New Soil, Same Roots
Unfamiliar. Hot. Isolated. Colorless.
The white tents of the U.S. refugee camps seemed a million miles away from home for the thousands of refugees arriving to them. The government overthrow in Afghanistan had forced many people—some having only minutes to prepare—to abandon everything they owned.
For the 65,000 Afghans who were evacuated to the United States in September 2021, many of their thoughts became consumed with mere efforts of survival—a concern which would not be removed from their lives for some time to come.
This sudden influx of refugees—the largest group the United States has seen since the end of the Vietnam War—put strain on the structure set up to receive them. The government hastily transformed U.S military bases into makeshift refugee camps as planeloads of Afghans began to arrive, fleeing from the political collapse of their home country.
Forming small cities, these large white tents became the place where refugees slept, ate, and lived in close proximity to one another. Such conditions can leave occupants vulnerable to disease, as evidenced by the measles cases reported in the very first week of the program to accommodate Afghans.
After surviving the disease and the shock of the refugee camps, Afghans were faced with a new hurdle to overcome: resettlement. As the U.S. government resettles refugees, they offer only 90 days of further aid for food, housing, clothing, employment, counseling, medical care, and other immediate needs. After the 90 days have passed, the refugees are left to fend for themselves.
As these Afghans adjusted to life in refugee camps and their new lives after resettling, the immediate need to survive became less pressing, and their hearts began to ache for home—that heritage that cannot be replaced with another culture’s traditions.
At first, these reminders of home are simple things. Kids, usually the quickest to snap back, find a ball and start up a game of soccer. After all, soccer pops up just about anywhere children can find an object round enough to kick back and forth.
It’s a taste of normalcy for kids who spent years playing soccer with their friends at home. For kids, ever resilient, it isn’t too much of a leap to go from playing soccer in the schoolyards of Afghanistan to the alleys of a refugee camp to a high school soccer team in Ohio. For this reason, refugee organizations like Mercy Corps encourage soccer playing by soliciting donations of lightly used children’s soccer cleats.
Sometimes, a culture isn’t so easily transferable. Maintaining cultural heritage can be a double-edged sword for refugees who integrate into life in the country where they sought asylum. Resettled refugees are bombarded with the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of an entirely new culture. Reconciling this with traditions of their old home can become hard to juggle at times.
Particularly for children who migrated at a young age or were born after their family fled, the conflicting aspects of their cultural heritage and their new home’s culture can lead to something of an identity crisis.
Arao Ameny, a Ugandan refugee who migrated to the United States as a child, reflected that “As a child of immigrant parents . . . you are constantly straddling two worlds—reconciling, negotiating, and trying to make sense of both worlds.”
For those immigrants who find themselves walking this fine line, some of their new experiences may bolster their understanding of the new country, while others will allow them to integrate aspects of their cultural heritage into their daily lives.
Only some refugees are able to flee to a country with a familiar language; others, like Maryam, an Afghan woman, can speak only the language of their home country. In a video for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHRC), Maryam explains, in her native tongue of Pashto, that more than anything, refugees “want a normal life just like everyone else.”
A normal life, for some refugees, means learning an entirely new language. Many find themselves fumbling through interactions with cashiers or their children’s teachers, trapped in the unique discomfort that comes from speaking a foreign language that is entirely new. The freedom to speak in their native tongue is a relief, and this is one of the reasons that refugees so often band together into tightly knit communities.
From these communities comes a careful preservation and expansion of the heritage that they carried with them across the border of their home country.
One of the aspects of this preservation is one that is an essential part of every culture: food. For refugees, maintaining cultural food can be difficult because of external circumstances.
In a refugee camp, refugees may or may not cook their own meals, depending on how permanent the camp is. Many refugee camps survive on some combination of donated food and food that can cheaply feed massive groups of people. For resettled refugees, ingredients that were common in their homeland may not be easily accessible where they live now.
Nonetheless, food is a part of cultural heritage that refugees rally around. In addition to continuing to cook traditional dishes, some refugees contribute to cookbooks, compiled with other refugees, that serve as a way to celebrate their cultural heritage and pass it on to their children.
Food can be a good way to revive or maintain traditions because, for refugees, it’s often an aspect of home that doesn’t rehash the circumstances that forced refugees out of their homes. With many refugees fleeing their home countries because of traumatic events, balancing memories of the good and the bad things about their home country can be a thin line to tread at times. Many refugee parents want to remind their children of the place where they grew up, but doing so can trigger PTSD or result in reliving other harmful memories.
Like food, art is an avenue that focuses on the positives of a cultural heritage. Along with being an opportunity for a cathartic release, art offers a unique opportunity to preserve aspects of a heritage that is otherwise lost.
One Syrian refugee used a specific art project to do just that: to remind himself and other Syrian refugees of their cultural heritage. Mahmoud Hariri, formerly an art teacher, created rudimentary tools from materials found around his refugee camp and began to construct models of sites from his home country.
Many children in the Zaatari refugee camp have never seen these landmarks—and likely never will: most of the landmarks Hariri depicts have already been destroyed. For these children, Hariri’s artwork is the most direct connection that they have to their distant homeland.
Other art forms, like textile arts, are born out of necessity. Um Shadee, another Syrian refugee, preserves cultural heritage in creating clothing for herself and other refugees. Like many other refugees, Shadee fled her homeland with nothing but the clothes on her back. She makes the best of her situation by fondly reflecting that “the most important thing she brought with her is her husband, Abu.”
Shadee was able to replenish her closet using her experience with sewing and knitting —a skill she passes on to young adolescents in her refugee camp.
Like Shadee, Hariri, and Maryam, the thousands of displaced Afghans will find ways to press on, preserving and celebrating their culture, which is ingrained deeper than the planes and boats that carried them away from their beloved country.
If this trip proves to be a permanent move, as it does for many refugees, Afghans can find comfort in the community around them: the community which will continue to create tributes to their culture, their heritage, and most importantly, their homeland.