By Nikita Mandhani
She clasps a white mug mottled with little blue butterflies in her soft hands and takes a sip of chai sabz, the traditional Afghan green tea. As always, it reminds her of her father’s lush farmland near Kabul, where such tea was a daily ritual. But she left that land behind more than 30 years ago.
What remains of that farmland today is a parched piece of earth surrounding a two-story house tattered by war and destruction
Sima Quraishi takes another sip of the tea and smiles wistfully. “America is my mother, but Afghanistan is my little child.”
Framed certificates hang behind her, subtly reminding her of the role she played in the lives of other people who had to flee their countries. Files and documents cover an L-shaped black table and her eyes scan a computer screen, in search of new resources and ways to help those who, like her, are struggling to build a life and an identity in a new land.
Chicago is a new chapter for Sima, vastly different from her early childhood in Kabul, Afghanistan and transient, strenuous spells in Pakistan and Iran. Now, she spends much of her time in a modest, tidy office located on the third floor of the Devon Bank on North Western Avenue, surrounded by women who are working for the agency as home care aids, learning English, applying for citizenship, discussing the American culture and striving to find stable jobs.
Colorful sketches drawn by children who attend the center’s summer programs adorn the walls of the spacious English language classroom. The center hosts monthly women’s circles where women share their psychological, physical and cultural struggles and find solace in community. This is the Muslim Women’s Resource Center, which Sima founded and now leads as the executive director.
When Sima arrived in Chicago at the age of 10, there was no such facility that could help her come to terms with the years of hardship she experienced as a child. In a small apartment in the Albany Park neighborhood, she huddled with her siblings, longing for her mother’s warm touch and her father’s affectionate voice.
As Chicago traffic sounded outside, her dreams often took her back to barren desert lands, incessant screams of the people of her village and her journey from Afghanistan to Pakistan.
Sima was five when the Russian army had just begun to wreck her motherland bit by bit, tearing apart her comfortable childhood in a large house encircled by her father’s cherished land and filled with the ancestral pride of her Pashtun tribe. In 1979, as the Russian army advanced, there was no other option than to escape, leaving behind the shrubs and flowers that adorned their yard and the toys and books that filled their days.
As Sima’s family fled, the men and the women of the family separated into two factions. The men walked for eight nights from the Logar province in Afghanistan to Peshawar in Pakistan, while the women and little children took cover in a relative’s house in Qarabagh. After about two months in hiding, the women decided to set out on their journey. Sima vaguely remembers traveling in a van for more than eight hours to reach Jalalabad, where some smugglers were waiting for the 10 women and the two kids.
The smugglers outlined the plan. They described an extensive journey spread over three nights on donkeys, traversing mountains and plains, deserts and hills. They distinctly stated that the ride would be precarious for children. They suggested Sima and her 4-year-old nephew travel to Peshawar with a smuggler and his wife in a lorry.
Sima’s mother was coughing incessantly because of her asthma. As she struggled to breath, she also struggled to make a momentous decision. What if they sell her daughter? What if she never sees her again?
After a few minutes, Sima’s mother finally mustered the courage to give her youngest daughter to a stranger. Who knew what fate would bring. But, she didn’t have a choice.
She dressed Sima up like a gypsy: dark murky clothes, some dust over the fabric and crumbs of dirt on her tiny hands and legs. They were gripped by fear, but the desire to move forward and start a new life overpowered their qualms. Her mother embraced Sima and whispered, “They are taking you to your father. He is waiting on the other side of the road.”
Sima climbed into the lorry with her nephew while the women set out on a different route on the donkeys. She tightly gripped her nephew’s hand as their migration from their homeland began.
After about four hours, they arrived in Peshawar, where her entire family reunited. Her together as her parents, siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins all lived in a newly constructed house, big enough to accommodate more than 30 people. Beautiful marbled floors and chandeliers embellished the airy residence, which they had rented from an affluent Pakistani-American.
While the adults were occupied in tense discussions about an altered life in a strange country, the children felt more unified. Sima and her cousins played hide-and-seek and langdi – a game similar to hopscotch -for hours outside in the porch or on the terrace.
But four months later, their lives were altered again, when another tragedy struck their family: her father suddenly died. The cause was cancer of the esophagus. But he had felt like a ruined man since losing his beloved land in Kabul, which defined his power and his identity as an Afghan.
Some of her family decided to move to Iran, to let go of her father’s memories and to start a new life in a different environment. Her uncles hired a private bus and they traveled from Peshawar to Balochistan, followed by a grueling bus ride from Balochistan to Zahedan. For eight hours, Sima laid uncomfortably on the floor of the bus and thought about her father. She knew they wouldn’t have left their second home if he was with them.
