First Place Writing – Personality/Profile

Lauren Ulrich

First Place
Indiana University
$3,000 Scholarship

She dreams of Afghanistan

The life she built was lost to the Taliban. Now, she’s working to create a world where she can go home.

By Lauren Ulrich

In the East Tower of Wells Library, a woman does something revolutionary — she sits at a desk and studies for her accounting midterm.

Mina traveled over 7,000 miles from Afghanistan to sit at a plain wooden table on a Wednesday afternoon and scribble equations on white copy paper.

As she leans her small body over her laptop, a tendril of black hair slips out of her headscarf. It dangles over her round face, suspended in space. She releases a slow breath and the tendril sways.

“Everything is going to be fine,” Mina says.

When her honey-gold eyes look up from her laptop, they’re not timid. She gazes at the world around her, as if daring it to look back.

The shelf behind Mina is lined with volumes of faded red books with gold lettering: “Foreign Relations of the United States.” The trajectory of her life has been shaped by global forces like those printed on their spines: “Peace and War,” “National Security Policy,” “Energy Diplomacy and Global Issues.”

Last August she was director of an international organization in Kabul, her country’s capital, championing women’s rights. Then in a blink of an eye, Mina lost everything. She fled the Taliban to save her life and came to study at Indiana University on a student visa.

Afghan women and girls like Mina spent decades fighting for the right to an education. Now, girls in Afghanistan are, once again, banned from secondary education under the Taliban regime. The Taliban shut down Mina’s women’s rights job.

Though she sits at Wells Library, Mina’s heart is still in Kabul. It’s with her cousin who’s scared to go to school. It’s with the women whose lives have been disrupted by the global forces in those red books.

As she scribbles figures on white copy paper, Mina is not just working on homework. She’s working to create a world where Afghan women can be free.

The Journey from Home

Dozens of Afghans have resettled Bloomington since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban last year. Mina is one of a small handful who came on a student visa, while the rest came through the Exodus Refugee resettlement agency. Exodus helped 32 Afghan refugees resettle in Bloomington since August 2021, said Christie Popp, Bloomington immigration lawyer and Exodus board member.

A few blocks away from Wells Library sits another Afghan woman. It’s hard to leave the house when she can’t drive or talk to her neighbors. She’s fluent in four languages but not English.

The woman, her husband and their five children are among the over 76,000 Afghan refugees who have landed in America since August 2021.

After the United States abruptly withdrew its troops allowing Taliban forces to retake Afghanistan, tens of thousands of Afghans fled the country to escape violence. Chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport of Afghans rushing for evacuation flights captured global attention. Over a year since the last flight took off and the cameras stopped rolling, the lives of Afghan refugees go on.

The family was among those escaping the chaos. After their plane landed in America, they spent months at a refugee camp — one of nine across the United States. Other refugees landed at Camp Atterbury in central Indiana, which housed about 7,200 Afghan evacuees at its peak. The family finally resettled in Bloomington with the assistance of Exodus Refugee.

The family came to the U.S. on humanitarian parole — an emergency legal status for people fleeing urgent conflict — as part of Operation Allies Welcome. Humanitarian parole accelerated processing times for Afghans, but didn’t set up resettlement services or a path to long-term residency.

Humanitarian parole lasts two years. This means Afghan refugees in Bloomington — many of whom worked as allies of the U.S. military — are at risk of deportation unless the U.S. Congress takes action to adjust their legal status.

“We don’t know what will happen,” the husband said. “Will we be eligible, or will we be kicked out of this country? We already applied for asylum, but we don’t know the result. Will we be kicked out or will we stay here? Because nobody said what.”

In a small brick apartment complex near the College Mall, another Afghan family adjusts to a new life. The young couple asked not to be named for fear of compromising family members in hiding in Afghanistan.

The mother had just launched her career as a television news anchor when the Taliban rose back to power. Her career put her at risk, so the family decided to flee.

The woman holds up a video of an ABCs song on her phone to her baby. She wants her children to learn English and get an education; her daughter dreams of being a doctor. The Afghan woman worked hard to get her daughters to grow up in America. She likes the freedoms for women too, she said.

Some Afghan refugee women dream of a better future for themselves and their children in the United States. Others like Mina dream of going home to help Afghanistan become a place again where daughters can grow up with freedom.

