Traveling between the Past and Present
It is a beautiful spring day and many children are standing in the courtyard of a primary school in Ankara to pay tribute to the national anthem of Turkey. The children are repeating the national anthem with serious faces covered by pride. Sendyan Sevar, my 7-year-old daughter, is one of those children. She is an Afghan-Turkish child who came to Turkey at the age of 3 with her family. She now considers herself a Turkish rather than an Afghan child now.
Writing this article made me travel between my past and present several times, during which I realized that one of the things I will never forget is our small but green garden in the backyard of our house in Kabul when I was a child. The garden was full of flowers and vegetables planted by my father.
We left Afghanistan, riven by long-running and deadly war, in 2012, leaving behind our families and friends but keeping the memories of them in our hearts forever. This was not our first emigration from our homeland, of course. As a person who grew up in a war-torn country, I have experienced migration several times inside and outside the country, and now this is happening for my children as well. I still remember my childhood and the hard days when we were trapped in a civil war in Kabul, the capital. Hundreds of rockets fired into the city with a population of something around 3 million forced us to escape to Mazar-e-Sharif, a relatively calm province in the North. We left Afghanistan for Pakistan in the late '90s, when Afghanistan was under the control of the Taliban. We had to set up everything for the third time in Islamabad, where we learned Urdu and became familiar with the Pakistani culture.
The first wave of refugees flowing from Afghanistan to neighboring Pakistan and Iran and most of the western countries started in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Some years later, millions of Afghans fled the country after civil war hit the country, and the trend continued over the years. Migration is a global phenomenon that has both positive and negative aspects. A report by the United Nations published on 12 December 2012 says migration can create new economic and social opportunities for both immigrants and the host countries. The U.N. is encouraging the host countries and the immigrants to try to use the opportunity for good, but this is not simple at all.
Global migration has become an issue of concern as it is poorly managed across the world. And then everything becomes more complex when people are forced to immigrate in large numbers in a short period of time — mostly due to armed conflicts in war-stricken countries. Afghans are currently the second largest refugee group after Syrian refugees in the world. Most Afghan refugees left their homeland due to the security concerns and economic problems. Several international organizations warn that the security situation is deteriorating across Afghanistan, forcing millions of Afghans to flee the war-torn country.
Once they reach their final destination a new nonstop struggle starts, as they work to set up everything from the beginning all over again. Among the many challenges, the struggle to adapt to their new life and new country, with different languages and culture, is something that every refugee faces around the world. It is hard and sometimes impossible to adapt to the new life completely, especially when the indigenous populations forever consider you an outsider and are rarely ready to share their identity with you. Ghulam Hossain Ramesh, an Afghan activist who studied sociology in Kabul, says the cultural impacts of immigration, especially on children, are sometimes irreparable: "The inability to establish a balance between their native culture and the culture they live in, [the] poor financial condition of most of the families, and the tendency to work from a young age with the aim of providing for their livelihood needs are common challenges faced by many refugee children."
Research on the impact of immigration on the culture and language of the refugees shows that the new generation should be encouraged to retain both a sense of their own heritage and cultural identity, while still establishing close ties with the larger national society. This is something I try to accomplish with my own family, and it is an intense struggle for the families who had to leave their countries with their young children. Now we are a family of five brothers and sisters, living in the five different countries across the world, trying to set up new lives for our children.
Most of the Afghan refugees are becoming a generation of wanderers who belong to nowhere in the world. The younger generation starts to forget their own cultures and native languages as the memories of their childhood slowly diminish, something that is happening with my own children and something that made me concerned for them. Sendyan, who is going to Turkish school and has lots of Turkish friends, hardly remembers her homeland and her cousins playing together in Kabul. She speaks Turkish fluently but feels uncomfortable when speaking her mother tongue, Persian. And it is the same with my son, Aral, who is 2 years old and was born in Turkey. Both have difficulties communicating with their grandma, who lives with us and doesn't know Turkish.
Neda was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. She is a freelance journalist working for Radio Free Europe and BBC in the past 10 years. She currently lives in Turkey with her husband, two children, and mother.
Words: Neda Kargar