Afghan americans

by Tim Eigo


Modern-day Afghanistan, torn by both civil and foreign wars, repeats the cycle of oppression, invasion, and turmoil that has plagued it for centuries. As the twenty-first century was about to begin, Afghan people struggled in their own land and flooded the globe in increasing numbers to escape dangers from within their borders and from without.

The Middle Eastern nation is large, about the size of the state of Texas, and is populated by about 15 million people. The vast majority, 85 percent, live in nomadic or rural settings. The country's literacy rate is about ten percent. Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest countries, made worse by almost constant warfare in the late twentieth century. It has been estimated that one out of every four Afghans lives as a refugee.

The people who inhabit Afghanistan are diverse. Although about 60 percent of the people are descendants of the native Pushtun, or Pathan, tribes, the population reflects the history of the many invaders who stopped to conquer the country or cross it on their way to other battles. One almost homogeneous characteristic of the people, however, is their religion. Almost all Afghans are Muslims. The introduction of Islam to the country by invading Arabs in the eighth and ninth centuries was one of Afghanistan's most important events.

Even as Afghanistan struggles with modern dilemmas, however, it continues to exhibit intense tribal and extended-family loyalties among its people. This characteristic can be divisive as Afghan politics are traditionally dominated by tribal factions and nepotism is common. However, this characteristic can serve as a valuable support for Afghans in the United States and elsewhere whose lives have been devastated by war.


Some of the earliest stirrings of the nation-state that would become Afghanistan occurred in 1747, when lands controlled by the Pushtuns were united. The confederation of tribes named its leader, Ahmad Khan Saduzay, and established the first independent Pushtun-controlled region in central Asia. Today, Saduzay is considered by some the father of Afghanistan.

As a nation name, the word "Afghanistan" is relatively recent. In ancient times, the land was known as Ariana and Bactria and it was named Khorasan in the Middle Ages. In the nineteenth century, the land acted as a buffer between distrustful nations, the British in India and the Russians. It was not until the 1880s that the territory united and was named Afghanistan.

Like all nations, Afghanistan's geography has played a central role in its history. Relatively inaccessible, the mountainous country is landlocked, and is surrounded by countries whose interests, at times, have conflicted with those of Afghanistan. The country is surrounded by Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China. The majority of the country is comprised of the forbidding mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush, where elevations rise as high as 24,000 feet (7,300 meters). Even the mountains provide a variety of challenges. In the southern part of the country, they are barren and rocky, whereas in the northeast part, they are snow-covered year-round. It is the snow that provides the bulk of the country's water supply. Even this supply, however, comes to only about 15 inches of rain per year (38 centimeters). Thus, irrigation is vital for agriculture.

The climate of Afghanistan is similarly difficult. Due to the mountains, the range between summer and winter temperatures is large, as is the range between temperatures in the day and night. Although almost all regions experience some freezing weather, temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit occur. The great winds of the western border area between Afghanistan and Iraq, however, provide some value. Using ancient technology unique to the region, windmills grind the wheat harvested in June through September, the windy period during which wind speeds can get as high as 100 mph.


Sitting astride the historic crossroads of centuries of invaders, Afghanistan was not able to gain its true independence until 1919, when it shook loose of foreign influence. The nation adopted a new constitution in 1964 that contemplated the creation of a parliamentary democracy. However, internal political strife led to coups in 1975 and 1978. The second coup, backed by the Soviet Union and seen as pro-Russian and anti-Islamic, led to widespread uprisings. As a result, more than 400,000 refugees fled to Pakistan, and 600,000 more went to Iran. At first the Soviet Union lent its aid to suppress the uprisings, but then the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979.

The Soviet invasion led to even greater numbers of refugees, about three million Afghans in Pakistan by 1981 and 250,000 in Iran. By 1991, the number of refugees had climbed to five million. The Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989. However, what it left behind was a nation in civil war. One of the most evident factions has been the Taliban, a group that has imposed strict adherence to Islamic law. Under the Taliban, even Kabul, the most westernized of Afghan cities, was the site of human rights violations in the name of religious fundamentalism.


Although early records are vague or nonexistent, the first Afghans to reach U.S. shores probably arrived in the 1920s or 1930s. It is known that a group of 200 Pushtuns came to the United States in 1920. Because of political boundaries in central Asia at that time, however, most of them were probably residents of British India (which today is in Pakistan). Some of them, however, were probably Afghan citizens.


Early Afghan immigrants to the United States were from the upper classes, highly educated, and had trained in a profession. Most of these immigrants in the 1930s and 1940s arrived alone or in family groups and some were married to Europeans.

From 1953 until the early 1970s, about 230 Afghans immigrated to the United States and became American citizens. That number, of course, does not reflect those who arrived in the United States to earn a university degree and who returned to Afghanistan, or who visited here for other reasons. Due to political uncertainty in Afghanistan, 110 more immigrants were naturalized in only 4 more years, from 1973 to 1977. According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, resident alien status was granted to several thousand Afghans.

