LIVING AS A REFUGEE IN AMERICA: AN INTERVIEW WITH IMAM ZIA (3/6)

When we crossed the border into Pakistan it was a whole new experience because we had never been out of Afghanistan prior to the war. Now we were in a new country. Since there is shared heritage and people in north-western Pakistan spoke Pashto, one of the two languages we speak at home (Farsi being the other), there was no language barrier for us. But it was still a different country, a different currency and most importantly for us it was a different kind of climate. Where we lived in Afghanistan the weather was pretty much like Virginia, it doesn’t get too hot in the summer and the winters are pretty cold. Peshawar heat is awful. So that was something that was difficult for us to get used to. So all those years that I lived there I never made peace with the heat.

A lot of the education within the refugee community was heavily religious education and there was a reason for that. Conditions were so tough that faith and religion provided a safety net for everyone that you could lean on regardless of how tough things were. Holding on to our faith made life bearable. The camps themselves were these deserted areas that refugees had to develop on their own. When you first cross the border and arrive at the camp you had to build your own house on the plot of land that was given to you. These houses would be made of either mud or other natural resources available. Many of these refugees lived there for two to three decades. People would go about their lives happily making the most out of things. After ten years, the refugees turned these deserts into an oases. You would go to these camps and see a lot of trees, plants, and flowers. They made the most out of those conditions because they were able to rely on their faith. Religious education was a positive thing and was the very focal point of everyone’s education. I cherish my educational experience and for me, it was a very pleasant and beautiful experience of learning my faith. Now looking back people see it as something negative that played a role in extremism and violence. I went through a madrasa education, there was no militancy, no one taught me to go kill people or hate people. I feel like it’s being mischaracterized, exploited and people will make a lot of very sweeping statements about the madrasas. When a generation grows up knowing nothing but war then of course they’re going to start fighting over power and cause suffering that unfortunately continues until this day. There’s a lot of blame to go around and any armed conflict breeds a lot social decadence, but at the root level, there was nothing but goodness in my experience as a refugee.

Before coming to America I had learned English in Peshawar. If I had continued to live in Afghanistan I would have never been able to learn foreign languages like Arabic, Urdu, and English or get any kind of education. So this experience of being a refugee came with hardships but also with a lot of blessings.

Pakistan was like a second home to us. The people were especially hospitable and we felt at home there as we do now in America. Like many Afghans, we eventually moved from the refugee camp to more settled areas. Everyone living there embraced us and we never felt like we didn’t belong.”

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