Hanif Sufizada shares his journey from poverty, war, and loss to earning a degree from Cornell — and then discovering that even an elite education is no guarantee of stability or employment. But through it all, he finds resilience in his Afghan heritage.
I was born in Charbargh, a village in Laghman province in Afghanistan.
Our village is located in Qarghai district about 30km away from the provincial capital.
The fact that it is located along the bank of the famous Kabul River and surrounded by mountains from two sides gives it an incredible scenic beauty.
The majority of the residents live agrarian lives on the most fertile agricultural farms in Laghman province. Vegetables are the village’s main staple crop. A canal that funnels water from the Alishang-Alingar River caters to the irrigation needs of the agricultural farms. Although not very big in terms of area and population, its population is more diverse than in the big cities, particularly in terms of languages spoken. The three languages of Pashto, Dari, and Pashayee are spoken in a village with a population of only a few thousand people.
And despite the meagre incomes and the distance everything available in the big city, the residents are famous for their commitment to education. In fact, the village has given Afghan society some very bright minds who have gone on to become leaders and influential personalities, including the current Finance Minister of Afghanistan, Mr. Eklil Ahmad Hakimi, and the former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad.
My early life was scarred by deprivation and insecurity as I grew up amid war and poverty.
The priority for my parents was not my education but my survival. Rocket fires and daily house-raids shaped our lives. The worst fear was the fear of the amputations needed after an innocent brush with anti-personnel land mines. This fear forced my parents and thousands of others to flee to a neighboring country. But in refugee camps, we were cramped in little muddy houses, again focusing on survival.
In the mid-1980s, we had to leave our village and migrate to Pakistan due to intense bombardment by Soviet forces.
I was two when my family trekked through the mountains. I started going to school in a refugee camp. I had to walk almost 45 minutes to school. If I had to do my breakfast at home, I would miss the attendance roll call in the school. All late-comers were harshly punished by their teachers with slashes across their hands, delivered by sticks. We had to make a decision: have breakfast and get punished, or go hungry. The school was a refugee school, and was defined moe by fear of beatings than by learning.
My family came from a lower strata of society. My father started as an ironsmith. Later he shifted his profession to jewelry repair and become a silversmith. He was not educated but he help us become educated to the extent he could. His soul still encourages us to keep the light of education ignited at home.
In July 2008, my younger brother, who was going to India for his higher education, was killed in a suicide attack.
It was a complicated maze—I could not leave, nor could I manage to resolve my worries. I am still dead scared when I remember 2008, when my young brother was brutally and cowardly killed in a suicide attack in front of the Indian Embassy in Kabul. His was a story of survival and education – but he never made it to the end of his education.
I never dreamt of studying in America, but my determined struggle and hard work made it all possible for me to go to Cornell and for my family to come and live here. Completing my graduate studies at Cornell University through the Fulbright Program has been my greatest achievement. My biggest disappointment was not getting a job with such a degree in the U.S.
Before coming to the U.S., life was very simple back home. Living in Afghanistan has its pros and cons. On the positive side, there were happiness and delight. We were part of all social activities. People enjoyed being together and cherished every moment of life despite the ongoing economic and political hurdles. But the education system had major drawbacks, especially for children.
Once I asked my daughter, Fariha, who is eight years old, about how she compares her schooling in Afghanistan versus in the U.S. She boldly told me that she was beaten many times in her Afghan school but that here, “teachers take care of us as their own children.” There is so much love and learning here.
Unlike most of the immigrants who experience a culture shock when they arrive in the US, I already had the experience of living in the US for two years as a Fulbright scholar. But the greatest challenge I faced was unemployment for a few months. It shocked me how major a problem unemployment is in the U.S. As a graduate of Cornell University with a wealth of experience of working in many countries. I was disappointed to see how difficult it was to get a job for immigrants like me.
Initially, when I came to the United States, I was jobless for a few months. I gave an interview to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, but despite my two years of experience and advanced elite education, I was denied the job. I was so disappointed. The impression I got is that immigrants are no longer welcome in the U.S. despite the experience and skills they bring with them. However, people in the U.S. are very friendly and helpful. But the system sucks. There are a lot of bills to pay that has made our life miserable. Insurance companies just extort people with huge bills. A very beautiful country having great people is being spoiled by a bad system.
I am currently working as an Education Coordinator at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. I have developed very cordial relations with my colleagues and neighbors here. Based on my international UN volunteer experience in Africa, I do volunteer work on the weekends and try to contribute to my community here in Omaha.
My best memory is that I have been very pleased with the people of the United States. For example, I was greatly assisted by one of the employment volunteers who worked very hard to design my CV, and who wrote me cover letters. She has been an amazing person, a true representative of the American people. Her welcoming personality make me feel connected to the people of the United States.
I am an active member of Afghan community and Muslim community in Omaha, Nebraska. I am also a member of the American Muslim Institute. I participate in all cultural events. With this I am trying to preserve my original culture and as well as assimilate into American society.
Coming from a high context culture, my Afghan identity has been the most important part of who I am as a person. The resilience of the Afghan people and their rising out of the ashes of wars and internal conflicts throughout the history creates part of the Afghan identity that I hold very dear to my heart. It has taught me to never give up in the face of all the challenges I confront in my life.
I love Afghanistan and would like to contribute. I would like to work on people-to-people relations between Afghanistan and the United States.
As Afghans, we have collectively endured many hardships during the last four decades of wars, famines, droughts, and other natural disasters. Talking about myself specifically, I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I started working as a child to provide for my family while also keeping an eye on my education. The things that I have accomplished in my life are the result of my hard work and resilience.
If our values are respected I would like to stay here and become a citizen. The U.S has always been a welcoming country. I believe in a leadership that respects others’ values and encourages and facilitates co-existence, where everyone becomes a contributing citizen, irrespective of their religious or racial background.