At first, when Sandy approached the three of us to share some thoughts about a New York Times article by Malala Yousafzai regarding the situation of women in Afghanistan, we weren’t sure which direction to go. None of us consider ourselves experts on Afghanistan and none of us claim to understand the Taliban. We shared concerns about writing from our western-influenced lenses and how that may just perpetuate stereotypes. Soumaya recalled that the USA invaded Iraq to free the women, yet the women there were nuclear scientists. It’s messy. But I typically do what Sandy asks of me, so I proposed that Luby, Soumaya, and I have a Zoom call to just chat, as friends, who also happen to be interculturalists with personal experience and some expertise in Muslim/Arab/MENA (Middle East – North African) cultures; there is a little overlap from that perspective. And we’d see what insights we might be able to share. Since I identify as a ‘rule-breaker,’ there was some veering off from Sandy’s original request to focus on Malala’s commentary regarding the current situation of women in Afghanistan and the possible implications on their education. Instead, much of our discussion focused on what we (all of us!), as interculturalists, can do to support, given the events in Afghanistan that are continuing to unfold.
Here we share some snippets from our conversation. First, it is important to acknowledge that with the news cycle these days, events are developing quickly and information sometimes becomes outdated before it even gets out in print. We recognize, too, that Afghanistan is a diverse country with various ethnic groups, each with unique qualities and priorities.
Watching the initial news coverage about Afghanistan as the August 31st evacuation deadline approached, Luby shared a connection to some of her earlier work at the beginning of what turned out to be a 20-year war. “A few days after 9/11/2001, I’ll never forget. I received a call and it said, ‘US Government’ and I picked up the phone and they said ‘This is the Department of Justice and we received your name,’ and I thought, ‘For what?!’ It was the Community Relations arm (peacemakers) of the DOJ and they said they needed to know how to quell the tensions and bring peace into the community after the attacks on the Twin Towers… They wanted help to understand and de-escalate …. And that initial experience brings us to today and what’s going on… and what we’re being asked which is: How do we, as interculturalists, show up in this moment?”
Soumaya chimed in with a thought we were all feeling - a strong desire to be proactive. “OK, here is the situation we’re in. We’re getting refugees from Afghanistan – how are we going to accommodate them?” We all agreed that we can’t do anything to change what is going on in Afghanistan and how the Taliban is doing it. So, what we need to do is figure out how we can respond as interculturalists in our own spheres of influence. How can we help prepare our local communities to receive new Afghan refugees? How can we facilitate mutual understanding, on all sides?
Here are some ideas on how you can engage respectfully:
- Interculturalists can play a key role in their own communities in the area of refugee resettlement. Take initiative where you are and seek out local organizations who are set up to help. Let the decision-makers know that you can help them understand cultural differences (on both sides).
- Keep in mind that more than financial help is needed. Volunteer your time.
- Familiarize yourself with some core Afghani values:
- Hierarchy and social stratification are significant. Recognize this and look for the nuances of power structures. Keep in mind that immigrants/refugees may experience backlash from their own local Afghani community if they step out of the expected hierarchy (even if the purpose is to more effectively acculturate)
- History matters! US Americans often say “It’s history. It doesn’t matter.” But in Afghani and Arab cultures, people say, “It’s history – it matters!” So, it is important to recognize this and to learn more about their history. Ask questions and show curiosity.
- A strong sense of tribalism guides social relations. This tribalism, in addition to the hierarchical structures, adds another layer of complexity.
- Relational loyalty and connections are important.
- Emphasize the importance of understanding gender roles and the etiquette between men and women. In some ways, US American women have more power of access than men to assist the Afghan refugees – many of whom will be women and children and who may be vulnerable. They’ll feel more comfortable with women helping them.
- Recognize the prevalent misconceptions in the west about women in places like Afghanistan and how those women see themselves.
- Help people understand that if they are coming from a faith background, their help should be without strings attached.
- Keep in mind that Afghans are very proud people – notice how this manifests in their behavior.
- If you witness bias or harassment, consider using strategies recommended for ‘bias-interrupters.’ For example, if you notice someone is staring or beginning to harass another person, engage with that ‘targeted’ person in friendly conversation, and ignore the harasser. This can disempower the harasser. You do not need to know specific information about the culture and you don’t need specific training. You can simply use these tips to be a decent human, to be that friendly face in the community.
From our experiences assisting with refugee services, we believe that even small gestures can make a big difference. The emphasis should be on a warm welcome. For example, paying attention to the culture when selecting the staple foods and spices when equipping a kitchen can make a big difference.
Like many of you, we have been feeling disheartened by watching the events in Afghanistan… but we don’t want to be stuck there. We want to spring into action and see how we can help… find creative ways to make a difference within our circles of influence.
This is a call to action. We, as interculturalists, need to focus on – and motivate others to – move forward. This is what we were built to do! We build bridges. We change the world…
Lobna "Luby" Ismail
Basma Ibrahim DeVries