In Zahedan, they again met some smugglers who helped them reach Karmanshah, a city in western Iran, and a place that was supposed to be their new home.
Her family had some savings that helped them pay their rent and arrange for a few meals every day, but the Iranian milieu constantly reminded them that they were outsiders. Afghan refugee children didn’t have formal permission to go to school because of their ethnicity. Sima’s mother would take her to different schools every morning, pleading with the authorities to give her admission, occasionally even referring to her as an “orphan” to gain sympathy. She didn’t care about the scorching heat or the long distances. They walked, sometimes for hours, finally stumbling on one school that would accept Sima. The principal told her mother that Sima could sit in the classroom, but she wasn’t allowed to ask questions or to complete her homework. All she could do was enter a class full of Iranian children, take a seat on one of the benches, preferably at the back, listen to the teacher with her little lips pursed together and walk back home to her mother and siblings.
Just eight months later, Sima and her siblings suffered another wrenching loss. Sima’s mother died of a stroke.
Less than two years after leaving their country, Sima had lost her father and mother. She felt as if she had lost a part of her body, a piece of her soul.
Sima’s uncle in Chicago asked them to leave Iran and come to the United States. So Sima and her brothers traveled back to Pakistan, this time to Islamabad, where they stayed for more than a year while her uncle applied for their resettlement.
He received them at O’Hare international airport on a wet afternoon in June of 1984 and told them that from then on, America was their home.
Sima along with her four siblings, her eldest brother’s wife and his son moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Albany Park. After three months, they relocated to Rogers Park. A refugee resettlement organization paid the rent, helped them get food stamps and enrolled them in a neighboring school.
Every day her brothers would scrutinize the classifieds page of the Chicago Tribune for hours to find a job while they were attending universities. During the evenings, they would watch global news segments on television, waiting to hear anything about the situation in Afghanistan. They talked about the Russian invasion, the announcements to withdraw the Soviet troops and the mass migration from Afghanistan to neighboring countries that had cleared out their land.
Even though her family was more than 6,000 miles away from their home, her brothers constantly pushed her to remember where she came from. Her oldest brother, once told her that she could study as much as she wanted to but she must never forget her culture and her Afghan heritage. She promised him that she would “always be a good girl.”
On her first day at school, Sima’s teacher assigned her a seat next to a Chinese student. Sima’s view of the world was limited to the countries she had lived in. She didn’t know if this student was a boy or a girl because she had never seen a person who looked like that before. She assumed that the student was a girl, just someone with shorter hair.
The next day, one of her classmates told her that the Chinese student was a boy. She gazed at him, trying to study his facial features, mannerisms and physical attributes. Her body warmed up as she blushed with embarrassment. According to the Islamic culture that she grew up in, she was not allowed to sit next to a boy.
She timidly gazed at the other children in her class and her mouth felt drier. Within the next few minutes, she had tears in her eyes.
Her teacher heard her sobs and asked her if anything was wrong. Not knowing what to say, Sima put her hands on her stomach and said that her tummy was hurting. Her teacher immediately made a call to her home.
Sima’s sister-in-law straightaway came to the school, half-nervous and half-concerned. The moment she reached Sima’s class, she rushed inside and saw her hunched shoulders and her head ducked between her knees. When Sima lifted her head, her sister-in-law noticed her tears.
“I broke my brother’s promise,” Sima whispered, explaining that she sat with a boy in class for a day.
The strain and tautness on sister-in-law’s face almost instantly transformed into a wide smile. She told Sima that it was okay.
“You weren’t sitting on his lap, were you?” she asked, trying to tell her that she didn’t do anything that was disgraceful or unacceptable. Before leaving class that day, Sima’s sister-in-law told her teacher the actual reason behind her tears and her teacher changed her seat.
Sima began to understand that America was different from Afghanistan. She studied English in school, a language she first got acquainted with in Pakistan, but to her the words looked like a mere chain of characters without meaning.
Though she had some friends in the immigrant neighborhood, she spent most of her time either in school or alone at home, while her brothers went out to school and work. Every month she would count her age, waiting to turn 14, so that she could find a part-time job and earn some money.
A few months before her 14th birthday, she decided to start looking for work. Every day while coming back from school, she walked past a fashion store called Fashion Bug. One day she went inside. She met an African-American lady who ran the store and asked if she would hire her. The lady told her to come back after six months.
