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The Opportunity to Dream
I met Rahima through the underground rail road article written by my dear friend and co founder Melissa Chen and since then she has constantly inspired me by her hopefulness for a better tomorrow
Life is constantly surprising me. I have never had any idea when surprises were coming our way in my family, my country, and in my own life. I have always wondered, "Where is the light for which I am searching? Where are these lights hiding? I am lost in this darkness."
Yet I am grateful for every single person who has come into my life, knocked on the door to my heart and taught me valuable lessons. These people in my life are my heroes without whom I could not find meaning from day to day. Life is a battle itself. Either you win or you learn. I know I cannot find that light in my heart on my own, but with hope, we are able to make ourselves better and remain grateful for every single second of our life.
I do not want to say that I have won every battle in my life, but rather than winning, I have learned from amazing people. These people took my hand and taught me how to have purpose in my life even though I started facing challenges as young as 15. Having a purpose in your life means that your soul is not dead, you can fly high, and you can spread your wings above in the sky.
I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. My home city. I still miss it every day. When I am down, I talk with my relatives who still live there. In this way, I can feel happy because Afghanistan is my nest, even though it is now filled with war, death, and the unimaginable. The only way I can hold the negative thoughts at bay is to still have hope and pray for Afghanistan. How can I begin to find that hope and believe my prayers when those I love share a country in which the economy no longer exists, food to eat and water to drink are scarce, and fear dominates their daily lives? Yet still, they are the ones encouraging me and giving me hope. We have come to a beautiful country, the United States.
Sometimes when I am feeling lonely, I use Google Maps to see the streets, hospitals, our house, and my schools back in my homeland. Then I close my eyes and pretend that everything is peaceful and tranquil. I dream that there are no more wars, suicide bombs, explosions, and fire in those familiar streets, hospitals, banks, schools, universities, and mosques. There is no more bloodshed anywhere. That is the dream that keeps the spirit of Afghanistan joyful in my heart. However, the reality is there is no peace in Afghanistan.
My brothers and I were fortunate to begin our education in Afghanistan at a prestigious school. My dad is an architect and my mother was a medical doctor. With their achievements and education, they wished for that and more for their children, which is why they paid vast amounts of money for one of the best international schools in the country.
The school was incredibly small, with only about fifty students. Most families were unable to pay the money or unwilling to put their children at risk. Even my family was at risk. My parents were afraid, yet they never showed it. Instead, they encouraged us to follow our dreams. The old building that sometimes had no electricity or water had to be opened under a secret name. While the circumstances were difficult, every student in the school had a passion for helping Afghanistan.
Most of the teachers were American. They left a profound mark on my heart with their willingness to teach us. They inspired me with a world of possibilities. I watched them stand on their own two feet, and I understood the meaning of freedom that offers protection and guidance and does not enforce rigid rules. Freedom means if you have two hands, one can be used to help yourself, and the other one to help others. Freedom accepts that all people in the world are different and unique, not just good or evil.
My parents continually encouraged us to pursue our freedom through our education. Their diligence has made me and my siblings feel immense pride in what they have provided. My father continues to be by my side and serves as an open-minded encourager who always pushes us to develop ourselves. He has always made sure our tuition was paid, new clothes were purchased, and our family was comfortable, even while hiding his torn shoes and old watches. We are so proud of what he does for us. He is the tall, dark man who works day and night for our happiness and puts everyone else before himself. Our parents taught us that everything does not come easily. We will suffer. We will overcome obstacles. We will achieve our dreams as long as we work hard and keep our intentions sincere.
Aside from my parents, I had amazing teachers who took my hands, opened my mind, and taught me to love with my whole heart. Especially Mr. King and Ms. King. They put their lives in danger and, with a huge risk, opened what is the best school in Kabul. They helped students and teachers, but even more importantly, they taught us life lessons. Without their influence, I would not have been able to achieve some of my dreams. Responsibility, trustworthiness, faith, love, joy, peace, freedom, family, kindness…each lesson was a pearl to me inside the river of life. They taught us that we should act out the words of responsibility and never let ourselves be like a jellyfish, but instead have a backbone. Be honest in this world because if you are honest, it is worth it. If you are honest, you will attract the same honesty in return. This world is like a mirror of what you do, and you will see your own reflection.
