Kamila Ataee: Answering Identity Questions with a Smile

Kamila Ataee is a student at Southern New Hampshire University. In her narrative, she recounts her journey from an isolated mountaintop village in Afghanistan to a bustling New England college campus. At each step in her story, she faces challenges and complex questions on her identity and integration.


Traveling and exploration have attracted me ever since I discovered there were other human beings beyond my Afghan village’s high mountains. My childhood curiosity led me to understand that if God wanted her creations to have no connection with each other, she would not have created any connecting paths from one area to another, not to mention rivers and oceans.


The first stage in my journey beyond the mountain peaks began when my father got a job in Bamiyan, one of the central provinces of Afghanistan. He rented a house for our family in Deh-Bouri, Kabul, in 2003. Kabul seemed like a different planet. Every day taught a different lesson.


At the elementary school near my house. I met many new children. Some of them spoke languages I had never heard before, though we were all able to communicate in Dari. Traveling the streets of Kabul I see people were living in tents, others sleeping alongside the road. Others lived in fancy buildings secured with barbed wires. The alleys had had the aroma of fresh naan all day long. Everyone was working hard to bring food for their families.


After graduating from public high school in Kabul. I joined the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA) in late 2011.There I met SOLA’s founder Ted Achellis. His students called him Baba [“Grandpa”] because he was a huge supporter of anyone at the school who worked hard. Then in 2013, I received full scholarship at Southern New Hampshire University with two other SOLA students.


We arrived in New Hampshire for ESL classes to help prepare us for school. Our classmates were all internationals: Chinese, Saudi Arabian, and Taiwanese. The teachers were supportive, and we felt welcomed. Still, despite receiving a lot of help from school for the first couple of weeks, it was hard to find our own way to different parts of the campus and order our own food.


Going out was also full of fear and stress. Not speaking English well was a huge challenge. Learning a new language is not only about putting a bunch of words together. It’s more about knowing the culture of a language, which gives you an opportunity to truly get to know the people who speak it. Also, a new language introduces one to a bigger world and makes one a better global citizen.


Making good connections with non-Muslim students was the hardest part of living in a diverse community. Because of my limited English, my classmates barely listened to me. They looked at my outfit and my headscarf, while my poor English didn’t help me to express my ideas clearly.


Besides not knowing English well and being a Muslim woman, my identity as an “Afghan” added another negative mark in my student life. My early days here were filled with stressful conversation about Afghanistan. I did not realize how people were picturing my country until I got more involved at school. In my own country, I am not asked where I am from by every person I meet. The problem is not with the question, but rather the answer. Whenever people hear the name “Afghanistan”, many automatically think of terrorists, Taliban, bomb blasts, violence against women, and many other crimes. Their sad facial expressions were depressing.


My life got easier once I familiarized myself with my school community. I don’t blame people anymore for asking me so many “negative” questions and talking negatively about my country and Islam. That’s what they hear from the media every day. By “sighs” and wishing me a safe life, they think they show me sympathy – but when it gets repeated every day, it feels more like punishment.


My dorm-mate’s grandfather asked where I was from. Afghanistan, I answered. He came closer to me, looked at my face, and said: “Oh you are!”


I was not surprised by his astonishment because there are people who look at Afghans as uncivilized and backward people. I am not shocked when my classmates question the way I dress, ask me if I met Osama Bin Laden. or tease me about women being considered as second-class citizens.I am not surprised when my professor thinks that I will not go back to my home country.


While the questions may be disheartening, I have learned to answer them with a smile. I believe everyone is able to affect change in the world in her own way. Now my classmates, my professors, and my school’s staff see me as simply human, like them. I’m very happy that I could prove for at least a small group of people that Afghanistan is not an abandoned “nest” that was taken over by a bunch of angry eagles. There are many peaceful people who will always protect their country by loving, supporting, and taking care of each other.

Learning what you don’t know and educating others on what they don’t know are the greatest gifts we can give… and receive. We change the world by changing the world’s citizens’ ideas about each other. This does not happen by military attack or colonization. This happens when people travel, educate, and listen to one another. Education and action combined with an open mind can pave the way to a peaceful world.

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