Large numbers of Afghan refugees began arriving in the United States in 1980 in the wake of the Soviet invasion. Some were officially designated as refugees, while others were granted political asylum. Others arrived through a family reunification program or by illegal entry. About 2,000 to 4,000 Afghans arrived every year until 1989, when the Soviet Union withdrew its troops. Estimates of the number of Afghan refugees in the United States ranged from 45,000 to 75,000.

As noted, most Afghans entered the United States as refugees in the 1980s. Since 1989, however, most have arrived under the family reunification criteria. In that case, a visa is contingent on the willingness of family members or an organization to guarantee their support for a set period of time. This process inevitably leads to immigrant groups settling near each other. Although the first Afghan arrivals to the United States were well educated and professionals, more recent immigrants had fewer experiences with Americans, less education, and, because they were not here for schooling, had fewer opportunities to become adept at English.


During the 1920s and 1930s, the destinations of choice for highly educated Afghan immigrants were Washington, D.C., and major cities on the East or West Coast. That pattern of residing in large urban centers has remained consistent for Afghans, despite their reason for arrival or their socioeconomic group.

For example, when more than 40,000 Afghan refugees relocated to the Western Hemisphere in the 1980s, the largest groups settled in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Toronto, Canada. The Bay Area of San Francisco has become a haven for Afghan refugees, who find the climate amenable, the California communities open to diversity, and, until 1994, the welfare system generous. It is estimated that 55 to 67 percent of all Afghan refugees live there. In their communities, the Afghans have opened grocery stores and restaurants and television and radio programs are available in their language. In the late twentieth century, Afghans could be found in every state of the Union.

Acculturation and Assimilation

The vast majority of Afghan refugees in the United States in 1999 were anything but satisfied inheritors of the American dream. Instead, they arrived here not through choice, but because of necessity, as they fled warfare in Afghanistan. Many were trained as professionals in Afghanistan but found work impossible to obtain in the United States, due to difficulties with the English language, depleted savings, or lack of a social support. Their sense of being aliens in a sometimes unwelcoming land tainted all of their efforts. Allen K. Jones, asserts in An Afghanistan Picture Show, that "[p]erhaps the most widespread issue concerning Afghans resettling in the U.S. is the psychological malaise or depression many experience. . . . Though they are grateful for having been able to come to the U.S., Afghans still feel they are strangers in America."

The waves of immigrants from Afghanistan in the 1980s provide a snapshot of the strengths and challenges of the people. Whereas the early 1980s saw the arrival of educated and cosmopolitan Afghan immigrants, their more middle-class relatives arrived here by the late 1980s through family reunification. These newer arrivals were less educated, and some were illiterate in their own language as well as in English.

It is worth noting that, for many Afghan Americans, the United States was not their first country of refuge. Many escaped the violence of their own country by fleeing to Pakistan, for example. However, in Pakistan, women were confined to their homes, and when they went out, they had to do so completely veiled. In addition, health problems, as well as heat exhaustion, were common maladies. Similar problems confronted those who fled to Iran.

Afghan Americans may not define integration into U.S. society in the way that other immigrants might. For Afghan Americans, integration means earning enough to support their family, maintaining their cultural and traditional beliefs, and experiencing some stability and satisfaction, usually within their own community. As Juliene Lipson and Patricia Omidian noted in Refugees in America, for many Afghan Americans, at whatever social strata, integration does not mean assimilation. Although Afghans who have been in the United States for many years are more accustomed to U.S. culture, these researchers found little assimilation of Afghans into the American mainstream, no matter how long they were in the United States. Even among children and teens, where assimilation has been found to be the greatest, most young people try to maintain their Afghan identity, and to change only superficially.

Like many immigrants, Afghans tend to settle in areas where there are already a large number of their own ethnic group present. This has occasionally led to increased difficulty with neighboring communities of other ethnicities, especially in places like California, which has experienced anti-immigrant feelings. The neighborhoods in which they settle also tend to be less expensive and sometimes more dangerous than those to which they are accustomed. Thus, many of those at most risk, such as the very old and the very young, remain inside, contributing to feelings of isolation and hindering acculturation.

The strength of the Afghan people in America lies in their strong sense of family and tribal loyalty. Although strained by the dispersal of extended families and by financial stresses, the loyalty binds the Afghan Americans to their cultural traditions, which they have largely transported unchanged from their homeland. Thus, faced with a bad situation, many Afghans chose to enter the United States because of their strong family connections. Once here, they have faced many obstacles. By the end of the 1990s, however, there were optimistic signs that many were achieving some measure of success while also maintaining ties to their cultural traditions.


Central to the Afghan way of life is storytelling, and many stories are so well known that they can be recited by heart at family and community gatherings. As in all cultures, some of the most renowned stories are those for children. These stories, usually with a moral lesson, are often about foolish people getting what they deserve. Other sources of narrative enjoyment are tales about the Mullah, respected Islamic leaders or teachers. In these stories, the narrator casts the Mullah as a wise fool, the one who appears to be foolish but who, later on, is shown to be intelligent and full of sage advice.

