by Farhat Mawlavizada

“I am proud to say I am Afghan, an immigrant, and an American.”

An ancient proverb once stated in Khaled Hosseini’s award winning novel, The Kite Runner, “Zendagi mesghara”- Life will go on.  Mariam Mawlavizada has faced many obstacles but throughout her struggles she has managed to overcome them. She’s a wise woman, a mother of five, with many strong virtues and beliefs. Through the depths of the Soviet invasion, she has lived a harsh life, but regardless has learned to surpass the hard times because life will go on. She has made many sacrifices to become the hardworking, businesswoman she is today. She is my savior, my idol, but most importantly my mother.

My name is Mariam Mawlavizada and I was born on March 20, 1963 in Kabul, Afghanistan. This was my home country, the place I thought I would live for the rest of my life in happiness; however that was not the case.

I could almost smell the fresh lamb kabob cooking at the nearest market. I will always remember the delicious foods from Afghanistan, not to mention the fresh homemade ice cream. Unlike from America, the food was organic, and cleanliness was never the issue. There were many leisure activities such as playing in our front yards with my other cousins as well as going to Paghman to have a picnic. We used to go to the river and sit on the rocks, letting our feet dangle in the shallow waters. Many memories were made in Paghman and I always laugh recalling the gardener incident. You see there were many trees near the river, and with the trees were various fruits. Since the children were too small to pick the fruits, we would throw rocks or shake the trees bringing the fruits falling to the floor, while the gardeners would chase the children around with their long sticks for disobeying their commands once again. Life was easier living in an all Muslim community, where religion was always enforced. I’m afraid of drifting away from my culture and that’s the one thing I emphasize constantly throughout my life. In Afghanistan, life was good and I was happy. Don’t get me wrong, it has its ups and downs. First off, many citizens living in Afghanistan were poor, thus technology and opportunities were limited. However, that was not the case in my home. I was blessed with living a life of luxury, with a Hazara family serving our needs, keeping our house in order. I was given the opportunity to go to college and gain an education, one day becoming a doctor, fulfilling both my parents and my own dreams. Yet everything changed when the Soviet Union invaded my country.

The year 1983, I was nineteen years old, still young, but old enough to realize my home country was seized under attack by the Russians. Bombs were thrown, fires ignited, and children were left homeless. The communist population grew as my very own friends were siding with the enemies. The once, safe place I’d grown to love and call my home started to diminish before my very eyes. My father, fearing the lives of his family, paid a man 300,000 Afghanis to safely take us to Pakistan while he stayed behind in Jalabahd and dealt with what was left of his importing/ exporting business. While waiting for our departure, my mother cooked meals to take with us, but three times, we were rescheduled to leave our home since our route was too dangerous. One day without any notice, we were told to pack what we could carry and set forth on our journey. No passports were given since no one was permitted to leave the country, so we had to escape without being caught.  I was the oldest of my siblings and I had to show I wasn’t frightened. So I did as my mother said and put on clothes from our servants in order to look like a peasant so no suspicions arose regarding our departure. Once we were safely in Jalabahd, I, along with my mother, two sisters, and brother continued while my father stayed behind. From then on we rode in a jeep, appearing like a commander’s family in order to pass by from the soldiers. I hid in the shadows as we approached the armed officer. After coming to a stop, we went on a bulldozer, where wood was placed on the front so we could sit, as well as be covered. I was envious of the man taking us because he was allowed to sit on the top with the other man. Little did I know we were going through a desert, and only after coming to a stop did I noticed he was covered in dust. I was surprised to know I still had the ability to laugh. Then we went to another car which took us to a river. To get across the river, we laid on top of wooden boards that were placed on top of sheep skins which were inflated in order to float. I was so tired I didn’t notice one of the sheep skins popped, at which the man taking us leaped out of our boat, swimming, while blowing air into the skin. After we were safely on the ground, cars were no longer any use to us. For two days and three nights, my family rode on donkeys. The most dangerous part of the journey was sharing a donkey with my younger brother, Edriss while traveling through the mountains. The mountains were steep and any sudden movements could send you falling beneath. I tried not to look down, but the cliff was so frightening, it could be seen with my eyes shut closed.  We almost fell since there were two of us on one donkey. The man sensing my fear calmed me saying the donkeys were highly trained and we were in no danger. We would rest for no more than three hours and continued in the dark so no one would see us. I remembered I was extremely hungry and thirsty when we came across a field of watermelons. We were resting, when the gardener offered to give us some. The watermelon was a bright red and had the sweetest taste. Then we rode a bus that had a foul stench taking us finally to Peshawar, Pakistan. After my father arrived soon after us, we applied for citizenships to Australia. After being refused we applied to the U.S. Meanwhile waiting for approval, I was engaged to Sharif Mawlavizada. Usually arranged marriages turn out to be the worst but I was one of the lucky ones for I fell in love with the man I was to marry. Although it took three years, we finally received our passports to the United States.

