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From Afghanistan to California

An Afghan-American teen on fleeing the Taliban and her new life in the U.S.



When I was 6 years old and about to enter first grade, the Taliban took control of Mazar-i-Sharif, the city in Afghanistan where my family and I lived.

The next week I found out I was not allowed to attend school because I was a girl. In public, my mother and oldest sister, who was 13, were soon forced to wear a head-to-toe covering called a burqa.

We weren't allowed to go outside without a male chaperone, and women's behavior was strictly monitored: I saw a woman being verbally abused for wearing high-heeled shoes, another being beaten for wearing nail polish. I even saw an accused prostitute being stoned to death. These images burn in my head.

The Taliban grabbed power in Afghanistan during the civil war that broke out when Soviet troops left in defeat in 1989, after a decade-long occupation.

For many Afghans life was turned upside down under the Taliban, who enforced their harsh interpretation of Shariah (Islamic law), including severe restrictions for women.

For my own family, Taliban rule was especially difficult because we are Hazara, an ethnic minority that the Taliban (who are Pashtun) wanted to exterminate. My father, who had fought in an anti-Taliban group, was in particular danger. Every day the Taliban would come searching for him, and he would hide in a neighbor's house.

In 1999 my father fled the country to Turkmenistan, then in 2001 to America. The rest of us escaped to Pakistan, where I went to school for the first time, and became a top student.

Arranged Marriage

I was 11 when we came to the U.S. to join my father in California, where he had found work as a mechanic. Because I was young, I quickly adapted to my new life, but that created its own problems. I wanted to act American—to hang out with friends and express opinions about things like my interest in the environment. But my parents, with their traditional Afghan values, wanted me to spend my free time at home, and thought it strange for a girl to speak her mind.

The tensions exploded when I was 14 and my father told me he had arranged a marriage for me after high school with an Afghan I had never met. It felt like my future was being written for me. I wondered, Why do I need an education if the only expectation for me is marriage?

Three years later, the issue of my arranged marriage is still unresolved, and I sometimes feel torn over issues like whether to continue wearing a chador, the traditional Afghan headscarf for women.

I still keep up with events in Afghanistan, and I'm happy to see some improvements: Girls are going to school again, and women are better protected under a new Constitution.

College This Fall

But the Taliban remain a threat in many areas. And while I appreciate all that the U.S. has done for Afghanistan since removing the Taliban from power in 2001, I think it might be time for U.S. troops to leave.

This fall, I'll be attending Humboldt State University in California, studying environmental science and social justice. Someday I hope to use what I learn to help improve life for my people in Afghanistan.


(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, April 19, 2010)