A wise old man with a snow-white-beard held my twin and I in his strong arms. He had a big belly and a sheep-skin hat named a Qarako‘l. He had just bought us an ice cream cone each--that was my first memory on this earth. The old man was not Santa Claus, he was my grandfather and he was even more generous. I was two years old then and was oblivious to the fatal war surrounding me in my birth-town Kabul, Afghanistan.
Always on the Move
My next memory takes me to New Delhi, India, where I was three years old and taken to pre-school to learn English and Math. We were five sisters and all in school at the same time (five sisters with a five year gap between my oldest sister and my youngest sister). Given these circumstances, my father decided that we needed to move to Bremen, Germany.
We were blessed because they were accepting applications for refugees at that time and although my father did not want to leave India, we decided to move, in order to pursue a prosperous future. The majority of people in Germany had no sense of what Islam was and neither did they have an idea of where Afghanistan was. We were just looked at as different because we didn’t have blue eyes and blond hair. For the first time, I was made aware of my background and phenotype and that I was never going to be able to fit in.
There, we spent the next nine years of our lives until my father visited my cousin on a special Island named Alameda, in state of California. Immediately, my father was mesmerized by the palm trees and the blue skies and the vastness of the ocean--the island appeared like a massive oasis.
When I was in middle school, I noticed the diversity of the world, upon moving to Alameda. Yet, I was constantly reminded of my differences because I spoke a different language at home and I dressed very different than my peers. I ate different food and I noticed feeling ashamed of the smell and the oily cauliflower and okra filled lunch-box that somehow spilled into my notebooks.
It was then that I realized at the age of 12 that to get the label of popularity - I had to sell my culture and my heritage. I was not sure what to do with this pressure, but I was blessed because I had four sisters who were just like me and I also faced the peer pressure daily with my twin as my bodyguard. This strengthened my confidence and soon I made friends with other people who naturally stood out.
However, none of the books that I read had characters that stood out and thus they didn’t support me with my integration process to the US. I was doing college level reading in middle school because my parents needed help with their homework, as I now recall these nostalgic moments, we all studied together on our dinner table after school.
9/11 shook my world too
When I was a junior in high school, the events of 9/11 occurred, which caused me to feel ashamed and confused because I did not understand why Afghanistan was incessantly on the news, when the planes crashed in New York. My classmate, in our Economics class, during my senior year said, “Why don’t we just nuke them all.”
I was a coward and remained silent in that room because I had no words. He was Mexican-American and the irony struck me very harshly, I felt betrayed by his skin color and his entire ethnic background. He opened up other feelings I tried to avoid - why was I feeling betrayed by my own people, by my own religion? I realized I needed to understand myself better and so I took a spiritual journey of self-discovery. I would say that I was actually starting to revive my internal relationship with Islam consciously--for the first time.
When I was in college, I realized that there were groups of Muslims that would congregate and plan events and functions to spread awareness. However, I was always very busy with my classwork as I majored in Biology. I also said to myself that I am not “one-of-those-Muslims.” I never made it to any events and to my regret lost most of my years hiding in the library, too insecure about passing my examinations to interact socially. This was the first time I bamboozled myself, because I could have used my own story to empower others, but I was still afraid. What was I afraid of? I was afraid of being judged and I was afraid of being embarrassed for I didn’t have the words to fight back and to defend my dignity and my Islam.
After college, travelling caused me to re-examine myself repeatedly, as others were naturally curious about my diverse background. I told everyone, I am a global citizen and have associations with a multitude of cultures, and like a farmer I chose the most deserving and ripe fruits in my basket of identity.
Forging my own path
I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school and I realized that our Muslim community didn’t lack doctors as they lacked mental health professionals. My parents didn’t trust the field and had very bad experiences and so they tried to discourage me from pursuing psychology--for my protection. This was the first time in my life that I stood up for my own ideas and yet I myself was unsure about what it might lead to. I decided that this was the only chance I had to prove myself to myself. I was terrified and was convinced that I made the wrong choice, no one in my graduate school was anything like me. I was one of the youngest and the only one who was not born in the US, and one of the two token colored students. I didn’t fit in with any of these people and I surely didn’t want to either, but with no twin as backup this time.
Somehow, I managed to work through the differences and began to build bridges of hope. I realized that if I shared my story, they might be able to heal others with similar situations. I also chose to drive three hours daily just to work with the Muslims for the City of Fremont as an elementary school counselor and crisis intern.
For the first time, I uplifted Muslim students who felt like they were finally represented in their own educational institution. I worked with high school students who decided that they no longer wanted to live on this earth. I was astounded, what happened to my beautiful Muslim community?
I started unraveling some of most terrifying realities of our ummah, people were not living by our beloved religion, but instead chose to be shackled by family expectations. The hypocrisy was clear in my mind and I decided that I needed to throw myself into the experiences that shaped my Muslim community’s daily life.
To broaden my scope, I then decided that I needed to work with non-Muslims as well. I was offered an opportunity to work through the YMCA with youth that were at-risk of being incarcerated, due to their family history with the criminal system. I also ran parent-teen workshops in order to reunite and repair relationships between broken families. Immersed in the ‘real world’, I didn’t think that I would be going back to school, until I was taken to a local jail in Greece for having Afghanistan printed on my US Passport.
I realized that my own human rights were violated, as a citizen of the United States. I came back that summer and decided that I needed to educate the global community and myself further. I found out about a program that offered a doctorate in Education with a concentration in Human Rights. I now am working for the Khalil Center, which is the longest standing Muslim Mental health center in the US.
Here, I am given a platform to work with Muslims from all over the Bay Area. I have also been travelling to UC Davis and UC Berkeley to discuss Muslim Mental health and how to empower and generate healing in times of trauma and destruction. I realize that my work is just starting, as I now serve as a guest speaker in Catholic high schools and public high schools all over the Bay Area.
Clearly, I still have a lot of work to do, because when I show a picture of my grandfather and ask the students to guess who it is now, they no longer say Santa Claus, they now say, “Is that Osama Bin Laden?”
Diba Ataie was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and grew up in Germany and has been living in the US for over 20 years. She is passionate about incorportating education and healing through an Islamic lens. She has a bachelor's in Biology, a master's in Psychology and is working on her dissertation in International Multicultural Education with a concentration in Human rights.
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