This week it was reported that between 50-100 Afghan refugees will soon be arriving in Alaska. In two separate conversations involving what I consider to be uneducated opinions, I have already personally experienced staunch opposition to providing them refuge here. I use the word “uneducated” due to the fact that state personnel have yet to publicly acknowledge and address the impending arrival of Afghan refugees to Alaska. Instead of getting out ahead of the topic, the state is apparently choosing silence over an opportunity to inform and educate the public.
I do not write this article from the perspective of inexperience. I am a decorated disabled combat veteran of Iraq where I served as both a combat medic and intelligence analyst. I then volunteered to serve in Afghanistan for 16 months as a federal employee and cultural adviser to U.S. and NATO forces in Logar and Wardak provinces. Common statements made about Afghans such as “They are all the same” or “They are all terrorists” are simply untrue and uninformed.
Afghans are not “all the same.” The “brown man” ideology promoted after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which convinced the U.S. population that they were seeing a terrorist on every street corner, was absurd. I will tell you that anyone who has become a true friend with an Afghan, no matter their ethnicity, knows that they have made a friend for life. Many Afghans live by a code which is one not so foreign to us as Americans. Although we define it differently, our “code” can be readily identified when explained. If you have ever said to someone, “If you need me, I’m there. If you ever need a place to stay, come here. If you ever need safety, you come here. If you ever need a hot shower, a place to rest your head, and a hot meal, you come here,” then you understand the meaning of their code and ours. I point to the direct experience and cultural understanding of the Afghan code by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, which saved his life.
In receiving Afghan refugees here in Alaska and abroad, I am reminded of the poem by Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus,” which rests at the feet of our Statue of Liberty. In the last paragraph it reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses longing to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” The “wretched refuse” and “tempest-tost” as described by Lazarus is now the Afghan people who seek new lives outside the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan ideology. Have we come so far, from just a few short weeks ago as we all likely witnessed, to say that this very statement by Lazarus does not apply to every Afghan refugee who escaped the tyranny, oppression, and murderous ways of the new Taliban regime? Are we so willing to readily slam the “golden door” in all of their faces because of cultural misunderstanding or re-emerging xenophobia? We should not be.
We incorrectly assume that the process of Afghan to American integration will occur immediately upon their arrival however, we must remember that this is a process that takes time. We cannot expect that Afghans arriving in Alaska or the United States will be “Americanized” in a month, six months, or a year as an unspecified period of adjustment is necessary. Many will not know how to work what we consider to be simple, everyday items like a microwave oven, a digital alarm clock, a propane stove or oven, or a Toyo heater. Having electricity for a full day, or even at all, might be foreign to many of them. Many of them may not leave their homes due to fear of the unknown or for fear of hostile interactions. This adjustment period will be especially true for Afghan women and their adjustment to acceptance as equal members within our culture. Some may scoff at these examples, but I assure you, they are facts.
We should not be so quick to judge the Afghan refugees coming here. Ask yourself, “If I had to flee America under the same or similar circumstances, where could I take my family where they would be safe and have opportunities? How would we be accepted in our new location?” Imagine living in an America where you received “Night Letters” nailed to your front door threatening the lives of you and your family by a shadow government death squad. How would you react? If none of us, as Americans, have ever lived in Afghanistan and received “Night Letters” from Taliban death squads, if none of us have any idea of what they have lived through and now escaped, and if none of us have any idea of the upcoming struggles involved with the adjustments by the Afghan refugees now coming to Alaska, then none of us should take it upon ourselves to pre-maturely or inaccurately judge them as “all the same.”