By Saira Kitagawa
This is a story about Asma, an Afghan women age 24 from Kabul who came to live in America. Like so many other immigrants who migrated before her, she too sought a better life. Seven years have gone by since she first arrived in this country as a teenager, but her dream still remains the same: To go to school.
Asma was 17 when she first stepped onto land in America. However, she was not alone. Her husband, an 52-year-old American Afghan man named Abdul was beside her and she was pregnant with their baby girl, Hamida. (The names of the persons in this story have been changed to protect the woman we call Asma.)
Her marriage was arranged by her aunt in Kabul. According to Asma, being set up with an older husband was not “a new story for the Afghans”. However, her aunt had tweaked “a little” about his age and she recalled the experience as “frustrating”.
“I was told that he was younger!” said Asma, looking annoyed with wrinkles on her forehead.
Asma wore a bright pink coat and her wavy black hair, lightly shaded with red. was tied into a low pony tail. Her jeans were a nice dark color and she looked stylish, just like many other young mothers today. However, her dark eyes looked tired and looked a lot older than her years. She had a wary look that added tension to the air.
Asma’s father and mother were both originally from poor villages in Kandahar and Jalalabad. They had seven children and they thought it was the best option for their eldest daughter to leave Kabul and grab a new life with Abdul, who was “looking for a wife”. He was an Imam at the Mosque of Shaikh M.R. Bawa Muhaiyadeen in Philadelphia and had lived in America for a long time with his family. His English was perfect and they thought he was good enough to make her life better. Next thing she knew, she was married and off to America, the land of liberty and freedom.
“It was good when I came here,” said Asma, as she started fidgeting her hands. “People treated me as a human being. People would be nice and respectful. I like my country but it’s strict towards women. Here, women can go to school easily…women can say what you want to so…in my country, women can’t do these things easily.”
Although she gained her freedom as a human being, tragically, her life with Abdul was not what she expected.
“When we came here, he started pushing me,” said Asma. The fingers that had been fidgeting now were clutched tightly together. “I liked to go out and study alone. I wanted to be with my friends. Be social. Have a normal life. Some men don’t like this. He didn’t say but he didn’t like it. No.”
Two years ago, she filed for divorce.
“I had enough,” said Asma giving a big sigh, looking tired and looking at her five-year- old daughter who had just came down to sit next to her. Her eyes and hair was exactly the same dark color as her mother and her light grey dress had a trim of short black fur on it.
“I was playing with Biju!’ shouted Hamida, smiling and her eyes twinkling. There was a gap between her two front teeth which somehow made her look more adorable than she already was.
Hamida had just started going to Gompers Elementary School in September. While Hamida went to school, Asma spent time working as a babysitter for her ex-husband’s relatives and once a week at a beauty salon in Philadelphia. Her American friend, the owner of the salon, was kind enough to offer her the job.
“So life is a little difficult for me because I am not working now, I don’t have time to study and I have to care of my baby…and she is crazy,” said Asma, as she suddenly started chuckling. “She keeps on saying when I am going to buy her a baby sister for her. And I promise her, that I am going to buy her one.”
She bubbled with laughter for the first time. Hamida, not understanding her mother’s joke, looked puzzled for a second but catching the sight of the black cat Biju again, she ran to the room next door for the cat, screaming in a high voice “Bijuuuuuuu!”
“I hope for my girl to get good education here, understand both cultures and of course speak good Persian and English,” said Asma with a longing look in her dark eyes. ”When she gets older, I hope I can go to school, finally.”
Going to school and getting education means a lot to Asma. When she was in third grade, the extremist Islamic group, the Taliban, took over Kabul. It was not long before the sight, and even the voices of women disappeared from the city. During the six years of the Taliban regime, many people evacuated to Pakistan and Iran as refugees. Unluckily for Asma’s family, they were unable to afford the transportation cost and were stuck in their home.
“We couldn’t go anywhere,” Asma said in a voice so soft that it was hard to catch what she was saying. “We lost a brother. But still father said no. We were not going to go anywhere.”
Hospitals and schools, especially girl’s schools were bombed and the Taliban forbade children to go to school. Their mission was obvious. They wanted to completely segregate all public places by gender before allowing the people to use these places. However, this did not stop the people of Afghanistan from sending their children to schools. This was because the parents knew that the only way for Afghanistan to reconstruct was education.
“I never went to school after the Taliban came but I studied secretly. I wore a burqa so they will not see me and I knew they will kill me if they found out,” said Asma. ”Especially because I was learning English, oh my God. And our teacher was an American. She taught us for two hours whenever they were not checking.”
Asma claims the law is too weak to be effective in Afghanistan and it cannot protect human rights and individual freedom. With the government ignoring the needs of the people and lacking strong security system, and the traditional norms of discrimination against women remaining strong. Accessibility to education protecting human rights still remains a difficult issue in Afghanistan.
Still the six years of imprisonment inside her home and risking her life for education gives Asma painful memories and haunts her today.
“I like America because in Afghanistan, freedom is limited.” Then, as if she suddenly remembered, she said, “But there is one thing I like about Afghanistan. In my country, families are respectful and helpful to each other. When I go to my country and I meet my family, I feel so happy to help them. But in America, I see so many children run away from their parents. Your parents love you so you have to help them and when you are done with helping, you can do your things. Here, I don’t like these things. Too much freedom and they use it in a bad way.”
Life in America is much better for Asma than Afghanistan. However, the road to go to education still seems a far dream. She has to look after Hamida, who still needs her mother’s attention. Thankfully, her ex-husband had been supportive enough to help out with the living expenses but the fact that Asma cannot afford to go to school is a problem that remains. Next spring, she hopes to take an English as a Second Language class at the Nationalities Service Center twice a week while Hamida goes to school but Asma feels it will not be enough for her to fulfill her dream, a dream that she first had when she was a teenager.
“I really like English,” said Asma. “I want to go to school and become an English teacher and teach English to the people of my country.”
Asma has high hopes for the future and she is certain that she had made a right choice of coming to America. Going to the mosque and talking to her friends who migrated from all over the world motivates her to strive hard and be positive. She understands that she is not alone in fighting for survival in a foreign country. However, her dream to go to school still seems far away. Time has passed so quickly for her. But she remains strong and tough and she has yet to start the new chapter of her life.
“Sometimes, I am so sad. Because I didn’t go to school. My family is not here. I have a daughter and I had a hard life. But I will make my dream true. I am sure,” said Asma as she smiled the most beautiful smile.