Monday was a big day for Afghani refugee and Freedom High School student Soma Azizi. For the first time in her life, she spoke in front of a group—about her father’s death at the hands of the Taliban and how life changed when the radical Islamic group took over her home country of Afghanistan.
And she did so not only in a language she’s only spoken for two years, but also without wearing the head scarf (hijab) she’s worn every day since she was 12.
“I was in sixth grade when one day at school, we received notice that the Taliban had attacked Afghanistan and killed our president,” said the soft spoken Azizi during the question and answer session that took place in the Global Union Lounge in Coxe Hall Monday afternoon. “It was 10 o’clock in the morning, and we were forced to leave.”
The next time she was able to go to school was here, in the United States, four years later.
A knock on the door
In the course of the four years that followed that announcement in school, Azizi was robbed of many things, including her home and her father.
“The Taliban killed a lot of educated people and businessmen who had money,” she said. “They came and took them, and that’s what happened to my dad.”
As quickly as the announcement in school forced Azizi and her classmates to leave school, members of the Taliban knocked on the front door of her family’s home and asked her father to take them to his office. “That was the last time we ever saw him,” she said.
In the year and a half that followed, Azizi, her mother, and her brothers and sisters became prisoners in their own home. “We didn’t leave at all—we just ate and slept.”
Then the Taliban came again and threatened to take Azizi and her sisters if her mother didn’t hand over her father’s money and business documents, forcing the family to flee to Pakistan.
“For three days, we walked through the mountains in the cold with no food—only the clothes on our bodies,” she recounted. All Azizi carried was a photograph of her father.
After 17 months in Pakistan—a place where, Azizi says, “the people are nice, but the police are bad”—she and her family were allowed entry into the U.S. through the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).
A desire to “be something”
Azizi arrived in Milwaukee at age 16. She spoke no English and was thrown immediately into high school. “I sat in biology class and understood nothing,” she said. “The teacher had to use sort of like a sign language to explain to me what to do with the homework. I went home and cried because I didn’t understand. But I matched the words and did the homework.”
And Azizi was the only person in her class to turn in her homework the next day.
“That should tell you what kind of person Soma is,” said Will Miller of Catholic Social Agency-Refugee Social Services. Miller, who has worked closely with Azizi and her family since they came to the Lehigh Valley four months ago, moderated the question and answer session.
Questions from the audience that packed into the quaint second-floor lounge in Coxe Hall included inquiries about the treatment of women under Taliban rule, what Azizi thinks of the current elections in Afghanistan, and whether she plans to stay in the U.S.
Azizi said she hopes to become a U.S. citizen so she can “be something.” Under the Taliban, she said, “Women are not allowed to do anything—all they can do is stay home and take care of their children.”
Azizi would love to become a translator or a lawyer, but said that right now, her main priority is helping to provide for her four younger siblings.
Regarding the current state of Afghanistan, Azizi admitted that she hasn’t paid close attention because it stirs up too many painful memories. In many ways, she is happy to be out of her home country.
In some ways, however, Azizi has held onto her heritage, particularly with the hijab, which she has only recently taken off because it aggravates her migraines.
“I don’t feel comfortable without it because I’m so used to it,” she said. “But my headaches do feel better now.”
To find out more about the events included in “Islam: No Boundaries,” click here.