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Afghan cultural issues subject of panel, book

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Elizabeth Fernandez
San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday, June 24, 2007

She’s never been to Afghanistan, but to Layma Murtaza it’s home nonetheless.

Born and raised in Fremont, the 24-year-old believes that her strong bond with her cultural heritage sets her apart from others of her generation.

“There are a lot of kids my age who don’t understand or appreciate what their parents went through,” said the young woman, whose parents immigrated to the United States in 1979. “We are half American. It’s not a bad thing or a good thing, it’s who we are. But Afghanistan is also embedded in me — it is who I am, at least a part of me.”

Murtaza is compiling a book about the cultural mosaic of the Bay Area’s Afghan community, drawing upon the collective memories of young and old. The aim of her project: “To help bridge the gap between generations.”

On Saturday, a conference she attended in Fremont had the same goal.

Led by a panel of a half-dozen or so Afghan and American writers, academics and community leaders, the symposium — dubbed “East Meets West” — focused on common challenges and shared visions within the Afghan community.

“I was always the guy who didn’t quite fit,” said Tamim Ansary, who immigrated with his family in 1964 when he was 16. Author of “West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story,” Ansary is the director of the San Francisco Writers Workshop.

“It is very difficult to live on two sides because then the border runs right up through you and that is uncomfortable,” he said.

Dr. Mohammad Qayoumi, president of California State University East Bay, told the more than 125 attendees at the conference, sponsored by Project FREE, that a college degree is increasingly a necessity. Other speakers noted the hardships in acclimating to a complex society, particularly one rooted in a false “master narrative” that America was largely built by European immigrants.

“We came from many different shores,” said Dr. Ronald Takaki, professor of comparative ethnic studies at UC Berkeley.

Grandson of immigrant Japanese plantation workers in Hawaii, Takaki has spent four decades in pursuit of “inclusiveness.”

“But many of us are staying here. … We are staying to create new lives, new communities, a new America. Together we can change the master narrative.”

Fremont, with one of the largest Afghan communities in the nation, faces special challenges, said Anu Natarajan, a member of the Fremont City Council, in an interview.

“There are elders who don’t speak the language and feel isolated,” said Natarajan, who, like more than half of the city’s residents, is an immigrant.

Born in India, she moved to the United States 15 years ago. “There are also health care issues — many people don’t see health care in terms of prevention. They go to the hospital only when there’s an urgent need.”

Nafisa Sekandari has seen first-hand the cultural impact of war and migration on the Afghan community. She was working as a school psychologist when she began to notice numerous Afghan youths “dropping out, joining gangs, being incarcerated.”

“I grew very concerned,” said Sekandari, who attended the conference in preparation for her dissertation “defense” on Monday — her dissertation focuses on parenting difficulties experienced by Afghan mothers and fathers.

“Some are widowed mothers who spent time in refugee camps where they experienced such hardships,” she said. “Some parents are in survival mode, and the emotional turmoil they are undergoing makes it difficult for them to parent as well as they would otherwise.”

Others attending the conference bemoaned a cultural divide between an older generation seeking to retain cultural distinctiveness and a younger generation seeking to fit in.

“I wish this type of program had been held many years ago,” said Akbar Afzali, 70, who immigrated to the United States in 1989.

A father of four and grandfather of five, he worked as an accountant in his homeland. “No one really taught us about the cross-cultural differences. We’ve had to learn them ourselves. They’ve created some problems between parents and children. In our country, children do not speak in front of their elders. But here they express themselves. Back when we first started immigrating to the U.S., conferences like this should have been arranged.”

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To participate

Afghan immigrants interested in the Afghan Bay Area Community Book Project can e-mail Layma Murtaza at layma@mail.com.

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Written by afghandevnews

June 24, 2007 at 9:19 pm

Posted in Culture and Arts

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