By Sharon Simonson
SANTA CLARA, Calif.—As young children, Afghan sisters Hasina and Somaya Qaderi scampered through dusty streets once shared by soldiers under command of Alexander the Great. In their native Herat, an enormous citadel built in the early 14th century still occupies the same site as Alexander’s fort. The citadel’s turreted walls rise high and stern from the central hilltop, a weighty symbol of the 2,500 years of civilized history that underlie the modern city’s expression.
Herat is 7,500 miles from the suburban Santa Clara ranch home that the women now own and share with their parents. Even that enormous distance doesn’t measure the intellectual, psychological and emotional chasm that the sisters have leapt in the last 12 years, and in some ways since their births.
The soaring Great Mosque of Herat, visible from their grandmother’s home, is one of the oldest in Afghanistan. Its sweeping central plaza accommodates 10,000 people in community prayer. Their Santa Clara home, with burnished wooden floors and rich red handwoven Afghan rugs, is nearly equidistant from the new San Francisco 49ers Levi’s Stadium where crowds as large as 75,000 people are expected to assemble.
The family bought the Santa Clara home in late 2013, twelve years after Hasina and Somaya came to the Bay Area knowing only the place name San Francisco, speaking no English and never hearing the phrase “dot-com.”
“I love this house,” Hasina said.
“We love the city of Santa Clara,” Somaya adds. “We just love this city.”
Silicon Valley has treated them well. Both have good jobs, friends. Both feel safe and are grateful to be where they are. At the same time, they live with feet in two worlds.
Communications technologies, many created in Silicon Valley in the years since their arrival, allow them to speak regularly with—and often to see—three married sisters and a married brother who remain in Afghanistan. Satellite-delivered television, including programming independent of the Afghan government through TOLO TV, keeps them informed of events. Images from home bring solace—but burdens too: “When my parents are here, we watch more Afghan TV, and sometimes I feel so helpless,” Hasina said. “I don’t want to think about it, and it just drives me crazy. I don’t even know where I am any more.”
At work, Somaya’s manager has offered professional advancement, but Somaya is wary of additional stress. A childhood of migration and years of cultural acclimation have tested her resilience. She speaks of the instant communication between her and other immigrants—regardless of home country—who “share the same pain because they have had to leave their families and their own culture,” she said.
Afghanistan has been the world’s top producer of refugees—people forced to leave their countries to escape war, persecution or natural disasters—for 32 years. A quarter of the world’s 15.4 million refugees are Afghans, according to the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees.
With the Soviet invasion in 1979, (itself precipitated by political upheaval), the country experienced a decade of foreign occupation, followed, beginning in the mid-1990s, by civil war and the Taliban’s overthrow of government. With five daughters (and three sons), their father, a prominent merchant and food distributor, moved the family to neighboring Iran and its closest large town, Masshad. Hasina was 3-years-old and Somaya, 8. Their dad stayed behind to manage the business, commuting to Iran as he could.
Afghan children in Iran were limited to an Afghan school, set in a house where teachers conducted classes in former bedrooms. Students sat on floors and held books on their knees. Hasina began school in Iran, and despite conditions, remembers the experience with fondness. “Even basic English I learned from that school,” she said. But Iran never felt like home.
Four years later, the family returned to Afghanistan but within a short time fled again to Iran. Hasina and Somaya remained there until 2000, when at ages 17 and 22 respectively, they boarded an airplane bound for the Bay Area to marry two first cousins. Hasina was so shy it pained her to speak even in front of family members.
The marriages were unsuccessful, leaving the women in uncomfortable limbo with no means to establish a separate existence, starting with their culture’s deep social revulsion to divorce and no history of work. To sleep, they shared a small office in their in-laws’ home (their former mother-in-law is their father’s sister). They worked during the day caring for children in the home.
Liberation began after Hasina secured a cashier’s job at Home Depot despite a still fleeting grasp of English learned from the kids and steady exposure to the television series “Barney and Friends.” Within a matter of months, she became a head cashier and eventually the manager of the millworks department. In 2006, with their parents’ blessings, the sisters rented a Milpitas apartment and left their in-laws’ home; they had no furniture or food. “We were like two prisoners getting out of prison. Physically and mentally, it drained us. We didn’t care where we were going; we were just happy we weren’t in that house,” Hasina said.
Their first and best Silicon Valley friends have been Asian Indians, a group with whom they share a cultural affiliation and language. The initial connections came through English classes at a local community college and employment. Somaya is now a sales associate for a national retailer, and Hasina has worked for The Moulding Co. for seven years and is now a manager.
“I would never imagine that Hasina and I could live in a place by ourselves. Females are always dependent on the guys, and you have to have somebody in your life to support you,” Somaya said.
But, the sisters yearn for the emotional integrity of life in their native home shared with siblings, nieces and nephews, and other family. Missing a brother’s wedding several years ago still bothers Hasina. Travel cost and distance are prohibitive. Two more cousins recently fled the country because they no longer felt safe enough to stay. “I never thought things would be like this,” Hasina said. “I was born in Afghanistan, and it is part of me.”
She avoids thinking about the future and does not want to go back now. “I don’t think I would be useful. As a woman, there is still not a lot of freedom to work outside the home. I would end up staying in the house and getting married to someone I had never seen before,” she said. But she is not sad: “One of the reasons I get up and smile every day is, I think, ‘What I have, there is a person out there who doesn’t have it. You may be the luckiest one out there and don’t know it.’”