LIVING AS A REFUGEE IN AMERICA: AN INTERVIEW WITH IMAM ZIA (4/6)

“I think loneliness takes a huge toll on individuals that come as immigrants or as refugees. It doesn’t matter if they come by themselves or with their family, across the board loneliness is one common denominator. They feel extremely lonely and it’s very hard for them to adjust to things. It’s not the physical hardships like how to get a job, where to live, or where to go to school etc. because at the end of the day there’s a way to find your way around those things. In America, everyone who wants to get an education or who wants to work ultimately finds a way to do so. Before I moved to the United States, I had already learned English in Peshawar. I was also able to read enough about America through the Internet even though it wasn’t that big in the 90’s especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although I knew zero slang. Slang was like a new language that I still try to learn from the younger generation in the community. My point is even though I knew English it didn’t do anything for me. In terms of the loneliness, it doesn’t matter if you know the language because the language is not about what you speak it’s about your heart being content. So my tongue knew the language but my heart didn’t know the language. For the first year every day, I kept saying to myself that next week I’m going to go back. It’s a healing process because you’re separated from your motherland and that takes a huge toll on you because no matter how great America is you will always miss your motherland.”

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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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LIVING AS A REFUGEE IN AMERICA: AN INTERVIEW WITH IMAM ZIA (2/6)

“We kept going back and forth from our village to the eastern part of Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan. We would stay there for a few months and once we felt things were calmer we would return home but as soon as violence started erupting again we would flee. We did this a few times until we realized that it was not practical anymore. The hope we were holding on to, that the conflict would soon come to an end, started vanishing. The Soviets raided our village one day, which consisted of no more than 100 to 150 families because they were fired upon from our village. As soon as the people heard the Soviets were coming, the villagers either fled their homes or started running and hiding in the grape vineyards. The Soviets came that day. They raided the houses of unarmed civilians. They went house to house and inside the vineyards and killed people on the spot. At the end of the day when they left the body count was 50 people. There was no house that didn’t lose someone. That was a turning point for us. Experiences like that made us realize that it’s clearly not safe anymore.”

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LIVING AS A REFUGEE IN AMERICA: AN INTERVIEW WITH IMAM ZIA (1/6)

“Even though I was young, all I can remember from my early childhood is the war. During those days, there was a lot of running around for my family because the Soviets would target specific villages where they believed there was resistance or weapons that could target the Soviet army convoys as they are passing by. So we would suddenly leave the house and go to a neighboring village to take shelter. One time we were leaving our house and we saw these Soviet warplanes flying overhead and as a child, I looked at them and kept thinking to myself what if they bomb us. We constantly had to live with this reality that you could die any minute. We kept running from one village to the next, often barefoot not carrying anything from our homes really, just trying to get to the next village which we hoped was safer.
Another time we were going from our village to the capital, Kabul, which is about 20 minutes away from where we were. I was traveling on a bus with my older sister and grandfather and in the middle of the journey, we realized that we were caught in the crossfire between the Soviet army and the resistance fighters who were hidden down the road in the bushes.
Our bus was positioned right next to the Soviets who had taken positions on rooftops on the side of the highway, and as a result, whatever the resistance fighters threw at the Soviets could potentially hit the bus. I saw a huge fireball pass in front of the bus and to this day, I still don’t know what that was. It didn’t have a physical shape like a bullet, it was just a huge fire that passed us and everything all of a sudden heated up and I felt my body started burning up. Everyone started panicking, screaming and shouting and they started reciting their prayers because they thought this was the end.”

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LIVING AS A REFUGEE IN AMERICA: AN INTERVIEW WITH IMAM ZIA

Over the next few days, NLG will be sharing the amazing journey of Imam Zia. Refugees have been a part of American society for centuries and are an important part of our communities. He was born in Qarabagh District of Kabul, Afghanistan and moved to the United States in 1990. He has been invited to meet with the Secretary of State and other Muslim leaders to discuss the Middle East peace process. He was also part of the group of American Muslim leaders that met with President Obama to discuss their work and the impact they have on local communities. Imam Zia volunteers his time to provide counseling and pastoral care and is one of the founding members of MakeSpace. MakeSpace. MakeSpace serves as an alternative safe space for American Muslims to learn about their religion and serve their community in a welcoming, and inclusive environment. Imam Zia lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, Fatimah, and two daughters, Summer and Aria.

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MEET THE TEAM!

Meet Aakash, a sophomore in the Elliott School of International Affairs. Here’s why he joined No Lost Generation (NLG-GW)- ” joined NLG because it gave me an actual opportunity to help the refugee crisis. World crises often seem very distanced from the collegiate campus, and also, college students frequently feel like they can’t make actual contributions to large-scale issues such as the global refugee crisis. NLG was a unique opportunity where I,could make an actual, tangible difference by promoting awareness and directly partnering with other NGOs to provide solutions to help refugees across the world.” Help support our cause by donating to NLG-GW today! Every dollar counts!

Link: https://secure2.convio.net/gwu/site/Donation2?df_id=2862&2862.donation=landing 

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MEET THE TEAM!

Meet Yvana, a freshman in the Elliott School of International Affairs. Here’s why she joined No Lost Generation (NLG-GW)- “I’ve spent a lot of my childhood with my family in Lebanon, and started noticing the stress the Syrian refugee crisis was putting on the region before it was necessarily a global cause. I especially remember young children selling flowers and toys on the street, and wondering why they weren’t in school. In the 5 years of the conflict, the challenges these children face and how their futures and psychological wellbeing is the biggest casualty in this contrived regional conflict. ‘No Lost Generation’ isn’t just a name, its a very real risk our world faces. NLG-GW as provided a community that shares my passion, as well as the mission to make tangible gains towards bringing education to these devastated areas. The work we’ve been able to do in the short course of a year gives me great hope that young people enjoying the incredible opportunity of a college education can put their time and passion towards giving that opportunity to others, especially those who have already lost so much. An education lasts a lifetime, and I’m grateful to spread that opportunity to Syrian refugees through NLG.” Help support our cause by donating to NLG-GW today! Every dollar counts!

Link: https://secure2.convio.net/gwu/site/Donation2?df_id=2862&2862.donation=landing 

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