Heroism plays an important role in Afghan stories and many such tales are taken from Shahnama, The Book of Kings. In a geographic region that has been battled over, conquered, divided, and reunited, it is not surprising that what defines a hero is subject to some debate. For example, one popular story is about a real man who overthrew the Pushtun government in 1929. That same man is anything but a hero in a traditional Pushtun tale, however, which shows him to be a fool.

Love stories are also important to Afghans. In one tale, Majnun and Leilah, though in love, are separated and unable to reunite when they get older. Disappointed, they each die of grief and sadness.

Many Afghans believe in spirits, known as jinns, that can change shape and become invisible. These spirits are usually considered evil. Protection from jinns comes from a special amulet worn around the neck. Jinns even find their way into storytelling.


Many proverbs arise from Afghan culture. The first day you meet, you are friends; the next day you meet, you are brothers. There is a way from heart to heart. Do not stop a donkey that is not yours. That which thunders does not rain; He who can be killed by sugar should not be killed by poison. What you see in yourself is what you see in the world. What is a trumpeter's job? To blow. When man is perplexed, God is beneficent. Vinegar that is free is sweeter than honey. Where your heart goes, there your feet will go. No one says his own buttermilk is sour. Five fingers are brothers but not equals.


As in many countries of the region, bread is central to the Afghan diet. Along with rice and dairy products, a flatbread called naan is an important part of most meals. This and other breads may be leavened or unleavened, and the process of cooking it requires speed and dexterity. Although any hot fire-clayed surface will suffice, Afghan bread typically is cooked inside a round container made of pottery with an opening in the top. After burying the container's bottom in the earth, it is heated by coals placed in the bottom. After forming the dough, the baker slaps it onto the rounded interior of the container, where it adheres and immediately begins cooking. It cooks quickly, and is served immediately. This method is used in many Afghan and Middle Eastern restaurants in the United States today.

Another important element of the Afghan meal is rice, cooked with vegetables or meats. The rice dishes vary from house to house and from occasion to occasion. They range from simple meals to elegant fare cooked with sheep, raisins, almonds, and pistachios. Because it is a Muslim country, pork is forbidden.

The usual drink in Afghanistan is tea. Green tea in the northern regions, and black tea south of the Hindu Kush mountains. Alcohol, forbidden by Islam, is not drunk.


An Afghan man traditionally wears a long-sleeved shirt, which reaches his knees. His trousers are baggy and have a drawstring at the waist. Vests and coats are sometimes worn. In rural areas, the coats are often brightly striped. As for headgear, turbans are worn by most men. Traditionally, the turban was white, but now a variety of colors are seen.

Women wear pleated trousers under a long dress. Their heads are usually covered by a shawl, especially with the rise of the Mujahideen, militant fundamentalists. Because of the Mujahideen, a traditional piece of clothing has made a comeback, with a vengeance. The chadri is an ankle- length cloth covering, from head to toe and with mesh for the eyes and nose, worn by women. The chadri was banned in 1959 as Afghanistan modernized, but it has been required by the Mujahideen in the cities, especially Kabul.


Afghan adults enjoy both songs and dancing. They do not dance with partners, the method more typical in the West. Instead, they dance in circles in a group, or they dance alone. A favorite pastime among men is to relax in teahouses listening to music and talking.

Afghan music is more similar to Western music than it is to any other music in Asia. Traditional instruments include drums, a wind instrument, and a stringed gourd. While swinging swords or guns, men will dance a war dance.


A countryside filled with farm animals dyed a variety of colors is a sign that the most important annual Afghan holiday, Nawruz, has arrived. Nawruz, the ancient Persian new year celebration, occurs at the beginning of spring and is celebrated on March 21. An important Nawruz ceremony is the raising of the flag at the tomb of Ali, Muhammed's son-in-law, in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Pilgrims travel to touch the staff that was raised, and, on the fortieth day after Nawruz, the staff is lowered. At that time, a short-lived species of tulip blooms. The holiday is brightened by the arrival of special foods such as samanak , made with wheat and sugar. Sugar is expensive in Afghanistan, and its use indicates a special occasion. Another special dish is haft miwa, a combination of nuts and fruits. A religious nation, Afghanistan celebrates most of its holidays by following the Islamic calendar. The holidays include Ramadan, the month of fasting from dawn until dusk, and Eid al-Adha, a sacrifice feast that lasts three days to celebrate the month-long pilgrimage to Mecca.


Like all immigrants, Afghan Americans are affected by the conditions of the land they fled. Thus, it is worth noting what some researchers have found regarding the health of those Afghans at greatest risk, the children. One out of four Afghan children dies before the age of five, and more than one million of them are orphans. More than 500,000 are disabled. Because of land mines, more than 350,000 Afghan children are amputees. In 1996 the United Nations found that Kabul had more land mines than any other country in the world. Over one million Afghan children suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder.

