The Long and Winding Road

From Afghanistan to Swarthmore: An American success story

By Sweeta Yqoobi

On the edge of Dartmouth Avenue in the quiet town of Swarthmore, Mr. Azim Naderpoor, a 46-year-old Afghan refugee, owns a half-Mediterranean half-Afghan restaurant.

Shortly after opening his restaurant 15 years ago, Naderpoor took down all the good pieces of art he had placed on the walls of his restaurant, and replaced the neatly folded napkin cloths and freshly ironed tablecloths with cheap silverware wrapped in paper napkins and bare tabletops.

Shaking his head in disappointment, he says, “when I first opened this place, I decorated every corner of it. I even hang an evil eye on the wall to keep the bad spirits away, but the students destroyed all my good napkins and tablecloths”. Or so they did in those early days when Aria Mediterranean Cuisine was rather a fancy place, ready to serve Swarthmore’s middle and upper class clientele.

Soon Naderpoor realized that most of his customers were broke students from the nearby small liberal arts college of Swarthmore, and so he embraced every affair of academia that came his way; hungry students before and after parties, curious professors with groups of students out on a field trip to study the art of cooking, or international students from East Asia and the Middle East who would stop by to have some familiar food or to simply have a chat with Naderpoor.

“I made this place look like a dining hall for these students,” he smiles sarcastically.

When he speaks in his native Farsi, he mixes in some English words into his conversation, but those English words also sound Farsi in the rhythm of the conversation. When he pauses the interview to give instructions to his American staff on how to prepare the food, his strong accent immediately fades away.

Naderpoor has been living in the U.S. for almost 30 years.

“If I tell you how I came to the U.S., you will start crying,” he says. While delicately putting chopped pieces of turnip next to each other in a row, which he further chops into rather uneven smaller pieces, he begins to tell the story of his journey to America.

“I was so lazy in school that I failed my midterm exams in twelfth grade,” says Naderpoor with a grin on his face. “I skipped school regularly, and had accumulated 130 absence days that school year.”

During Naderpoor’s time in Afghanistan, serving in the Army was a requirement for young men. While conscription normally happened at the completion of high school or college, those who failed in school were drafted right away, and thus Naderpoor joined the army before completing high school. He was enlisted in a branch of the military, which according to him, was “the most dangerous one:” the bomb squad.

After serving in the army for a time, Naderpoor decided to leave Afghanistan on foot; starting part of his journey that could perhaps make one cry. He lays his knife next to the turnip pieces on the worn-out cutting board, and gestures his hands in the shape of a ball, “this is how big my feet had swollen.”

Naderpoor walked for many days and nights to arrive in neighboring Pakistan. When possible, he would lease a donkey from the locals, but “the journey was so tiring that even the donkey would fall asleep,” he recalls.

The rest of Naderpoor’s journey to America was far better. In fact, “it was very easy and comfortable”. He hired someone to make him a passport, and he got on a plane and landed in New York, where his cousins were awaiting his arrival. They sponsored his visa and found him a job in a golf club outside of Manhattan.

Naderpoor’s cousins lived all over the U.S., and that gave him a chance to travel from coast to coast before settling down in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

It also gave him a chance to test his luck with school again, but he remained a lazy student, and that, he believes, is the reason why he is in the restaurant business instead of working in a government job or in a hospital.

Although not as smoothly as he had initially hoped for, Naderpoor did finally manage to graduate from Manzano High School in New Mexico.

He then returned to the East Coast to marry an Afghan girl who now occupies Naderpoor’s dream job: working as an X-Ray and CAT Scan specialist in a hospital near their house. They have three children and he is very happy in his marriage. In fact, Naderpoor is so dear to his in-laws that they share a house together.

For Naderpoor, his in-laws are about as many Afghans as he would like to be surrounded by. In the early days when he had first opened his restaurant, he would welcome Afghan friends and acquaintances into the restaurant, who would then expect free dining. On top of free dining, “they would curse the place with their evil eye,” he says.

Aria’s customers declined. That is when Naderpoor bought the evil eye piece to hang it on the wall of his restaurant.  That, and the new clientele from Swarthmore College did the trick.

Sweeti Yqoobi is an Afghan native whose beat is Muslims in Philadelphia.