by Fatema Etemadi

Riley Azam was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. A place where she was once happy but the expectation of young females to wed changed her life forever. From the tender age of one, her mother was seeking an older man to eventually wed Ms. Azam. In Afghanistan, it is tradition for one's parents to seek their child's companion. At age fourteen, Ms. Azam married a man she never met until her wedding night. She left Afghanistan in 1964 and moved to New York where she would experience the life that was chosen for her.

I was born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan. Before Kabul was taken over by the USSR and the Taliban, it was always a safe, happy, and vibrant place to live in. My family and I both hosted and attended parties numerous times in a week. As a child I would see my parents speaking in Farsi with everyone. Afghan parties were always filled with upbeat music and all ages danced, adults drank, laughed, and everyone enjoyed themselves. Our family was wealthy and we lived in a mansion with fifteen rooms. As my mother had more children, the rooms were slowly becoming occupied by my brothers, sisters, and cousins. My mother and her servants cooked Afghan food every day. All the children sat, ate, and played together. The memories we shared as a family will always be with me.

The one thing in the Afghan culture I despised was arranged marriages. I always believe a person should marry someone they are in love with. Unfortunately I realized that at age twelve, I had to get married soon because once a female reaches ages thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen, it meant she was ready to be an adult, become a wife, and bear children. My mother arranged my marriage when I was fourteen and I met my husband on our wedding night. I did not know what the term “marriage” meant because I was so young but I knew my duty as a daughter was to make my mother happy and this marriage would make her happy. My husband promised me happiness and the only place for us to be happy was to move to America. At first I was irate believing that he wanted to take me away from my friends and family. I was so sad realizing I was going to a country with a stranger, and upset at my mother for forcing me in something I had no control over. I sobbed hysterically th e day we left Afghanistan thinking I left the happiest place on earth. Hugging my siblings and cousins was an emotional experience and one I do not like remembering. My husband and I were silent the entire plane ride to America and all I wanted to do was sleep. After the twenty-four-hour plane ride, we took a taxi cab to our decent apartment in Harlem, New York. Luckily I had no trouble coming to America because my husband was already a citizen.

I did not know what to expect coming to America because I was young and unfamiliar with the country. All I concluded was that no place was better than my native country, Afghanistan. The most difficult aspect personally was leaving Afghanistan knowing that I would not be able to see my family every day and I especially missed being an adolescent because I was not ready to get married and become an adult overnight. The only thing I knew of America was what my husband told me and he made it sound like an amazing place to live in. I knew once I arrived in America that my life would be vastly different. Not only was it a new country, but a new world filled with new people and new opportunities. Living in Afghanistan, in an upscale neighborhood with all my friends and family was the perfect lifestyle. In America, I would be forced to make new friends, create my own family, and start from the bottom and reach to the top on my own.

Coming to America meant a window of new opportunities. First I enrolled in high school because I did not finish school in Afghanistan. In school, I had no friends because I did not know how to speak English. My peers usually teased and bullied me, but I was unable to do anything because of the lack of English I knew. The school system in America was similar to that of Afghanistan, a disciplinary teacher, quiet students, and big classrooms. The only big difference between the two was that Afghan schools taught in Farsi and American schools taught in English.  Moving to America, I expected feeling like an outcast and I knew I would be discriminated because of my skin color and inexperience in a new country. In Afghanistan, I never went through any type of discrimination and I never knew what discrimination meant until I arrived to America. Living in America opened my eyes to see how hurtful people can be which made me dislike American people. But hate is not the way to res olve personal issues. Instead, I allowed people to say what they wanted and I ignored their comments because retaliating never made the situation better. The only advice I can give to others like myself is to never take anything personally because people will always say hurtful things. It is best to ignore the negativity and channel one's emotions to something that is positive. The only positive aspect of my life was the encouragement, support, and love from my husband. Ironically, my family arrived to America around the same time I gave birth to my first child in 1975 but they all migrated to California. They went through the same challenges I experienced when I first came to New York. Being unfamiliar in any situation is difficult because there will always be people that think they are better and want to lower a person’s self esteem. I advise anyone to realize that one's family will always be encouraging and listen to what family says not strangers.

I needed to learn a lot after I arrived in New York. I needed to adapt to the American culture, learn the language, and start being an American. At age eighteen, after I graduated from high school, I began to take night classes in order to improve my English. By age twenty, my English was no longer an issue. I began to eat American food, celebrate the popular holidays such as Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. I also changed my eating habits. Unlike our family feasts in Afghanistan, in America, my husband and I portioned our meals and ate several times throughout the day. I began dressing more casual usually in jeans and a sweater. As I grew older I realized that I was slowly accepting the American culture.

By age twenty, I  began to go to beauty school in New York because I was finally comfortable with my English. As a child, I always loved nails and knew I wanted to become a manicurist. I completed school at age twenty-four, found a stable job and began to work. In Afghanistan, all students are required to know the two primary languages, Farsi and Pashto. I knew how to speak both, but I was always more comfortable speaking in Farsi. This academic rule is essentially why people in Afghanistan did not learn English. It was not needed nor as vital to know like Pashto and Farsi. Thus, no one in my family knew how to speak English. Fortunately, I learned English at a young age, along with Pashto and Farsi and will always be grateful to know how to properly speak three languages. I will never forget these languages because I constantly speak Farsi or Pashto with my husband and family over the telephone, and English with my customers and my children. I had my first child when I  was twenty-five years old and my second child when I was twenty-seven years old. Both know Farsi, Pashto, and English fluently because I emphasized that knowing three languages is always better than knowing one.

I thought coming to America would be the worst experience of my life and for the first few years it was. I did not understand my mother’s decision at the time, but now at fifty-seven years old, I understand why she forced me to get married. She knew Afghanistan would not always be a safe place to be in and wanted me to live in the best country in the world. I hated her for her decision, but now I thank her every day of my life for her wise choice. Now I am fortunate to have gotten married at such a young age and came to America. I believe to be an "American" means that a person adapts to the American culture, properly speaks the language, and has a stable life. I am fortunate enough to have accepted the American culture, but never forgetting the Afghan culture. I believe a person can still have their native culture and be an American. I never changed who I was in order to "fit in." I adapted to the American culture but I never forget where I am from and what my mo ther raised me to be. Anyone can be an American and one does not need to change their entire life to think that is the only way to become an American.

I was never an illegal immigrant, therefore, my situation is different than those that are illegal. I believe that whom ever is an illegal immigrant, needs to be deported back to their country. But all situations vary. If one has children in America that are legal but the parents are illegal then I believe they should stay in America. I believe the US needs to have strict laws toward immigration because everyday thousands of illegal immigrants come to the US. It is an economic problem because immigrants that do not have a stable job gain welfare and money from the government which eliminates chances for people that legally live in America who are also less fortunate. I do not believe the US should restrict immigration entirely because I am an immigrant and coming to America has been the best thing for me, but I do believe that US needs to have more rules and regulations for those entering the US. There should be a balance which the US does not have. I do not believe ther e should be an open door policy for any person because once again, the more people migrating to America, the less money is distributed for welfare, scholarships, etc.

Riley Azam