Mental health issues related to the trauma of war are common among Afghan Americans, especially more recent arrivals. Dislocation, relocation, and the death of family members and friends all weigh heavily on an uprooted people. Posttraumatic stress disorder has been found in the Afghan American population. In addition, there is evidence of family stress based on changing gender roles in the face of American culture.

Many of the elderly Afghans, prepared to enter a period of heightened responsibility and respect, enter instead a period of isolation. Their extended families are dispersed and their immediate family members work long hours to make ends meet. Since they themselves do not speak English, they feel trapped in homes that they feel unable to leave. Even parents and youth suffer a sense of loss as they contend with social service agencies and schools that are unable to meet their needs. Women, often more willing than men to take jobs that are below their abilities or their former status, must deal with resentment in families as they become the primary breadwinners.

Among Afghan Americans who have been in the United States for a longer period of time there are fewer health and mental health problems and more satisfaction. Their increasing financial and career stability provides optimism for the newer group's eventual health and mental health.

One problem growing in severity among Afghan Americans is the use and abuse of alcohol. This issue is emerging in a population of people whose religion forbids the drinking of alcohol. This abuse stems from the traumas and stresses of upheaval and problems with money, jobs, and school. In such a traditionally abstinent group, abuse of alcohol leads to shame and loss of traditional culture.


There are two related languages spoken throughout Afghanistan. One is Pashto, spoken also by those who live in certain provinces of Pakistan. Pashto speakers have traditionally been the ruling group in the country. The other spoken language is Dari, which is a variety of Persian. Dari is more often used in the cities and in business. Whereas Pashto speakers make up one ethnic group, those who speak Dari come from many ethnicities and regions. Both Pashto and Dari are official languages of Afghanistan, and both are used by most Afghans who have schooling. In schools, teachers use the language that is most common in the region and teach the other as a subject.

When written, the two languages are more similar than when they are spoken. In written language, both Pashto and Dari use adaptations of the Arabic alphabet. Four additional consonants are added to that alphabet in Dari for sounds unique to Afghanistan. In Pashto, those four consonants are added as well as eight additional letters. Other languages spoken in Afghanistan stem from the Turkish language family, which are spoken primarily in the north.

In the United States, many Afghan Americans have adopted English. However, certain groups of Immigrants struggle to acquire the language. For example, many of the poorer immigrants, who were illiterate in their home country, find it difficult to learn English. On the other hand, younger immigrants demonstrate their ease in learning new languages by becoming adept at English. This facility with language aids the youth in their academic and career prospects, but it is a double-edged sword. As the member of a family who is the most adept at English, a child may be called upon to interact with authority figures outside of the family, such as school principals and social service agencies. Although this dialogue may be vital to the family's well-being, it upsets the traditional Afghan family hierarchy, and sometimes contributes to Afghan parents' despair at the loss of traditional ways.

Another dilemma faced by Afghan Americans is the combination of English words and phrases when they speak Dari or Pashto to each other. This combination of two languages has made communication among Afghan youth easier, but it has also created a serious problem in communication between children and their parents whose English language skills are very limited. Researchers have found that Afghan Americans tended to use Dari and Pashto in conversations related to intimacy and family life. They used English in conversations related to status. Although such language combinations may aid communication when all speakers have similar skill levels in both languages, long-term mixture could lead to the loss of the Afghan language.

Family and Community Dynamics

To the Afghan people, the most important social unit is not the nation, but the family. An Afghan has obligations to both his or her immediate and extended families. The head of the family is unequivocally the father, regardless of social class or education. As economic pressures are brought to bear on Afghan Americans families, that dynamic has shifted in some cases, at times causing stress. The primary influence on Afghan American families are economic ones. Almost all immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s suffered a severe loss of status in their move to the United States, and have had to grow accustomed to their new situation.


Education levels among Afghan Americans vary greatly. Many Afghan immigrants possess college degrees, often earned in the United States and some of them been able to achieve positions of prominence in American society. Other Afghan Americans have not been as fortunate. Many of them, whether college-educated or uneducated, entered the United States in desperate straits, in possession of little or no money, and immediately encountered a lowered horizon. For many of the immigrants, their difficulties were worsened by the educational system from which they emerged.

Literacy in Afghanistan is very low and the education system in that nation is rudimentary. The original schooling was available only in mosques, and even then it was provided to boys only. It was not until 1903 that the first truly modern school was created, in which both religious and secular subjects were taught. The first school for girls was not founded until 1923 in Kabul. The educational innovation that did emerge almost always did so in the most Western of cities, Kabul, where the University of Kabul opened its doors in 1946. Even there, however, there were separate faculties for men and women.

A terrible blow befell Afghan schooling when the Soviet Union invaded the country. Before the invasion, it was estimated that there were more than 3,400 schools and more than 83,000 teachers. By the late 1990s, only 350 schools existed with only 2,000 teachers. The method of teaching in those schools was rote memorization. In the late twentieth century, failure to pass to the next grade was common in Afghanistan.

Immigrants to the United States in the 1980s and 1990s confronted a daunting economic landscape. Research has provided examples of Afghans who formerly earned a university degree at an American school years ago, and then returned to Afghanistan. When they had to flee their country in the 1980s, however, they found themselves without work in the United States. This was often due to poor English skills or outdated training, especially in medicine and engineering. Also significant, however, was their need to find work immediately. Often their family required public assistance, and the social workers instructed them to choose from the first few jobs that were offered. The result has been doctors and other trained professionals working low-paying, menial jobs, despite their education and training.

"O ne of the first differences I noticed in America is the size of families. In Afghanistan, even the smallest family has five or six kids. And extended-family members are very close-knit; brothers-and sisters-in-law, aunts and uncles, and grandparents all live together or nearby."

M. Daud Nassery in 1988 in New Americans: An Oral History: Immigrants and Refugees in the U.S. Today, by Al Santoli (Viking Penguin, Inc., New York, 1988).

Young Afghan Americans confront their own challenges in the American school system. Unlike other immigrants who may have moved to the United States for increased economic or educational opportunities, Afghans were fleeing war. Those of school age may have spent years in refugee camps, where those who ran the camps felt that schools were not necessary for "short-term" stays. In American schools, these children may be placed in classrooms with far younger children, which can be a humiliating experience. When placed in English as a Second Language classes, however, Afghan American children, like most young immigrants, learn more quickly than do adults.


As in many cultures, the birth of a child is cause for celebration in an Afghan household. The birth of a boy leads to an elaborate celebration. It is not until children are three days old that they are named and a name is chosen by an uncle on the father's side of the family. At the celebration, the Mullah, a respected Islamic leader, whispers into the newborn's ear " Allah-u-Akbar, " or "God is Great," and then whispers the child's new name. He tells the newborn about his or her ancestry and tells the child to be a good Muslim and to maintain the family honor.


Afghan and Afghan American women are strong, resourceful, and valuable members of their families. Although the father plays the dominant role in the community and extended family, the mother's role should not be overlooked. Researchers have generally found that young Afghan American women have adapted to living in the United States better than their male counterparts. Afghan women have taken on occupations that would have been below their former status in Afghanistan, such as housekeeping. Although Afghan women in the United States may have taken jobs when in Afghanistan they would not have, they are still expected to clean and cook at home. As in their home country, they also have had to bear the burden of caring for children. In the United States, the difficulty of this task is compounded by the stresses that their youths endure as they adjust to life in America.

Afghan American women strive to understand their changed role in the United States. Some research has shown that they often have adjusted well. However, elderly Afghan American women have not done as well. They often feel isolated and lonely, at a time of their lives when they could have expected to be secure in the center of a loving extended family.

Because marriage and childbearing is considered the primary role for women, single Afghan American women contend with unique stresses. Often Afghan American men perceive their female counterparts as too Westernized to be suitable mates. They may prefer to marry women who live in Afghanistan or Pakistan.


In Afghanistan, parents usually arrange the marriages of their children, sometimes when the couple is still very young. Once parents decide on a match, negotiations occur regarding the amount and kinds of gifts to be exchanged between the families. The groom's family pays a "bride-price," and the bride's family pays a dowry. Once negotiations are complete, a "promising ceremony" occurs in which women from the groom's family are served sweets and tea. Later, the sweets tray is sent to the bride's family, filled with money, and the engagement is announced.

The wedding is a three-day affair and the groom's family is responsible for the costs. On the first day, the bride's family gets acquainted with the groom's family. On the second day, the groom leads a procession on horseback, followed by musicians and dancers. Finally, on the third day there is a feast, singing, and dancing at the groom's house. A procession brings the bride to the groom's house, with the bride riding in front of the groom on horseback. On the third night that the ceremony is held. Called the " nikah-namah, " it is the signing of the marriage contract in front of witnesses.


As an Afghan lies dying, the family gathers around and reads from the Koran. After he or she dies, his or her body is bathed by relatives who are the same gender as the deceased. The body is shrouded in a white cloth, and the toes are tied together. The body is buried as soon as possible, but it is never buried at night. When buried, the body must be able to sit up on the Day of Judgment; thus, the grave must be six feet long and at least two feet deep. The feet always point toward Mecca.

Mourning for the dead lasts a year, during which time prayers are held for the deceased on every Thursday night. On the one-year anniversary, the women of the family are released from mourning and no longer need to wear white. In Afghanistan, a flower or plant is never removed from a graveyard. It is believed that this would bring death to the family or release a spirit imprisoned in the plant's roots.


Afghanistan is predominantly Muslim. Among Afghan Muslims, the vast majority follow the Sunni branch of Islam, which is also the most mainstream branch. About 10 to 20 percent are Shi'ah Muslims. In a largely inaccessible country like Afghanistan, the influence of Islam used to be peripheral, and a strict adherence to its tenets was not kept. This is no longer true in large cities such as Kabul, where the Mujahideen have imposed a fundamentalist view of religion.

In the United States, many conflicts with American society among and within Afghan Americans can be traced to Islamic traditions, history, and identity. Muslims avoid alcohol and all pork products. During Ramadan—the period of fasting—eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual activity are forbidden during the day. Also difficult for Afghan American youth is the fact that Islam discourages marriage outside the faith. There is, however, a disparity in the consequences of these types of marriages based on gender. A son who marries a non-Muslim is accepted, because it is assumed that his new wife will convert to Islam. However, when a daughter marries a non-Muslim, she is shunned. She is seen as a traitor to her family and her religion.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Afghan Americans have found occupations in a variety of careers. The growing number of Afghan and Middle Eastern restaurants in this country is a testimony to their hard work and excellent cuisine. For many Afghan Americans who are college-educated, their positions in government or American industry are prestigious ones. For many other immigrants, the route to economic stability was in self-sufficiency. Thus, many exert themselves in sales of ethnic items at flea market and garage sales. Immigrants to the San Francisco Bay area have found work in computer components companies. Others, especially first-generation immigrants, work as taxi cab drivers, babysitters, and convenience store owners and workers. Their children, earning a high school diploma and college degree, soon move into their own professional careers in ways identical to that of all other Americans.

Afghan American men especially have found it difficult to achieve positions befitting their experience, education, and economic needs. They have often found it necessary to apply for public assistance, contributing to their sense of the difficulty of life in the United States. Even in those families that have achieved some measure of success and financial stability, there has been a cost, both in time expended and in the loss of traditions. In families in which virtually every member of the family works, perhaps at more than one job, the wholeness of a family becomes fragile, and the cultural roles played by each family member begin to disintegrate. This economic necessity extends even to the children in Afghan American families, who often work rather than engage in extracurricular activities or other community or school programs. The need to constantly work to survive inevitably contributes to an immigrant community's sense of otherness, its isolation, and its lack of acculturation. Despite these obstacles, changes have come to the Afghan American community. These changes include increases in the rate of home ownership and increased numbers of youth going on to higher education and professional school.

Politics and Government

Political activities of Afghan Americans by the 1990s were directed primarily toward ending the Soviet occupation of their home country. As such, they worked with organizations such as Free Afghanistan, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to lobby governments and organizations to exert pressure on Russia. The pronounced ethnic divisions that characterize the people of Afghanistan also serve to polarize Afghan Americans. Although those divisions may decrease over time, they sometimes play a role in local politics, and have interfered with the establishment of community service programs. The relations that Afghan Americans have with their home country demonstrate they were an immigrant people eager to return home. Because of continued fighting even after the Russian withdrawal, and often because of the fundamentalist rule, especially in Afghan urban areas, many Afghan Americans recognize that a return home is receding into the distant future.


A factor that strongly influences Afghan Americans' sense of tradition and culture is the maintenance of their close ties to family still in Afghanistan. This connection with their former country provides its share of tribulations as well. Because bloodshed is expected to continue in Afghanistan, and because few Afghan Americans expect to return to their homeland in the near future, they continue to suffer the trauma of hearing news of pain and suffering among their family and friends overseas. These sufferings include not only the civil war itself but also the continued displacement that it causes. Because it may take from six months (in Germany) to two or three years (in Pakistan) to obtain a visa to travel to the United States, their less fortunate family members experience deprivation and dwindling resources. Such a situation leads Afghan Americans to feel their distinctness in American culture even more, and perhaps to hold the West responsible for not doing enough to alleviate suffering overseas. It is common for Afghan Americans to send money to help their displaced relatives, because few organizations help these new refugees.

Another aspect of the relationship with Afghanistan is travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan to choose spouses for unmarried children and siblings in the United States. It is often felt among Afghan Americans that an American spouse is unacceptable and that Afghan American women have often become too "Americanized" to be appropriate mates. These journeys back to Asia preserve the Afghan culture in the United States and reinforce cultural identity. This pattern also shows an emotional distance from the culture in which Afghan Americans now live.

Immigrants who are refugees from war are at distinct disadvantages to immigrants who choose to come to the United States for other reasons. However, it was the war in Afghanistan that has unified some segments of the Afghan American population, as it seeks to provide supplies and aid to Afghan rebels and, after the Russian withdrawal, to those trying to rebuild their lives. Some Afghan Americans also have become politically adept at demanding that the U.S. government act more strongly to support their country.

Although heterogeneous, the Afghan American community came together in a successful effort to provide humanitarian supplies to more than 600,000 refugees who had fled Kabul. Headed by the Afghan Women's Association International, based in Hayward, California, the group solicited and collected blankets, clothing, and food totaling 100,000 pounds and shipped them to Jalalabad. This, coupled with strong ties to family members still in Afghanistan, leads to a cultural bond that makes the community stronger.

Individual and Group Contributions

Afghan Americans have proven themselves capable of many great things. However, aside from more traditional examples of success, such as academic achievement, an immigrant group's success may be measured in more mundane but often more culturally demonstrative ways. This success at assimilation was seen in Waheed Asim, a 19-year-old Afghan immigrant, who in 1990 was named Dominos Pizza's three-time national champion pizza maker. Asim worked at a store in Washington, DC and he held a world record for the fastest pizza assembly.

Another example of a young Afghan American who had made strides in a new country that her ancestors could never have imagined was 17-year-old Yasmine Begum Delawari. She is the daughter of Afghan immigrants and a Los Angeles high school student who was crowned the 1990 Rose Queen on October 24, 1989.


Mohammed Jamil Hanifi (1935– ) is a professor of anthropology at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, and has done much research on life in Afghanistan. He wrote Islam and the Transformation of Culture (Asia Publishing House, 1974) and Historical and Cultural Dictionary of Afghanistan (Scarecrow, 1976). Nake M. Kamrany (1934– ) has had a distinguished career as a university professor in economics, primarily at the University of Southern California. His published works include Peaceful Competition in Afghanistan: American and Soviet Models for Economic Aid (Communication Service Corporation, 1969), The New Economics of the Less Developed Countries (Westview Press, 1978), Economic Issues of the Eighties (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), and U.S. Options for Energy Independence (Lexington Books, 1982).


Najib Ullah (1914– ) has led a remarkable career of public service and university teaching. He served in the League of Nations Department of Foreign Office in the 1930s. He also served as the Afghan ambassador to India (1949–1954), to England (1954–1957), and to the United States (1957–1958). He works at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Teaneck, New Jersey, as a professor of history. His writings include Political History of Afghanistan (two volumes, 1942–1944), Negotiations With Pakistan (1948), and Islamic Literature (Washington Square, 1963).



Afghanistan Council Newsletter.

A quarterly newsletter, published by the Afghanistan Council of the Asia Society, that publishes excerpts from other worldwide media regarding Afghanistan and news of Afghan organizations in the United States. It also prints feature articles, book reviews, and news summaries from Afghanistan.

Contact: Afghanistan Council of the Asia Society.

Address: 725 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10021.

Afghanistan Mirror.

A national Islamic monthly publication.

Contact: Dr. Sayed Khalilullah Hashemyan.

Address: P.O. Box 408, Montclair, California 91763.

Telephone: (714) 626-8314.

Afghan News.

Address: 141-39-78 Road, #0342, Flushing, New York 11755.

Telephone: (718) 361-0342.

Afghanistan Voice.

Address: P.O. Box 104, Bloomingdale, New Jersey 07403.

Telephone: (973) 838-6072.

Ayendah E-Afghan.

Contact: Nisar Ahmad Zuri, Publisher and Editor.

Address: P.O. Box 8216, Rego Park, New York 11374.

Telephone: 718-699-1666.

Critique & Vision.

An Afghan journal of culture, politics, and history.

Contact: Dr. S. Wali Ahmadi, Editor.

Address: Asian & Middle Eastern Languages & Cultures, B-27 Cabell Hall, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia 22903.


A monthly publication of the Afghan Refugees' Cultural Society.

Contact: Mohammad Qawey Koshan, Editor.

Address: P.O. Box 4611, Hayward, California 94540.

Telephone: (510) 783-9350.

Omaid Weekly.

Contact: Mohammad Qawey Koshan.

Address: P.O. Box 4611, Hayward, California 94540-4611.

Telephone: (510) 783-9350.

Voice of Peace.

Address: Afghanistan Peace Association, 5858 Mount Alifan Drive, Suite 109, San Diego, California 92111.

Telephone: (619) 560-8293.


"Azadi Afghan Radio" (WUST-AM 1120).

Contact: Omar Samad.

Address: 2131 Crimmins Lane, Falls Church, Virginia 22043.

Telephone: (703) 532-0400.

Fax: (703) 532-5033.

"Da Zwanano Zagh" (AM 990).

Broadcast Sundays from 5 PM until 6 PM.

Address: P.O. Box 7630, Fremont, California 94537.

Telephone: (510) 505-8058.


Organizations and Associations

Afghan Community in America.

This organization provides aid to persons who are in need due to the war in Afghanistan.

Contact: Habib Mayar, Chairman.

Address: 139-15 95th Avenue, Jamaica, New York 11346.

Telephone: (212) 658-3737.

Afghan Refugee Fund.

Founded in 1983, the group supplies medical, vocational, and educational relief to Afghanistan refugees.

Contact: Robert E. Ornstein, President.

Address: P.O. Box 176, Los Altos, California 94023.

Telephone: (415) 948-9436.

Afghan Relief Committee, Inc. (ARC).

The ARC provides assistance to Afghans located throughout the world.

Contact: Gordon A. Thomas, President.

Address: 40 exchange Place, Suite 1301, New York, New York 10005.

Telephone: (212) 344-6617.

Afghanistan Council of the Asia Society.

Founded in 1960, the Afghanistan Council seeks to introduce Afghan culture to the United States. Its coverage includes archeology, folklore, handicrafts, politics and history, and performing and visual arts. The Afghanistan Council also aids in producing and distributing educational materials.

