, giving up was never an option, either for them or for her. …

“Rezaei is finding her feet in London, another major adjustment after Quetta and Oxford. Having won a scholarship to Goldsmiths College, she is studying politics, philosophy and economics, which she hopes to convert into a law degree.

“She still misses aspects of her Afghan childhood, but for now her hopes are firmly focused on England. She recently passed her driving test, and is exploring the creative writing scene.

“ ‘Afghanistan is still dear to my heart,’ she said, ‘but I have a lot more to achieve here before I go back.’ ”

Here is one poem.

I want a poem
with the texture of a colander
on the pastry

A verse
of pastry so rich
it leaves gleam on your fingertips

A poem
that stings like the splash of boiling oil
as you drop the pastry in …

I’d really like to copy the whole lovely thing, but you better click through to read it.

Hat tip: Beautiful Day on Instagram.

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Photo: Rosa Furneaux
Haroon Ebrat reaches for his notepad, where he has written down audience requests. The entrepreneurial immigrant runs Afghan Theatre TV, a Farsi-language variety show, out of his garage in suburban California.

I’m impressed how this immigrant from Afghanistan took it on himself to keep his culture alive by broadcasting a variety show from his garage. Many viewers have responded with gratitude.

Jeremy Lybarger writes at Pacific Standard, “Afghan Theatre TV operates out of a soundproof garage 40 miles east of San Francisco. … It’s an unexpected setting for a studio whose Farsi-language variety shows stream online 24 hours a day to more than a million viewers a month, according to the station. But much about Afghan Theatre TV is unexpected, starting with its credo that politics and show business don’t mix. …

” ‘We entertain,’ says Haroon Ebrat, the network’s 66-year-old founding impresario and star. On most afternoons for the last six years, he’s shuffled out to his garage in house slippers to host the live call-in shows that have made him famous, or at least recognizable to the Muslims who mob him, groupie-like, in restaurants, supermarkets, and parking lots across the Bay Area. The calls — 500 an hour, Ebrat says — come from all over: Canada, Germany, Russia, Australia, and many of the dozens of other countries that make up the Afghan diaspora. …

“Afghanistan has been in a quasi-permanent state of war for over three decades, historically exporting more refugees per year than any nation besides Syria. Most Afghans decamp to neighboring Iran or Pakistan, but approximately 124,000 live in America. …

” ‘He has preserved the culture of Afghanistan,’ says Ebrat’s 36-year-old daughter Shabnam, who hosts a call-in show of her own, often accompanied by a local psychic who counsels callers about work and love. Such preservation has come at a cost, both literal and cultural.

“Afghan Theatre TV is a family business, as are many of the more than 3,000 ethnic media outlets. … In between these segments of original programming, the station airs Afghan music videos and concert footage, and on some nights local musicians perform traditional songs like a live house band (hence the soundproofing). Ebrat, a prolific filmmaker, also screens the movies he’s made, which are ultra-low-budget mash-ups of comedy, action, and music starring him and his family.

“The station boasts a handful of Bay Area advertisers — kebab shops, halal supermarkets, Muslim-owned tax services — but Ebrat relies on his children to keep the lights on. (Shabnam is a real estate agent; [older brother] Burhan works with cars.) …

“Ethnic media, produced by and for immigrants, faces unique challenges. The relatively small niche audiences, for example, can discourage advertisers. … Even large outlets struggle to survive. Channel 18, a multilingual network that broadcast out of Los Angeles for more than 40 years, filed for bankruptcy in 2012 before finally shuttering its international format in 2017. …

“Part [the] experience includes reckoning with cultural disagreements within the same family. Shabnam Ebrat has become a target for older or more traditional Muslims who see her appearance — dyed-blond hair and make-up — as an affront to God. She doesn’t wear a hijab either. On Instagram, where her selfies reach about 23,000 followers, commenters debate whether or not she’s going to hell for posing in miniskirts and bikinis. …

“There’s the added stigma of being outspoken in a society that, to many Western onlookers, muzzles women. In Afghanistan, some women have no public identity of their own. They’re referred to simply as the wife of, daughter of, or sister of. …

“Overall, though, politics are absent from Afghan Theatre TV, where the maxim is that entertainment brings people together and politics drive a wedge. Haroon is more interested in the zombie horror movie he has in production than he is in discussing the White House. His only stated political aspiration, however vague, is to restore peace in Afghanistan.” More.

Seems like a good idea to stick to entertainment. One thing I’ve noticed while working with Afghan refugees, whether their first language is Farsi or Dari, is that individuals are, well, individualistic. Like groups everywhere, Afghans may have attitudes that diverge a good bit.

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Photo: Only a Game
Golf was the entree to a freer world for this Afghan girl.

We hear a lot of stories about disadvantaged kids who rise above their circumstances by becoming stars — at sports, say, or ballet.

But sometimes the reason those pursuits mark a turning point is simply that they open up a different world. They show the kid that there are different worlds. The kids don’t have to become stars to benefit.

