Nov 16, 2016
“It Puts Real Faces to the Word ‘Refugees’”: An Interview with Human Rights Lawyer Masuda Sultan on Her Life in Afghanistan and Brooklyn
Three decades after arriving on the shores of the United States as a five-year-old girl escaping conflict in her native Afghanistan, Masuda Sultan reflects on what it means to be an immigrant in today’s global turmoil.
Born in Kandahar, a historic city founded by Alexander the Great and now unfairly reduced to its identity as the birthplace of Taliban, and raised in Brooklyn and Queens, the 38-year-old often finds herself at the confluence of cultures, inspired by both the American and Afghan values she was raised with. Despite an early marriage and troubling divorce, as well as her persistent struggle for rights of Afghan women, Masuda continues to strike a balance between her American upbringing and her Afghan roots. A successful human rights lawyer and writer, she has engaged with women leaders on collective issues of their empowerment and helped draft Afghan Women’s Bill of Rights in 2003.
Masuda is one of 33 contributors to an anthology of stories, poems, and narratives by Afghan immigrants much like her, Our Shared Stories: The Afghan Diary. “Afghanistan has been through decades of war, which is what many people around the world know the country by. The people are usually forgotten,” explains Emal Dusst, co-editor of the book. “But growing up, I heard many stories about Afghans and their journey to the West,” he adds. And so, after a conversation with Afghan-American lawyer Jahan Shahryar, they decided to collect the personal stories of Afghans living around the globe.
Dusst and Shahrya launched a Kickstarter to help publish the book. “The response was phenomenal,” shares Dusst. “We targeted $7,500 but exceeded our goal and fundraised close to $10,000. We ended up shipping books to backers in fourteen countries, including France, Mexico, Israel, Turkey and others,” he adds. Money from the campaign also went to the three Afghan non-profits: Code to Inspire, the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan; School of Leadership- Afghanistan, the first boarding school in the country for girls; and to the Digital Citizen Fund, which helps girls and women in Afghanistan (among other developing countries) gain access to technology.
The result, Our Shared Stories, is a remarkable collection of and by Afghans attempting to fit into the “new world.” Sometimes funny, sometimes passionate, the heartfelt chronicles could serve as a guide for the new generation of refugees in the making today. Masuda’s contribution, “A Visitor From Hollywood,” takes a hard look at the aspirations and sacrifices of those Afghans caught in wartime. She tells the story of her cousin, living under the Taliban regime, who wants to escape to the United States and be a soccer player. Masuda has also written about her early arranged marriage and a subsequent divorce, considered a massive social taboo in Afghan communities, in the book My War At Home.
Masuda spoke with Brooklyn Magazine about growing up as an immigrant in this borough, the people she met here who inspired and affected her life, survivor’s guilt, her advice to current refugees escaping conflict and, of course, the undying concept of the American Dream.
What was it like to grow up as a refugee in Brooklyn and Queens? How did you end up here, and how did the city shape your experiences?
My father had Afghan friends who were already living in Brooklyn as refugees. So when we decided to leave Afghanistan, Brooklyn was where we decided to go. The men of our host’s family had come to America and were all living in one small apartment; so when we arrived it got very crowded. On top of that, my mother was pregnant. But our hosts were great. We later moved to a studio apartment a few blocks away from them.
Our parents kept us at home a lot at the beginning because our neighborhood, Flatbush, in the 1980s had a reputation of crime and drugs. But it was also probably because they were still figuring out what it would be like to raise children in a new world.
I grew up believing New York City was the greatest city in the world. It was big, bustling, and diverse. My father used to take us shopping for dried fruits and candy on Brighton Beach Avenue and, of course, Coney Island was always a cherished trip.
The best part about growing up in New York City were my teachers. I went to New York City public schools my whole life and I can say my teachers immensely shaped my identity and my dreams. We were taught that we could do anything we wanted in life and that education was the key to achieving those dreams. The most memorable was my kindergarten teacher at PS 119, Mrs. Drucker, who I would love to find and reconnect with someday. Also, my high school teacher Mrs. Budhos in Queens, who encouraged me to go to college despite having to get married at an early age.
You were married at the age of seventeen and separated from your husband a few years later. Could you share a little more about that phase in your life?
The thing about taking on adult responsibilities at a young age is that not only do you grow up fast but you realize that this is it. In my case, I realized I couldn’t live an unhappy life with someone who was also just as unhappy. I needed to spend time finding out who I really was and what I cared about. The decision felt like as though I was jumping off a cliff, but instead it led me to a beautiful life of exploration beyond what I could have imagined at the time.
Is there one particular incident that your remember growing up in Brooklyn that has left a lasting impression on you?
One day coming home from school, Al Sharpton was standing outside the entrance to our building with a group of reporters holding a press conference. It was raining but they were out there. An unarmed African-American man in our building had been shot dead by a police officer.
Your contribution to Our Shared Stories highlights the many, and extremely complex, distinctions between your life and that of your cousins in living in Kandahar during the reign of the Taliban. Do you consider yourself privileged or underprivileged?
I always knew I was privileged to have made it out of Afghanistan. We grew up with a collective survivor’s guilt and that was reinforced when I visited Kandahar as an adult. The biggest thing we missed out on was growing up without our extended family in our house. When I was a child we felt we had missed out on growing up in our motherland, but now that I’m an adult I think we were very lucky to have had the opportunity to have come to the U.S.
Your story is largely about the concept of the “American Dream” as held by Afghans during the roughest years of the Soviet war, the civil war and later the Taliban regime. Do you think that is still the case?
The American dream lives on. I think lives stronger than before, particularly amongst the youth. They are more informed about the opportunities in the U.S. and they have seen a generation of Afghan refugees do well here. It is no longer a vague, distant dream. It’s something which they have seen proven.
How relevant do you feel this book is to the current political climate? There is a whole new generation of refugees, with Afghans as well as Syrians fleeing war in their countries.
The world saw a refugee crisis with Afghans in the 1980s due to the Soviet war. Now again the world is seeing a refugee crisis involving even more countries. Just as refugees are yearning to understand what is happening in their lives, so are other people who want to understand what refugees experience. It’s necessary especially in a time of fear and terrorism, that we see each other in these humanizing ways. This books helps with that—it put real faces to the word refugees.
What would be your advice to the new generation of refugees rebuilding lives in new strange lands?
When we were new refugees, we all thought we were going to go back to our homes and war would be over soon. Perhaps this is a story every generation tells itself. But what we didn’t know is that it would go on for so long. We also didn’t realize that we would grow up as Americans and that this meant it would be hard to uproot lives and go back—dare I say that we would not even want to. I mean, I did do that and some other people did as well, but most people stayed in America.
When refugees go back to their motherland they are shocked by the level of poverty and how things have changed. But the reality is they have also changed. So for new refugees coming now I would say accept your new country as your home. Be part of this country and build your life here with the intention of staying and contributing.
Being a refugee, what is the one valuable thing that you lose and what is the one valuable thing that you gain?
You lose your home. You make a lot of new friends that become like family.
If you could, what would say to lawmakers in the U.S. about asylum-seekers from Afghanistan?
I would say they are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. Every single person who is here wants to be here because they know they could not survive at home. Yes, there may be a bad egg, but that is rare.
Amongst the most recent refugees are people who have been on the American side of the war in Afghanistan post-9/11 and have worked for U.S. projects. They have made enemies in their own homeland for being supportive of Americans.
This country was built on the dreams of those seeking refuge, because of religious persecution, because of war, and because of lack of opportunity.
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