I continue to long for those moments when I was able to go to school, see my friends and be with my family. I was positive and did not worry about anything. Everything was smooth and soft like silk. The messages that were left by my family and teachers are like a seed that has bloomed into a beautiful flower. I have been able to flourish, and now the purpose of my life pushes me forward. I know true freedom and the power of uniting with others.
My school received threats and we witnessed several attacks on schools, universities, mosques, and hospitals. My school decided that we would not shut down this time because not one student wanted to leave their education. We accepted that we could die physically, but we were not willing to die mentally.
We have sacrificed men, women, and children to an extreme ideology. I would think about all the soldiers who went to war and had their heads, arms, or legs cut off. I cannot imagine what their family went through. Every single soldier who fought had a family waiting for their eventual return, yet many returned with bloodied bodies torn to pieces or did not return at all. Children were waiting for the day their father would come home and bring bread to eat so they would not feel the emptiness of their bellies. They looked forward to the day their dad would take them to the zoo and celebrate their birthday. They wanted to buy a backpack and start school. But that day never came for so many.
My school continued with the vision. We started training with guns and learned how to defend ourselves if an attack occurred at our school. We would run to safe rooms, jump from one building to another building on the rooftops, and exercise. It was almost fun. Every day we were being poured into by our teachers while the fear of the unknown from moment to moment was constant.
The moon is incredibly beautiful in our sky, much like my mother. She filled our lives with the love and tranquility captured in her beautiful smile. Her bravery pushed her through several life challenges and inspires me to this day. One day she became sick. At ten years old, I did not fully understand that breast cancer would change our lives forever because even in those moments, she continued to heal and purify my heart. As time passed, her body became weaker, and I feared the day I was left without a mother and earthly angel. I feared I would not be able to live without her.
It felt like I was out of control. I worried day and night that they would not find a cure, and eventually, it was decided that she would receive treatment in Pakistan. My parents traveled for her treatment. My father would travel back and forth from our home and back to her, watching her face change through the chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgeries. It took several years to get all those problematic procedures finished. There was light again in our life.
Slowly we regained our happiness and found normalcy. My oldest brother received a scholarship to continue his high school education and college career in the United States. His dreams were coming true and my father helped to push beyond the circumstances to help him reach his goals. He left to go to the new world, and the COVID pandemic began.
Fear was overwhelming at this point because my mother's immune system was weak. She would become sick, and we would complete the test. Each time it was negative. We decided once again to send her to Pakistan for treatment, where she was diagnosed with a terminal stage of cancer. She fought for three months, and then, in the blink of an eye, she lost her life. It was one of the darkest moments of my life. I could not walk or talk, and I fell silent.
She was everything to me. She fought and yet still did not survive this horrible disease. Her words continue to ring in my head to be grateful for every second, be kind, be thankful for our full bellies, the sleep we get at night, and the safety provided by our parents. Other children were homeless, had no shelter, no safety, no security.
I started school again, but I was not the energetic person that I used to be. My teachers really encouraged me and prayed for my spirit to recover. I was trying my best to study and to stay concentrated. I became lonely. Not like the kind of loneliness I had experienced before, this kind was almost numbing and cold. Holidays and parties would pass, and I could not celebrate. I didn't think I could ever be happy again. Every day was the same. I woke up, went to school, and tried to do things to keep my mind busy.
Suddenly I found out that Ms. King was also sick, and she had the same cancer that took my mother. This woman who was also close to my heart and inspired me each day was also being taken from us. I was lost again. The day after she passed away was like any normal day at school. Mr. King taught literature just like every other day and never said a word about his loss. He did not want to discourage any of us students. It broke my heart like a glass vase, shattering into a million tiny pieces.
