Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I was witnessed to the truth of this statement this past weekend at the very first Afghan-American Conference at UC Berkeley. While I don’t know what changes we’ll see in the future, I am certain that something has started.
Eight committed individuals organized the conference and drew in the brightest and most dedicated of the Afghan-American community to gather, discuss, and strategize as a group for the future of our people.
The organizers were Farhat Hanifi, Salmon Hossein, Sophie Hossein, Gina Karimi, Husna Mohammadi, Zachia Nazarzai, Arzo Wardak, and Samera Yousuf. These young, aspiring, and intrepid individuals envisioned a space where members of the Afghan-American community could gather and address pressing issues and make new networks and alliances.
The conference took place over three days from April 10th-12th. I unfortunately missed Friday evening as I was attending another conference which I was presenting at and couldn’t fly out until later that evening. However I was there bright and early Saturday.
The weekend included several presentations by Afghan-Americans passionate about sharing their ideas and inspiring change. We had talks about everything from the spirit of ingenuity in technological advancement, collective guilt, decolonizing our mind, reshaping our narrative, why men should be feminists and much more. Each talk was short, impactful, and profound.
In addition to the talks, each day was divided up into professional panels, cultural roundtables, and safe space caucuses. Topics ranged from education, public policy, mental health, arts and entertainment, how to build student associations, gender dynamics, mentorship and more.
Many of these ran concurrently, but each was well-attended. Zachia and I facilitated the education roundtable where we were joined by individuals interested in addressing the education problems faced by the community and making a change in the system itself. It was a predominantly female group with only one other man in the room. In fact the entire conference had a higher rate of successful female attendees, which challenges the traditional paternalistic and orientalist stereotype of Afghan women.
At the education roundtable we raised concerns, identified specific areas that required further attention, and strategized on long-term solutions. We agreed to form an ongoing committee that will work together from our various localities to address the issues and concerns we identified. I walked away not only feeling inspired with a strategy in mind, but having made fast friends and strong allies across the country.
After a brief respite for delicious lunch, we regrouped for skill-based workshops. I attended a discussion on creating sustainable nationwide mentorship programs led by Samim Abedi and Samera Yousuf. Like the roundtable, it was geared toward discussion versus presentation. The room was full of educated young professionals all with great ideas for what a mentorship program would look like. Taking turns, people shared their hopes and made suggestions on what practices and platforms would best assist the community in building a network of potential mentors.
While no concrete plan was agreed upon, the attendees formulated a rough idea. The group envisioned a database of willing participants capable of mentoring or giving advice for those seeking out each of the fields we represent. There was talk about expanding the format in a way beyond the professional to include a more social and communal element. For a disparate community, I believe that levels of interaction across platforms is essential. It goes beyond being friends on facebook, to engaging with one another’s work, seeing each other as sources of knowledge and experience, and working together collectively. In the ideal this would work horizontally as well as vertically, reaching across fields to locate expertise, but also to reach younger generations and provide tools to navigate their career paths.
An image was emerging. From both the education and the mentorship groups, I could see the desire for young Afghan-Americans to connect with one another. The underlying implicit theme was deliberate and focused on community building.
In addition to addressing professional and educational issues, this conference created a safe space for men and women both to discuss issues of gender dynamics and double standards. Firstly both genders sat as a group with clear and focused guidance from Jahan Shahryar and Homaira Hosseini. Then later on Sunday a caucus was held for each gender to talk amongst themselves. Salmon Hossein and Shakieb Orgunwall led the men in their discussion.
While there wasn’t always agreement, everyone showed a courage to share, a willingness to tackle the problems faced by our community, and the drive to make changes. The issues faced by gender double-standards and oppressive patriarchy were all too real as the tragic death of Farkhunda was at the forefront of our thoughts and her spirit permeated the space.
The conference was not only a place of serious talk, but of the arts, culture, and getting to know one another. During dinner we had the opportunity to listen to the beauty of Afghan cultural expression as it is taking shape both here in the states and in Afghanistan. Sister and brother team, Gina and Samir Karimi combined piano playing with stirring tabla work—if you haven’t heard Beyonce`’s Halo played with an Afghan flair you are definitely missing out. We also got a chance to hear Kabul Dreams, the very first Afghan indie rock band which brought the house down. Qais Essar and his colleague strummed and drummed mellifluous and elaborate renditions of Afghan music on rubab and tabla. On Sunday, Saba moved us all with her powerful spoken word–there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
Of course what Afghan night could be complete without an attan—seriously look it up.
The weekend was over far too quick, but its impact is sure to continue for years to come. Fast friends were made, serious discussions were had, and change has begun. The Afghan-American people have been a marginalized, misrepresented, and underrepresented community for many years. This conference marks the beginning of a future that aims to change all of that. Of this much, I am certain.
I hope in the years to come the conference continues to evolve, more diversity of topics and interests are encouraged, and we as a community grow closer together.
I walk away a bit saddened at having to leave my newfound family far too soon, but comforted knowing that this was only beginning. Conferences like the AAC are about building a community, but are also about healing—healing the collective psychic trauma of a people displaced by the ravages of war and transplanted to a country not always friendly to people with brown skin tones and names like “Ali” “Muhammad” or “Madina.” This weekend began a process of healing the fractures and fissures in the Afghan American community. Through shared laughs, serious talks, and even a few shed tears we trek the long road towards building a brighter future.
You can find out more about the Afghan American Conference here: http://www.afghanamericanconference.com/
Read another attendees thoughts and feelings: http://mindbodyroooh.tumblr.com/post/116272639530/aac-2015
Fantastic blog post about the conference at Burqas and Beer: http://www.burqasandbeer.com/the-afghan-american-conference-a-new-beginning/