A New Life

A woman’s voice grows in volume on Mina’s phone speaker.

“I don’t want her to die in a bomb blast at school,” Mina’s aunt said in her native language Dari. “What should I do?”

She’s worried for her daughter, Mina’s 14-year-old cousin. She dreams of going to art school, but school is dangerous for Hazara girls in Afghanistan.

Mina and her family are members of the Hazara ethnic and religious minority, who have been subject to systematic attacks and killings for over a century. Human rights groups warn Hazaras in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan are at risk of genocide.

She won’t let her go, Mina’s aunt insists.

“No, don’t do that,” Mina’s older sister, also on the phone, argues. “It’s what she loves.”

Mina and her sisters have always advocated for women to pursue careers. Mina knew being a professional woman in a position of authority put her at risk the day the Taliban took over Kabul.

“In the beginning, it was very scary,” she said. “The first day I was alone outside and I didn’t have a hijab. I thought, ‘if they get me today, I’m not going to be alive.’”

After she made it home that day, Mina had no choice but to accept the new Taliban regime. She only ever risked leaving her home to visit relatives. And when she did, she made sure to have her whole body and face covered as it was required under the Taliban.

“I felt like it was 10 years,” she said. “My whole life was destroyed.”

Mina couldn’t live in fear any longer. She decided she had to leave Afghanistan and fought for a student visa to come to the United States.

“I saved myself and I saved my future,” Mina said.

She knows she made the right decision, but sometimes, it’s hard to go to class when she wakes up to headlines like, “Kabul attack kills girls with big dreams.” Another school was bombed in Kabul. Most of the 19 students killed were like Mina. Young women in their 20s. Hazara.

Mina knows thousands of Afghan girls back home, like her cousin, dream of being in her shoes. So every morning she puts on her backpack and goes to school for all the girls who can’t.

“It all goes back to my country,” Mina said. “I hope I can go home to serve people in my country and make people happy. I want to be the person to create that for people.”

Mina’s aunt makes a decision by the end of the phone call. She’ll send her daughter to school despite the risk. She wants her to grow up to be strong, like Mina.

A Place for Community

The Afghan community had already taken root in Bloomington long before Mina arrived. An older generation of Afghans began a similar journey in America decades ago.

First generation Afghan immigrants have become pillars of the Bloomington community, including as owners of multiple successful local businesses.

On the Square in downtown Bloomington, a restaurant sign reads “Samira Restaurant” in bold red font.

Inside the Afghan restaurant, owner Anwar Naderpoor rushes back and forth between customers and the kitchen. He tends to the lunch buffet of steaming basmati rice and roasted lamb.

Samira is a sign of the success Naderpoor found when he immigrated to the United States in 1984. After he fled his home country during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he settled down in Bloomington and opened a traditional Afghan restaurant in 1998.

Naderpoor said his identity has evolved over his decades in America.

“Once you go abroad, things are totally different,” Naderpoor said. “You make yourself more knowledgeable about everything, and that’s where the changes take place.”

He said he’s held onto many of his Afghan values, but he’s also created a new life to support his family.

“I’m still traditional in a lot of positive ways, but there is so much more to life,” Naderpoor said. “And there is so much good in this country, as well, that you can pick some of those and make a great life.”

A few blocks away from Samira, the Döner Kebab food truck is parked on Kirkwood Avenue. Inside, a man with tan skin and salt-and-pepper-gray hair churns out döner kebabs for a line of customers.
Bloomington is not new to Afghan refugees. During the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, a number of Afghans came to Bloomington and started a new life.

Like Naderpoor, the beloved food truck owner Hamid Ali fled Afghanistan during the Soviet Invasion, made his way to the United States and started a business from scratch.

Ali was excited to meet the newest generations of Afghan refugees when they started arriving in Bloomington this year. They’re a connection to the country he had to leave behind 45 years ago.

“Salaam, Mina!” Ali exclaims, waving hello to her when she biked up to his truck. He still remembers the first day she pedaled up to Döner Kebab back in September.

Ali asked Mina what Afghanistan is like now. He wants to know what life is like in the home he fled when he was eight years old. He’ll always be connected to Afghanistan, he says.

“Mentally, I’m like you guys, but my body is Afghan,” Ali says, stressing the word Afghan. “My dignity says I am Afghan.”