Coming to America was an adventure for me. My father told me lots of interesting stories from his visit to the United States. I was excited about the new opportunities I would be given as well as the freedom. I always believed that life without education is merely death in disguise so I was grateful, because that wasn’t an option in Afghanistan anymore. So there was some enthusiasm in my voice as I boarded the plane. I wanted to come to America, gain a good education, and then return to my home country. However, once I came to the U.S, I realized Afghanistan was now a country torn by conflict, and the option of returning was far from reach.

I was 22 years old when I finally arrived in the US in the year 1988. I was a bit confused when I first arrived to the U.S. My family and I weren’t used to the ways of living, and my father expected his own house, but we had to cope with what we had. The first night brought back memories from Afghanistan since my newlywed husband made a traditional Afghan meal. It was both delicious and heart warming. The American customs were new to me however. I always dressed modern as did the Americans, yet they showed so much cleavage.  I was surprised at how some people had no shame for the way they were dressed.

Living in a free country brought some challenges as well. Although America is known for its diversity, it was extremely difficult for me to maintain my strong beliefs. I never wanted to lose my traditions and culture, so I constantly enforced religion within my family. Although there was so much to see in America I was unable to go anywhere without my husband. I didn’t know my way around the city nor did I drive like my husband, so mostly I spent my days at home. Furthermore, learning English wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be since I learned some in Pakistan. I had my first child and twins in Atlanta and from then on I learned to make many sacrifices for my children’s sake.  After we moved to California, I took many English classes at Chabot and Ohlone community college as well as finally learning how to drive. However, I will never forget the incident where my own children were almost taken away from me. While I was driving home from picking up my children from school, I noticed lights beaming from behind me and I was pulled over by a cop car. Suspicions arose since I appeared terrified, so the police officer asked to see registration of my children, but I didn’t know how to say I didn’t have any papers with me since I didn’t speak English very well.  Luckily I found a piece of paper that indicated them as my own. From then on, I took advantage of every opportunity to properly learn English. 

Time was always an issue in America. There were always bills to pay, deadlines to meet, it wasn’t the same as Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, everyone trusted each other and if bills were late, then there was a reasonable explanation and it could be paid later. It took time for me to adjust to America’s ways of living since it was so different, but in the end I know it’s safer in this society rather than in Afghanistan. Regardless, I stayed strong with my beliefs and tried not to conform into Americans ways of living.

With great diversity, comes great discrimination. Although I didn’t experience what others failed to avoid, no one must disregard their religious beliefs and customs to be accepted by others. I strongly believe that a person should always maintain their virtues and customs. But I admit that I feel more American now than I did the first time I came to this country. Despite how strongly I feel about my Muslim heritage, I am still an American. Even though I’ve lived in the United States for nineteen years now, I still managed to keep both my heritages alive.

I believe that immigration can be both beneficial and harmful for our country. I feel that the only purpose for immigrants to come to this country is to gain an education and assist with technological advancements. However if immigrants come to the U.S. for no apparent reason, then it could only do damage. They would take the jobs from those who actually want to make a difference in this world filled with endless possibilities.

I have lived a life, instilled with a strong determination to succeed. Nothing could have been achieved without my endurance to not become another statistic. I overcame the struggles in America from living in poverty to flourishing in a third world country, owning two businesses. I am proud to say I am Afghan, an immigrant, and an American.

Mariam Mawlavizada