Bahram Sherwani may seem as if he’s had a relatively easy upbringing, but he knows what his family had to endure for him to have that luxury. In his story, Sherwani shares his parents’ past and how it has shaped his life as a hyphenated American, an Afghan-American with pride for both sides of the hyphen. This story is part of MALA’s scholarship essay contest. To see more scholarship essays, click here.
It has been 25 years since my family moved to the U.S. with dreams of freedom, but with a war-torn homeland in their hearts. I know this because it was the year before I was born that they arrived in this land, the land that raised me, their youngest son, to be the individual I am today.
Although most of my mother’s family emigrated here with them, my father made a great sacrifice, leaving behind his family, their land, security and way of life. He sacrificed to create a new life for us and himself as a low-income salesperson, eventually becoming a dual-citizen and an example to my siblings and me of what hard work and persistence can bring, even in the darkest of times. My mother, the sweetest person I have ever known, also went out of her way during my youth to provide me with opportunities, even if she had to ask others for help while dealing with uncomfortable language barriers. These are just a few of the things they have done for me, and I can never truly repay them for everything.
Thanks to my parents’ sacrifices and the compassion they taught me, freedom is a concept that I will never be able to take for granted. My mother and father both have this etched in their minds as well, as it was a driving factor in the reason they left their country as refugees.
One of the stories I recall my father telling me is about how he and his fellow countrymen at his Afghanistan Airforce Base were lined up to be killed by Soviet soldiers who infiltrated and ambushed them. As the Soviets approached each person, they interrogated them, seeking a reason they shouldn’t be killed. Luckily for my father, one of the people he unknowingly befriended was of a higher rank and working for the Soviets. My father was the last person in the line, so when they got to his turn, with all his fellow brothers slain beside him, he spoke honestly about his love for his family. This is when the friend he had made interrupted to say he was a good man, and to let him go.
It was around this same time that soldiers marched into my mother’s classroom and forced every student to pledge their allegiance to the communist party at gunpoint. My parents knew they had to leave that day, and that real freedom was just beyond the horizon if they made it.
It was never taken for granted that I had opportunities in this land that my parents did not in their home, and even when my younger-self asked why they left Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, the answer was always that they wanted to give their children a better life. Unlike my siblings, who were limited in the activities they were allowed to do, my fearful parents decided to trust me to make my own decisions in America’s open society and often encouraged me to pursue activities that broadened my horizons, helped me explore my faculties and ultimately allowed me to chase the American dream.
Now a 24-year-old finishing my last few years of college, I am beyond grateful that I have been able to participate in American culture. From performing and expressing myself with music, to pursuing higher education and participating in sports, as well as attaining Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America, I have definitely been blessed by the opportunities my parents would not have been able to support me in had they stayed. Our unique story and circumstances here have led me to proudly wear the identity I have today as an Afghan-American.
With the current rhetoric pursued by Western media, politicians and culture, it’s not always easy to identify yourself as someone who is Muslim or even from a Muslim country in America. The culture I was raised in actively rejects people I love and care for, and it suppresses the representation of other successful examples of Muslim individuals, making it difficult to feel like an American at times. But I know both parts of the hyphen are who I am.
My identity formed as I grew up in this country that I love, and while it was hard to balance both, I am truly both Afghan and American, and I am not alone in this identity. This country is made up of millions who straddle both sides of the hyphen, and as we try to understand identity in the context of being hyphenated Americans, we end up living within that hyphen, only to realize through the stories and events of our lives that we can be and are both of those things.