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Young Afghan Americans Exploring Their Roots

Culture: College-age immigrants find a new interest in a nation many of them hardly knew.

November 04, 2001|KIMI YOSHINO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years, Abdul Shapar, 21, didn't want to think about the pain.

But now, he forces himself to relive the memories of waking as a child to the sound of crashing bombs, shattered windows and the heat closing in around his home. He remembers death and violence, fear and terror. His crying mother. The Soviet spies who lived next door.

And he remembers fleeing Afghanistan on horseback on a path lined with empty bullet shells, animal carcasses and cavernous holes where bombs had left their mark.

"I was ashamed of being what we are," said Shapar, now a student at UC Irvine. "There was so much sadness, tragedy, murder, death [caused by the Taliban]. I didn't want to deal with it."

But since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Shapar has been finding his way back to his roots. Like many other young Afghans with a renewed interest in their culture and history, Shapar has joined a campus group, the Afghan Future Generation Club, which has tripled in size since the attacks. Last year, a smattering of seven or so students attended meetings; now more than 20 come, and the club roster has grown to 35.

College-age Afghan Americans, many of whom were children when they fled their war-torn country, are suddenly and decisively finding their voice. Many are holding campus rallies to speak out against terrorism and to tell the public that Afghanistan is not a bad country, but the victim of bad people.

Even Shapar, who cannot shed the pain that goes hand in hand with being Afghan, is committed to the cause: "I have to do something to change people's minds. I can't stand the ignorance."

The students are sick of the stereotypes. Microphone in hand, they speak out on campus quads to anyone who will listen. With an indignant air, they rattle off the truths they must drive home.

None of the hijackers were Afghan. Osama bin Laden is not Afghan. The country has not always been in the Stone Age. Women were not always forced into constricted lives.

They wave pictures of starving children. Then they point to pictures from their own family photo albums, the way things used to be with cars, nice homes, their mothers wearing fashionable dresses.

'It's Our Time to Raise Our Voice'

"A lot of people have the wrong facts," said Hawaa Ali, 20, president of the UC Irvine student club. "Everybody sees this as a window of opportunity. Interest has been increased. More people have joined. . . . It's our time to raise our voice."

It is not surprising that a group of college students would be inspired to activism. In fact, it is practically a rite of passage.

"It's fairly typical for students to seek and search out their cultural identity and religion," said Richard Yuen, assistant dean of students at Stanford University and director of the Asian American Activities Center. "It's a time for exploration."

Students are suddenly expected to become experts on their culture and history. Their friends and classmates might be asking questions never posed before, Yuen said.

"Where the uniqueness might come in is that the spotlight is now on people from Afghanistan . . . and people from the Middle East," Yuen said. "The whole region now has become a focal point for Americans and probably the world over."

Yuen, like other Americans, said he suddenly wants to learn more. His office, for example, is near the site where Muslim students gather each Friday to pray. Despite the proximity, Yuen never peeked in.

But recently, the Muslim Student Assn.--backed by college administrators--hosted an outdoor, public prayer session. And for the first time, Yuen went.

Students Organize Informational Panel

Afghan students are taking advantage of that curiosity. At Cal State Fullerton, Diba Ghishtelai and Ilaha Omaar, both 22, and a few of their friends took it upon themselves to organize an informational panel during lunchtime last week.

Without the backing of a club, the students sought assistance from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. They produced their own fliers and informational pamphlets and spoke on the panel themselves.

The first day of their two-day event drew more than 100 people. The audience was not Afghan American, but students and faculty of all races.

Fauzia Assifi, one of the founders of the Afghan Women's Assn. of Southern California, said she has received e-mail and phone calls from several young Afghans who are volunteering their services or looking for a mentor. She calls it an "awakening."

Shapar finds his experience almost healing. He has come to realize that the fright and hurt associated with the flight from Afghanistan will never disappear. He no longer tries to ignore it. Instead, he faces it head on. He shares his story. He talks politics with his parents--a former teacher and assistant police chief in Afghanistan--who are happy that he is embracing his heritage.

And the boy who dreamed of being a war general and saving Afghanistan is becoming a man, arming himself with an education instead of a gun. The new dreams are just as noble.

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