For Shamila Kohestani, the Taliban isn’t a story on the 11 o’clock news, but the very people who kept her out of school for years on end. Now at Drew, she’s racing to make up for lost time.
- My Journey From Kabul
As told to Ana Maria Alaya
I was 8 when the Taliban stormed my family’s home in Afghanistan and forced us out, changing my life forever.
I can vividly recall the strange men wearing turbans and carrying guns smashing the television set and setting fire to our family photos. They took our food and cooking oil as my six sisters, my brother and I piled into a rented truck with our parents and grandmother for a three-hour drive from Bagram to our new home in Kabul. We spent more than five years in misery there under the oppressive rule of the Taliban.
One of the things I remember most about those years was the constant fear. Today, my life is so different, sometimes I feel like I am in a dream. I wake up some mornings in my dorm room at Drew, about to be a sophomore on a cozy college campus in suburban New Jersey, and I think, “What am I doing here?” I feel so safe. I feel so free. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world. No one tells me what to do, what to wear, what to eat. No one tells me I can’t play soccer.
I appreciate everything I have so much because I know what it’s like to have so little.
When I was born in 1988, Afghanistan was at the tail end of a war with Russia, followed by years of tribal conflict. From 1996 to 2001, my family lived under the frightening ultrafundamentalist rule of the Taliban. During those years, my sisters and I were virtually imprisoned in our two-bedroom house in Kabul. Girls weren’t permitted to go to school, and we couldn’t go outside unless we were accompanied by a male relative and covered head-to-toe in a burqa. The Taliban treated women like slaves. We had no rights. We had no voice.
I was lucky because my older sisters homeschooled me during those terrible years. But the lack of a formal education for so long took a toll. Today I struggle with my academics. I work very hard to get A’s and B’s and spend many hours a week with my tutor, Kathie Brown, who is Drew’s director of English for Speakers of Other Languages. Writing papers is very difficult. I wrestle with grammar and vocabulary. I find my classes very challenging, though very interesting. This past semester I took “Fundamentals in Public Speaking,” “English Writing,” “History of the Modern Middle East” and “Martial Arts.”
I am also adjusting to the culture shock. In my country, men and women have very little contact with each other in public. They are separated in school, and dating is not allowed. So coed-style living has been quite an experience. Dating is even more foreign to me. I have no plans to get married until after I get a graduate degree and become who I want to be. I’ve watched many women get married while they were still young in Afghanistan, where they are expected to live with their in-laws and cook, clean and care for them.
But my classmates tell me I’m adjusting to American culture very quickly otherwise. My circle of friends includes guys, and I live a life much like any American college student. I listen to Beyoncé and Ricky Martin on my iPod. I love shopping at Forever 21. I hang out at the movies on the weekends and work out at the campus gym almost every day, staying fit to play on the university soccer team. And I love pizza, spaghetti and Caesar salad, though my friends warn me that I will surely lose my figure on such a diet!
At the same time I’m adjusting to a new culture, I’m determined to stay true to my Muslim faith. Granted, it’s a challenge to find time for daily prayers with such a busy schedule, but I try not to make excuses. I wake before the sun rises, lay out a small rug in my dorm room and say the first of five daily prayers facing eastward, toward Mecca. I pray for my family, for my country and for my relatives who have passed away.
My faith also forbids alcohol consumption, which some might find challenging during college. But I don’t find it difficult to abstain. I don’t advertise that I’m not allowed to drink. I really want to fit in. I don’t want people to think, “Oh, she’s not from here.”
But sometimes I can’t help but notice the differences between me and my classmates. Americans have many choices. It’s entirely different from the life of austerity I led in Kabul. Occasionally people here ask me what I did for fun in Afghanistan. I tell them, “There was nothing to do for fun. There was no TV, no music, no cards.” We just sat around the house looking at each other. And it wasn’t for one day or one month. It was nearly six years.
It can be difficult to describe the excruciating monotony of those years. Sometimes I don’t know how my family survived, especially during the year that my father left to find work in Iran. It was so hard on my family. To make ends meet, my older sisters Setara and Tania secretly embroidered burqas for a local shopkeeper, working late on the only two nights we had electricity.