Still, step by step, the words and lessons of my mother, Mrs. King, and so many others pushed me forward in hope for what was to come.
Mr. King's daughter, Esther Joy, started managing our class to teach us literature. I looked up to her as an aspiring model and successful woman. We talked about life and about our mothers, who we both lost. We talked about leadership and books. Even though she was terribly busy, she was always available to me. Her power gave me strength.
Soon the circumstances in Afghanistan began to deteriorate. The Taliban began to invade provinces closer to home, yet we still held on to the belief that our home country would never fall. We had a strong army and the United States military by our side. Instead, the Taliban did invade our beautiful city of Kabul, leaving us in shock and looking for a way out.
It was a hard moment. Our school closed. I began to lose all hope. We now had lost our mother, our home country was falling apart, and the future was bleak. My brother in the US was worried about our safety. We began to figure out our options for the next steps in our unknown journey. How was it possible that our government failed? I could say that politics failed us, but to me, it is a spiritual battle. Corruption and dishonesty had left us all in ruins.
Ms. Esther and Mr. King took great risks and helped us evacuate. Ms. Esther told me I should be ready anytime and be available to leave with my brother, my dad, and two of my cousins at a moment's notice. Mr. King and Ms. Esther decided that we should be the only ones to leave our school because we were older and small children were being turned away at the airport.
The airport was like hell. My first attempt at the airport was completely shocking and frustrating. We did not expect to see such catastrophe and chaos. All the people in the airport were trying to escape because they did not want to live under the boot of the Taliban. Everyone desperately wanted to be out of Afghanistan. It broke my heart into pieces. I wish it never happened.
The first trip to the airport was devastating. I saw people killed. Children were crushed due to the heavy crowds, and heat overwhelmed many. There was no water, no food, and no place to cool down. We could hear guns shooting in the air and bullets would fly all around us. We attempted to go to the airport several times, and the last time we almost gave up. We did not want to try anymore. But Ms. Esther continued to push us and said the American soldiers would be there to help.
Underground soldiers were kind, but they were limited in their power without my fellow Afghans arriving without proper documentation. We tried ten times. The last time, a group of American teachers and soldiers began to communicate and searched for us in the dark. It was a foggy night, and it was difficult to see, but we managed to find our way. We fell into the hands of our allies and friends, the American soldiers.
They were kind enough to bring us food and water, but the weather was so hot I was always close to fainting. I became so weak. Some people were so hopeless they could not move anymore. They did not have any hope to make their lives better and believed they would die there in the airport.
Somehow we made it. I am still heartbroken, and I yearn for the family and friends we had to leave behind. Devastated, sad, frightened, frustrated, yet happy, we finally made it to America. We can now grow, learn, and support ourselves. Yet nobody understands where I have come from, the joyful memories of my family, and the land I call home. The hope instilled in me continues to move us forward in our new journey with my brothers and father. Mr. King and Esther also made it here. We still talk, and she makes sure I have the things I need and continue my education in one of the best schools in our area.
I have dreams of a future in writing. My first interview was with Bari Weiss, through whom I met Mr. Faisal and Melissa Chen. Mr. Faisal is the founder of an organization called Ideas Beyond Borders. I learned more about the organization and became inspired to help educate people across the world. Mr. Faisal has friends who are also intelligent and kind in helping to teach me and grow my skills. Mary, Marla, Skyler, Youssef, Reid…these people have all been placed in my life for a reason. They help me fly outside my cage.
I now live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I love being here. People are generous and warmhearted. I am going to start school with my brave younger brother. He is a bright, intelligent, and calm young man. His attitude towards life makes him seem much older than he is. I am proud and grateful to have my dad and my brothers by my side.
My words on paper will not solve all of the world's problems, but my story could help another soul who reads it. Whether it is those who are hopeless in Afghanistan or those who are not aware of the beautiful life we left to come here. We are each different and unique. God never makes a mistake. It is essential to bind our hands together and be united. We can share in the love, joy, and peace that comes from each other. We can share our stories honestly, which is what I intend to do on this journey.
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