Afghanistan and Iran, citizenship and memories
Sara Shayan only guessed what Kabul was like for almost three decades, visualizing her parents’ hometown via family stories, old photographs and news reports — until September of 2015. Shayan recalls texting her sisters before the plane took off from Iran. A bashful smile raises her olive-brown cheekbones while talking about the Taliban tarmac welcome she expected.
She was born in Isfahan, Iran — an ancient city known as The Sister of Paris — but has a strong affinity and connection to Afghanistan. Shayan will defend the politics of both nations dependent upon the argument, she said with a laugh. Her parents fled Kabul during the Soviet conflict, and even though Shayan was born in Iran her Afghan roots relegated her to second-class citizenship.
“Iranians are very hard-working and talented, and I think it was a good environment for us to grow up there,” she said. “But at the same time I don’t like Iran’s politics, or policy, towards Afghan people.”
Shayan and her parents were frustrated that she could only legally work and reside in Iran, but never become a naturalized citizen. It was one of the greatest motivators for her family to move to Turkey, and eventually immigrate to the United States. Ironically, it was Shayan’s Afghan heritage that streamlined their immigration application in 2007.
She can gracefully explain the secular and ethnic divisions in Afghanistan that have plagued a land she claims her own. A nationality that helped along her new life in The States and has given her a mild identity crisis, Shayan added, with a confident shrug. When Russia met defeat in the 1980s, the four sects who were fighting against a common enemy began vying for control of Afghanistan, Shayan said. And this continual infighting has bolstered the strength of the Taliban and further perpetuated governmental corruption, she said.
Although Shayan usually strays from political discussions, she dictates her interest in the four Afghan parties with a scholarly and intuitive second nature. Throughout her childhood, Shayan’s father published his own newspaper about the Hazara people — Afghanistan’s Shia minority.
Today, Shayan easily recalls her royal reception when landing in Kabul. Her mind no longer shapes fragmented recollections of Afghanistan held by her parents. She describes spavined, war torn palaces, delectable feasts and smiling faces entrenched in a hopeful glee. After fielding two phone calls, Farsi couples her English. Then with childlike excitement Shayan further recounts her humble hosts and chronicles her next trip.
The U.S. resettlement effort
According to the U.S. State Department’s report on refugee admissions for FY 2016, “there are currently more refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons – nearly 60 million – than at any time since World War II.”
The report stated, the U.S. remains committed to providing a fruitful and productive new life for those seeking asylum in America. Furthermore, citizens who flee conflict or persecution at home not only help themselves they also contribute to America’s cultural diversity and economic vitality. And the goal for refugee resettlement this year is 85,000 people, which is a 21 percent increase from FY 2015.
The recent similitude of stability in Afghanistan is misleading, with Pakistan and Iran still respectively hosting more than 2.4 million Afghan citizens who resettled decades ago. The State Department estimates another 3 million undocumented Afghans also live and work in the two neighboring countries.
In 2014 the U.S. resettled 69,987 refugees onto American soil, of that total 753 people were from Afghanistan. About 4.2 percent of the stateside asylum seekers were resettled in Arizona that year alone.
Arizona’s faith based organization
Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest manages Refugee Focus, one of Tucson’s local resettlement organizations for asylum seekers in Arizona. Helping refugees is just one of the four focus groups Lutheran Services assists — the organization also provides support for children and family services, aging and disability care as well as emergency food assistance and housing. Regarding its refugee program, the statewide institution provides pre-arrival housing, English language classes, employment training, work placement and immigration assistance.
Connie Phillips, president and CEO at Lutheran Services, was attracted to her new position about 15 months ago because of the organization’s mission statement of “showing kindness, doing justice and serving those in need.” Social work is her calling, Phillips said, and the work at her relatively new position keeps her motivated.
The difference between the conditions of refugee camps, and the opportunity organizations like Lutheran Services provide its clients are stark, she said. And seeing children have access to state-of-the-art educational tools compared to the dire conditions of temporary encampments leaves her awestruck, she added. “That gives me joy, and that gives me inspiration,” Phillips said.
For the past 34 years, Lutheran Services has worked in conjunction with the U.S. State Department receiving bipartisan support thus far, Phillips said. Conversely, during the current presidential political cycle, the GOP’s xenophobic rhetoric has been surprising and saddening, she said.
More often than not, Lutheran Services can boast about the people they help integrate into American culture, she said. Phillips said most of their former clients begin working for the organization as translators or case managers and many earn college degrees. And just a few weeks ago, Phillips spoke with one former client who is now a diplomat representing her homeland, she said.
The national resettlement program is important and overwhelmingly positive, Phillips said, and as a country we must stay the course regardless of any trepidation people may feel. However, her organization remains devoted to its mission.
“We’re unwavering in our commitment even though this is a time of fear, and we have to maintain our vigilance,” Phillips said.
Persian New Year
Shayan appreciates her nurse practitioner job, but it’s not her passion, she said. The Persian New Year will begin its 13-day-long celebration on Saturday, March 19, and Shayan welcomes the new beginning. She grabs a spare napkin and pen, plotting the specific artifacts that will bring in a hopeful new chapter. Her dining room table will be adorned with seven coins symbolizing economic prosperity, a mirror for introspection, one pot of fresh growing grass signifying rebirth and the Qu’ran — her cornerstone of spirituality.
Fear of a city she could only imagine has changed into a budding grove for Shayan. Her next visit will last about two months, and only select family members will know of her arrival, she said sarcastically. It was tough managing the non-stop feasting or dealing with the fighting amongst friends and family for her limited time, she said with a laugh. But the generosity, beauty and rich history she found in the Afghan capital enchanted her and draws her back.
“Now I have a different love toward Kabul,” Shayan said.