The horrors of life under the Taliban became a sad routine in my life. It was not uncommon to walk outside and see bodies hanging in the street and men throwing stones at women. It was very scary. At first, I would look at these scenes, but later I would just keep walking. We learned to never look a Taliban soldier in the eye. That was an invitation for trouble.
I had my own frightening brush with a Taliban soldier one afternoon when I was at the bazaar with my mother and the soldier didn’t care for the way that my burqa didn’t cover my legs, though I was wearing jeans. He chased me and beat me with lashes as I ran. When I got home, I cried for hours. I remember thinking, “I’m never going out again.”
But life got better. In 2001, after the attacks of Sept. 11 on the World Trade Center, the Americans came to Afghanistan and pushed the Taliban out of power. I can remember hearing bombs outside. My family was in disbelief.
After the Americans came, I went back to school, and started playing soccer, something I always enjoyed doing when I was a young girl. I found a group of women to play with, though it is very unusual for women to play sports in Afghanistan. We were constantly ridiculed and harassed. People would ask, “Why are you trying to be like a man? What are you trying to prove?” But I was undeterred.
It turned out that soccer would be my ticket to a whole new world. In 2004, my team at the nonprofit Afghan Center was invited to a training camp in the United States run by Awista Ayub of the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange. Later, I became captain of Afghanistan’s first national women’s soccer team, and in 2006, I shared an ESPN ESPY award for helping start women’s soccer teams at high schools in my country. Suddenly I went from being a skinny “bad” girl playing soccer in Kabul to rubbing shoulders with George W. Bush and LeBron James at the star-studded sports awards in Los Angeles.
That same year, I attended a sports leadership academy in Hightstown, N.J., run by the former captain of the U.S. women’s soccer team, and there I met a counselor from Blair Academy prep school in Blairstown, N.J., and was offered a one-year scholarship. It was an amazing year. I improved my academics and my English skills. I made so many friends. An American family in Rumson, N.J., took me in—my “American mom,” Cathy McKay, her husband, Brennan, and their daughters, my “American sisters,” Quinn and Taylor. I also have support from an Afghan family in Bayonne, N.J., who read about me in a news report and reached out to help.
Last summer when I returned to Afghanistan, I was worried my luck had run out. I wanted to go to college in the United States, but I knew that my family had no money to send me. My father makes $500 a month working for the U.S. military.
But once again, my American friends took up my cause and sent my portfolio to Drew President Robert Weisbuch. I was stunned when I received the news that the university was giving me a four-year scholarship. Within weeks I was on a plane to the United States.
When I first arrived on campus, I was afraid I wouldn’t make it here. I thought to myself, “This isn’t for me. I’m going back home.”
But I know I need to succeed. Because what am I going to do if I have to go back? The girls in Afghanistan are not lucky like me. While opportunities have opened up for women in Afghanistan, a culture of repression persists. Many women still do not work. And girls who go to school have been attacked by men who throw acid in their faces. There is still so much more to be done.
I really want to do something to change that culture in my country. I would like to pursue a career in international relations or women’s studies, and go back home with my degree. I hope that it is safe there by the time I graduate. Only time will tell how President Barack Obama’s foreign policy will shape the conflict. At the moment, my family and I fear the situation in Afghanistan will get much worse before it gets better. Taliban violence is once again escalating, and I am often afraid that my bold endeavor to get an American college education could draw unwanted attention to my relatives and endanger my family. And we worry about the safety of my sister Setara, 24, who is a midwife in a hospital outside of Kabul.
Right now, I miss home. I miss my mother’s home-cooked qabili palau, a fragrant dish of rice, raisins and almonds. To stay connected, I keep a clock on my desk with Kabul time, and I stay in touch with my siblings. My sister Mursal, 22, is in medical school. My other older sister, Tania, 23, lives in Tehran, Iran. My brother, Parviz, 21, is in Afghanistan with my younger sisters, Bolqes, 15, Simeen, 14, and Salma, 10, who are all going to school.
I hope that my younger sisters experience the kind of opportunities I have been blessed with. I want a better future for them, and for Afghanistan.