The next week, Sima and three of her other Afghan friends planned to stroll around Devon Avenue and go inside every store and office and ask if they needed part-time workers. When they reached Fashion Bug, Sima frowned and told them that she knew that the store wasn’t hiring. Her friends moved on to the next store, not knowing what was on her mind. After six months, Sima got her first job at Fashion Bug. She worked nine hours every week for $3.45 per hour.
She spoke Urdu with her friends from India and Pakistan and talked in Persian with the ones from Iran. People usually got confused about her nationality and some thought she was Arab. Her classmates had never heard of Afghanistan and didn’t know where it was. In her freshman class at Mather High School, one of her teachers, Mr. Rice, a stout and gregarious Greek man, drew a dot on the world map to point to Afghanistan when she told him she was Afghan. That day everyone in her class found out where Afghanistan was.
When she enrolled in the University of Illinois in Chicago, she also started working for a not-for-profit organization where the director mentored her and helped her become more cognizant of the opportunities she had as an American to help people in a variety of ways.
Sima got married before completing her undergraduate education, but with her husband’s support, she continued to study and to work. Soon after her graduation, she found a job at Asian Human Services, where she worked with refugees from different countries and felt more connected to their routine tribulations because of her own background.
While also building a family and looking after her two young children, Sima completed a masters in Community Development from North Park University. In 2003, she opened the Muslim Women’s Resource Center to support immigrant and refugee women from different communities.
She gave birth to her youngest son in 2006 and continued to juggle being a mother, a wife, a community leader and a social worker.
Sima says that she still carries a piece of Afghanistan in her heart at all times. Her three children grew up in an Afghan-American household where breakfast comprises eggs, bagels and coffee but lunch and dinner include traditional korma, pita bread, salad and white rice. While Sima doesn’t cover her head and is usually dressed in flowing pants and bright colored blouses, her 18-year-old daughter dons the Muslim head-covering, the hijab. Her family is traditional yet liberal, holding onto the diverse aspects of their Muslim-American identity.
Like other Muslims in the U.S., Sima has felt the demonization of Islam and the anti-Muslim sentiment that has arisen in recent years. But it doesn’t rattle her; given her experiences in the U.S. over the past 30 years, she feels a strong sense of faith in the U.S. political system and Constitution. What bothers her is seeing how her 10-year-old son is affected by the rhetoric he sees on T.V.
Meanwhile Sima and her center continuously make efforts to welcome refugee and immigrant women like their own family.
In the last week of May, Sima organized a Women’s Health Conference as part of her center’s monthly women’s circles. More than 30 women attended the meet-up where physicians and medical students from the University of Chicago talked about menstrual disorders, menopause, diabetes, depression and stress.
She wore loose-fitting grey-colored pants and a blue checkered chiffon blouse. Every few minutes she rushed from the classroom to the conference room to her office to the kitchen area, to ensure she was there for anyone who needed her.
For these women from countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Yemen, Iran, Iraq and India, this discussion was a way to learn about health issues often surrounded by stigma in their countries. Sima stood beside the doctors during the presentation and translated every sentence in Urdu, Pashto and Farsi.
The volunteers at the center had decorated the classroom with a Happy Mother’s Day poster to remind these women that they were special. Most of the women were dressed in knee-length shirts called kameez and embroidered pantaloons called salwars, along with patterned colorful head coverings tied in a variety of styles.
Sima’s almond-shaped eyes lit up when she saw that the women actively participated in the conference and stayed until the end for some basic medical checkups, including their body-mass index, blood pressure and blood-sugar levels.
Switching from English to Pashto for the Afghans and to Persian for the Iranians followed by Urdu for the Pakistanis and Indians, she talked with the women about their children, husbands and daily lives.
She knew that these women were more focused on serving their families and adjusting to the American lifestyle than their own well-being. But, Sima wanted them to understand the importance of personal health and hygiene. She distributed pamphlets to spread awareness about colon cancer, type-2 diabetes, pre-diabetes and heart disease.
Some of the Afghan women in attendance reminded her of her mother, who would have probably been the same if she was alive when they came to the U.S. Even she would have covered her head with a pretty chador. Her bright eyes would have glimmered at the sight of little Sima singing and jumping around the room. She would have also faced the challenges of learning English or finding authentic qoroot, the Afghan sour cream, in the market.
And in the little girls who accompanied their mothers at the center, Sima saw herself, full of hopes and aspirations, her radiant smile encouraging everyone else in the room to feel at home.
Nikita Mandhani is a storyteller, traveler and multimedia journalist at Medill School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @.