As I contemplated picking up my Afghan daughter for the Thanksgiving holiday, I thought about what I’d say to her in light of the recent presidential election. She was to stay with me at my home in Weston, Connecticut, not far from her college, where has become a much-loved member of my extended family in the community on the Aspetuck River known as Stonybrook. My good friends and neighbors sponsor her younger sister at boarding school in Connecticut, and she’d be with us for the holiday, too.
To clarify: She is not actually my daughter, since she has a loving mother and father back home in Kabul. But for the past five years, I have been her legal guardian in America—the one whose name is on her student visa.
She was born a female in what has been called the most dangerous place on earth for women. As a child, her mother carried her beneath her burqa to a secret, underground school for girls during the Taliban era. Nothing was easy for her, yet she persisted, and against all odds managed to get scholarship from a Catholic boarding school in America when she was just 15.
Now she’s a junior studying economics at a prestigious college in Connecticut with support from the Feminist Majority Foundation. (I’ll never forget the day she met its president and co-founder, Ellie Smeal, at a fundraiser in New York City for Women for Afghan Women.)
She is also a member of an ethnic minority in her own country, the Hazara. A double whammy, a woman and a Hazara. Over the past three centuries, Hazaras have been massacred, their lands have been stolen by countless Afghan governments, forcefully displaced. Called “slant eyes” and “flat nose” as a child because her features are somewhat Asian, my Afghan daughter has suffered quietly for years.
For her, America is the promised land. Her father, whom I have never met, is liberal and open-minded and most important, pragmatic. Never lose sight of your goal, he counseled her. And do not worry about fasting during Ramadan; you need your strength to study.
During her freshman year at college, she found herself in the position of defending America. She became friendly with scholarship students from Africa who derided the other college students, saying they were elitist and over-privileged and culturally blind. She met students from all over the world, including Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and India, some of whom were critical of America’s invasion of Iraq.
She was grateful to America. She asked me about the criticisms, and I would tell her that America was not above reproach. That we are not exceptional. Our history is complex. We built our country on the backs of slaves, and we have yet to really come to terms with this. And as she studied political science and economics and history, she began to see things differently. America remained her promised land, but it was an imperfect one. Far better than most, we agreed.
And then the election season hit. “Muslims, Go Home!” signs appeared. Donald Trump insulted the Kahns, the Muslim parents of a U.S. Army captain killed in Iraq. The unthinkable happened. He won. Immediately, Muslims in America began to fear they’d be deported. Darkly bitter jokes appeared on Facebook among the Afghan students here: Afghans are seeking asylum in—yep—Afghanistan!
She and I had not discussed what has just happened. In the midst of exams, she has tunnel vision, blocking out the world to get done what she has to get done to remain on the Dean’s List.
The day after the election, my daughter Lili, who was born in China and adopted by my late husband Gregory and me in 1994, texted her Afghan sister, telling her she loves her and is saddened by the election of Trump and the bad things being said about Muslims. At 22, they have grown closer than I ever imagined.
I decided to follow Lili’s lead. I reassure my Afghan daughter that we love her, that all Americans do not hate all Muslims, and that our democracy will endure. Most important, our extended family in Stonybrook is what truly matters—and together, we will write letters and go on marches and continue to fight for justice for all.