Many Afghan refugees are finding home again. That’s reason to give thanks

I got the call in the evening, as the sun was going down over Rwanda: President Paul Kagame wants to meet you. Tomorrow. Please take a PCR test in the morning. You’ll meet the president in his office at 2 p.m.

Wonderful, I thought. There’s so much I want him to know. I started lining up anecdotes in my mind, stories that would highlight the extraordinary reception the Rwandan people have given every single member of SOLA, my Afghan girls’ school, since our arrival here in August. I wanted to speak about kindness, and sensitivity, and humanity.

And I decided the best way to do this was to tell him: Rwandans are merciless on the soccer field.

Picture this: a SOLA team of male players, both Afghan natives and Rwandan employees, taking on a Rwandan team of men from the community near our campus. We lost 7-1. That score makes it sound closer than it was. We were outplayed, outrun, outshot – to the point that, after the game, I heard one of my Afghan colleagues accuse his Rwandan teammate of being a double agent for the opposing side and not to expect any more passes to come his way when the rematch happens. Both men laughed.

This was the moment I fully appreciated the depth of our acceptance here in our adopted nation.

You only joke with people you’re comfortable with. You only go down in a tailspin of defeat on the soccer field when the opposing team respects you enough not to pity you.

They beat us, and they shook our hands afterward. Like equals.

And when you’re a refugee, whether you’re in the heart of Africa or on the doorstep of Europe or entering the communities of America, that’s all you’re asking for.

It’s Thanksgiving week. This isn’t a holiday I grew up with in Afghanistan, but it’s one I’ve come to embrace.

And I sit here today, I think about one of our SOLA families who came with us to Rwanda, a family that had a terrible experience years ago as refugees in a nation much closer to Afghanistan. They’ve rented a small apartment, and when they moved in, their landlord came by with a few pounds of halal meat. This is for you, he said – soon you’ll find markets where you can shop according to Muslim dietary needs, but right now, take this as a gift.

I think about the Rwandans who live near our campus, men and women whom we see every day and who have taught themselves words of greeting in Pashto and Dari, the national languages of Afghanistan. We know what it means to be refugees, they tell us. We know what loss feels like. You’re welcome here. This is home now.

And it goes both ways: I think about my Afghan colleague who, as we settled into life here, asked his Rwandan counterparts to teach him two phrases in Kinyarwanda, the national language. The first phrase was: “How much does this cost?” The second phrase was: “This is too expensive . . . how about half?”

Afghans will always be Afghans, I suppose. I find comfort in that.

Three months ago, the world we knew went away. Kabul had fallen. We boarded planes bearing only backpacks and handbags and the weight of our memories.

And on the night we arrived in this nation, the first group of Rwandans we met weren’t immigration officers. They were trauma counselors. On that night they invited us to lay down our burdens, and belong.

As I was leaving our campus to visit Kagame, I passed one of my female colleagues. She was in the kitchen, baking bread.

“I’m going to see the president,” I said. “Wish me luck.”

“Good luck,” she said, and she looked up from her work. “I’ve been a refugee before. We felt like prisoners. Here, we feel free. Tell him that.”

So I did.

As in Rwanda, so too in America. I follow the stories at a distance: Afghan children learning English and creating friendships as they take their first classes in U.S. schools. Afghan families arriving in American communities to be greeted with gift baskets and kindness as they prepare to celebrate their first-ever Thanksgiving.

I follow the stories at a distance, but they feel so familiar.

To be seen not as exceptional or pitiable, but as equal. This is all any refugee asks of you when she stands at a border, at that invisible line between her and a new world.

This is what life looks like when you’ve lost a place to call home, and then found it again, if only for a while.

Happy Thanksgiving.

– – –

Shabana Basij-Rasikh, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is co-founder and president of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan.

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