Address: 725 Park Avenue, New York, New York 10021.

Afghanistan Studies Association (ASA).

Organization of scholars, students, and others who seek to extend and develop Afghan studies. The ASA helps in the exchange of information between scholars; identifies and attempts to find funding for research needs; acts as a liaison between universities, governments, and other agencies; and helps scholars from Afghanistan who are working in the United States.

Contact: Thomas E. Gouttierre, Director.

Address: c/o Center for Afghan Studies, University of Nebraska, Adm. 238, 60th and Dodge, Omaha, Nebraska 68182-0227.

Telephone: (402) 554-2376.

Fax: (402) 554-3681.


Online: .

Aid for Afghan Refugees.

Founded in 1980, this organization provides assistance to Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and helps in their relocation to Northern California.

Contact: Michael Griffin, President.

Address: 1052 Oak Street, San Francisco, California 94117.

Telephone: (415) 863-1450.

Help the Afghan Children, Inc. (HTAC).

This organization, founded in 1993, is dedicated to helping Afghan children who are refugees and victims of warfare. It has opened clinics that were created and operated by Afghans. HTAC also has implemented home-based education program for girls.

Address: 4105 North Fairfax Drive, Suite 204, Arlington, Virginia 22203.

Telephone: (703) 524-2525.

Society of Afghan Engineers.

Formed in 1993, this group seeks to foster international support and encourage financial and technical assistance for the reconstruction and prosperity of Afghanistan.

Address: 14011-F Saint Germain Court, Suite 233, Centreville, Virginia 20121.

Telephone: (703) 790-6699.

Museums and Research Centers

Afghanistan Research Materials Survey.

This research group aims to compile a comprehensive bibliography of all that has been written about Afghanistan, including many major unpublished writings. The group seeks to include works in European languages, Dari, Pashto, and Urdu. It also provides information about Afghan archives in Europe and the United States.

Contact: Professor Nake M. Kamrany.

Address: Department of Economics, University of Southern California, University Park, Los Angeles, California 90007.

Telephone: (213) 454-1708.

Center for Afghan Studies.

This Center, housed in a university department, provides courses in all aspects of Afghan culture, in addition to language training in Dari.

Contact: Thomas E. Gouttierre, Director.

Address: University of Nebraska, P.O. Box 688, Omaha, Nebraska 68182.

Telephone: (402) 554-2376.

Fax: (402) 554-3681.


Online: .

Sources for Additional Study

Clifford, Mary Louise. The Land and People of Afghanistan. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1989.

Encyclopedia of Multiculturalism. Edited by Susan Auerbach. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1994.

Foster, Laila Merrell. Afghanistan. New York: Grolier, 1996.

Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban. Edited by William Maley. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Lipson, Juliene G., and Patricia A. Omidian. "Afghans." In Refugees in America in the 1990s: A Reference Handbook, edited by David W. Haines. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996.

——. "Health Issues of Afghan Refugees in California," Western Journal of Medicine, 157: 271-275.

Marsden, Peter. The Taliban: War, Religion and the New Order in Afghanistan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Rubin, Barnett R. The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation & Collapse in the International System. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1995.

Vollmann, William T. An Afghanistan Picture Show. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992.

User Contributions:

Here is some interesting background reading on Afghan Americans.
The long one-piece garment may be called a chadri by some, but it has been introduced to Americans via the press as the "burqa". I don't know why this is not the word used in your article on Afghan Americans. In Iran women wear a black one-piece garment without a mesh face covering called a chador. Could there be some confusion between the two countries here? Thank you.
Hey, thanks so much for this info and your hard work! I've been researching Afghan immigration for a social studies project and it's been a pain to find anything about it. Again, thanks!
Emily Vosseller
I'm looking into ways I can volunteer to teach English to Afghan women who are new to the U.S. I live in south New Jersey. Can you point me in the right direction?
Looking for a chart or timeline on the immigration history and demographics in the United States on the Afghan people.
I am doing a research on the short and log term impacts of war on afghan children refugees in the United States. There has been little research done (that I can find). However, I am looking into similar research done in Australia and Canada on Afghans and other children-of-war. Please contact me if there is anything that would help me with my dissertation on this topic.
I am an Afghan Refugee woman living in Northern CA. I immigrated in 1981 to the States.
I recently finished writing my story " Lifting the Chaderi", lots of information on Afghans
and their Journies as refugees, during Russian invasion, Mujahedeen and Taliban.
It'll be on Amazan soon.
Let me know if there is questions.
Someone metioned Chaderi. It's different then what Irany women wear. It covers the face and whole body. There is a rectangle 2x4 net in front of the eyes to see.
Thank you for helping me learn about my parent's homeland. I appreciate it so much! God bless!
Thank you for the info i am doing a report on this
This really helped me with my work in Global Studies thanks! (yes im working on afghan americans)
Jesus Chaparro
Thanks for your article, it has been very useful to me, Im going to use some of your information in a clollege research work.
This piece was excellent, really helped on my research paper. Thanks!

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