A small handful of Afghan students frequently walk over to Ali’s truck from campus. He occasionally slips them free döner kebabs, but he hesitates to give them advice. Ali says young Afghan refugees like Mina will have to experience life in America and learn on their own.

But he’s not worried, Ali says. He knows Mina has a bright future.

Ali yells over the truck’s humming generator.

“I am impressed that someone like Mina exists,” he says.

“All I have to do is be a good person”

Mina’s house is quiet.

Mina rests her cheek against the child’s voice now coming from her phone. She doesn’t live with her family anymore, but she calls them every day. She smiles as her nephew’s voice blabbers about something in Dari. She coos into the phone before saying goodbye.

She hangs up, and the house is quiet again.

‘It’s okay to be alone,’ Mina tells herself. She can still find happiness within herself. Like many Afghan refugees, Mina’s had to learn to find inner peace amid a world of turmoil. Her future is uncertain — she only has herself and the present.

“I am not scared of anything,” Mina says. “All I have to do is be a good person.”

Mina says she’s coping well with her mental health. However, she worries for other Afghans scattered across the globe ripped away from their families and support systems.

A mental health crisis is yet another crisis facing Afghan refugees in America. A 14-year-old Afghan refugee recently committed suicide in southwest Missouri. The teenager, Rezwan Kohistani, suffered in isolation after his family was sent to live in a rural Missouri town with no Afghans for miles and an ill-equipped resettlement agency, according to ProPublica and the Kansas City Star.

Mina wants Afghan refugees living in isolation to know they have the strength to find peace. One Afghan girl in the American Midwest is praying alongside them.

Every day as the sun begins to set, Mina stands on her jaynamaz, which is the Dari name for a muslim prayer rug, at the foot of her bed. She takes deep breaths as her lips pray familiar words to Allah. She moves her limbs through the positions of prayer slowly — with intention.

She places her forehead and hands on the fibers of her rug. She prays for her health. The health of her elderly father alone in his village. The health of Afghans back home and in America.

She closes her eyes. Amid all the conflict and loss and grief, she feels at peace.

A New Family

“Our lives are not perfect. We are separated from a husband, from a wife and children, even a new baby, we are separated from our parents, from our sisters and brothers, but we are here together with each other in love.”

Mina stands in a circle with a group of recently arrived refugees for her first Thanksgiving dinner. The group includes Afghans and Uyghurs — members of the mostly muslim ethnic minority who escaped forced labor camps and genocide in China.

The group gathered not only to celebrate the American holiday, but also to celebrate their cultural identities — alongside a turkey, the table boasts traditional Afghan and Uyghur foods.

Their American hostess Sylvia McNair leads the group prayer. The IU Jacobs School of Music professor is a volunteer with the Bloomington Refugee Support Network who hosted the dinner.

“Alhamdulillah. Thanks be to God. Salaam and Shalom. Blessed be,” McNair ends.

After she prays, Mina said she feels like part of a new family. She knows Thanksgiving is an important day for Americans to be with family. Even though the refugees are separated from their siblings, children, mothers and fathers, they can still create a community of their own in Bloomington.

“I made friends here who have become my new family,” Mina says.

“I feel like home”

A few months ago Mina packed her whole life in Afghanistan into two suitcases. She made space for her red dress.

In her yellow townhouse on a Midwest street, Mina steps into the red silk and gold-beaded dress. She wraps her face in a red headscarf. She brushes on red lipstick, puts on traditional Afghan jewelry and slips her feet into red slippers. Once upon a time an Afghan girl named Mina wore colorful dresses to Eid celebrations with her sisters.

She spins, and the red fabric flares.

“I feel like home,” Mina says.

While home doesn’t look like home right now, Mina understands that everything that makes Afghanistan home is still there at heart. She understands the impact she made in her women’s rights job is still alive in people’s minds. The spirit of change in young people is repressed, but not gone.

“I never feel hate for my country,” Mina says. “It’s the fault of policies and issues between countries that have made Afghanistan a place of war.”

Mina dreams to help Afghanistan become a place where girls can grow up free, like she did. A place where they can wear colorful dresses, study hard at school and work for women’s rights.

“I hope Afghans make a peaceful country so we can go home,” Mina says. “I hope for the future of Afghanistan to be built by the new generation so that everyone can go home.”


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