Here is a story about an Afghan girl whose path to breaking free involved golf. Martin Kessler tells the story at the radio show Only a Game.

“Before it was her turn to take the shot that could change her life, Shagufa Habibi remembers being uncomfortably warm.

“Shagufa and 11 of her teammates were standing on a soccer pitch in Herat, Afghanistan. Herat doesn’t have a golf course, so this soccer pitch was the best her team could do. It was a summer afternoon — the hottest part of the day in a city where temperatures can exceed 100 degrees. It was the only time locals would let the women have the field.

“Shagufa wore a long black dress and a head scarf. She carried a wooden club.

“Each of the women had one chance to hit a ball at a target at the other end of the field. Whoever got closest would get to attend a golf tournament in Bangladesh.”

Shagufa amazed herself. Her shot was the best.

“Shagufa Habibi was born in 1995, the youngest child in a large family. Her parents are illiterate. Her dad made his living selling dried fruit — until his hand was mangled in a terrorist attack at a local mosque. …

“When Shagufa was a young girl, the Taliban controlled Afghanistan. Girls couldn’t go to school, so Shagufa and her seven sisters stayed home. Shagufa was allowed outside just once a day, to help her mom buy food. …

“In 2001, the Taliban lost control of the government, and schools opened for girls. Shagufa’s friends started attending. But Shagufa’s father wouldn’t have it – he believed women belonged at home.

“So Shagufa and her sisters devised a plan. After their father left the house in the morning, they would sneak off to school.”

Over the next few years, there were conflicts with Shagufa’s conservative father, an unwanted marriage to an older man, separation, depression, and a decision to embrace sports at school. Sports were so freeing.

” ‘I was forgetting everything,’ Shagufa says. ‘I’m just free. And this ball was giving me more motivation for my future to be so optimistic.’

When Shagufa went to that golf tournament, she was “amazed by what she saw in Bangladesh. Girls weren’t wearing long dresses or scarves. She says women looked so free.

“On the final day of the trip, the Afghan embassy hosted their players for a lunch. The conversation turned to education. Shagufa had a question – but she wasn’t sure she should speak up.

” ‘Should I ask them or not, should I ask them or not?’ Shagufa remembers thinking. ‘Then I said, “Would you tell me, please: how is the education in Bangladesh? And is it possible for me, somehow, I come and do my education?” ‘ ”

Read what happened next at WBUR’s Only a Game, here.

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Superheroes are coming in all shapes and sizes these days. Here’s an Afghan wheelchair-bound superhero created by a teen born in Afghanistan. Once an admirer of anti-Taliban warlords, he found Gandhi and Mandela a revelation and wants kids to know about nonviolent superpower.

Cristina Quinn reports at Public Radio International, “Mohammad Sayed is unstoppable. At the age of 19, he is already an inventor and entrepreneur. One half of his business, called RimPower, is providing assistive technologies. The other half is a comic book series centered around the hero Wheelchair Man.

” ‘My goal is to help people in wheelchair[s] both psychologically and physically,’ he says. ‘A world where every wheelchair user is empowered rather than disabled.’

“Sayed, who goes by ‘Mo,’ knows firsthand what that’s all about. At age 5, he suffered a traumatic spinal cord injury when his home in Afghanistan was bombed. …

“He spent seven years in a trauma hospital because he had nowhere else to go. To survive, he became a hustler, wheeling around the ward working odd jobs — repairing staffers’ cellphones and taking pictures for photo IDs. He even taught himself English by listening to the BBC — and charged for translation. …

“He never gave up. Even when the hospital staff eventually had to evacuate, leaving him alone with just a few guards. …

“His luck would change six months later, when Maria Pia-Sanchez, an American nurse working in Afghanistan, came looking for him. A doctor who knew Sayed asked her to check on him.

“ ‘So we stopped by the hospital where he had been living to see if anyone was there and if they knew where he was,’ Pia-Sanchez says. … Even though Sayed was so young, Pia-Sanchez says he was entrusted with many things in the hospital that the older staff were not. …

“ ‘Even though that life has ended for me, you know, you will never feel certain,’ the teenager says. ‘These are the kinds of things that stay with you. But what defines us as humans is that some of us don’t give in.’

“His idea of not giving in started to shift when he learned about Mahatma Gandhi. That was his introduction to using non-violence as a weapon, and the whole concept blew his mind.

“ ‘Before learning about Gandhi, my role models were warlords,’ Sayed says. …

“Those warlords were replaced with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. But in the pantheon of heroes, there was still a piece missing. And it wasn’t until Sayed attended Comic-Con in Boston a couple years ago that everything came into full focus. …

“ ‘At Boston Comic-Con, I was like, why is there nobody representing the wheelchair community? Why isn’t there a wheelchair superhero wheeling around here?”

“So he set out to make Wheelchair Man, an Afghan-American superhero who, upon making eye contact, shows a would-be criminal the consequences of his actions before he commits them. That’s his power.”

More here.

Illustration: Mohammad Sayed
Afghan wheelchair-bound superhero created by Mohammad Sayed.

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