Mahnaz’ Story

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Could the moon be humble? Could it be so extraordinary that its humbleness would transmute in the form of moonlight? The “humble moon,” or the beauty and glory of the moon; that’s what my mother named me. Mah-naz translated, has a few meanings, and though in my childhood I despised my name, I evolved into its elucidation by adulthood.  I always believed I was magically embraced by a spirit of purpose for justice and healing. It was near impossible for me to view the world without the holistic lens of the collective, and I recall these intuitions from a very young age; making an impact in the foreseeable future. My only ignorance, was that as a small child, I never predicted my childhood would suffer from any losses, nor how that would impact me the rest of my life, until now.

Beyond a seemingly confident business owner, wife, and mother of two, lives a complex and cohesive set of experiences resulting from an excruciatingly disconcerting imposition of circumstances. My parents and older sister, refugees of the Afghan-Soviet war, arrived to the U.S. in 1981 to Salisbury, North Carolina. Initially they resided with my father’s sister who had a big house, but soon my father sought independence from living with family members. They moved and lived on a farm for a short while, and six months after I was born, we moved to Queens, New York, where there was a larger Afghan community. My father, Ahmad Ahrary, a political science graduate from Afghanistan, like many other refugees, had to work odd jobs to provide for us. Based on many immigrants’ success stories, he too, believed he would land success in the restaurant business. He partnered up with a close friend to start his own fried chicken venture. Sadly, he came home with a black eye a few times, as his business was not in a safe neighborhood, and he often came into contact with violent customers. An unforgettable gut-wrenching experience for my mother, was watching him transform from his professional business wardrobe in Afghanistan, to sweeping floors in the U.S.

During this time, my mother was not encouraged to work or pursue an education, even though she was a high school graduate from Kabul, with an excellent academic record. Rather, she was encouraged to stay home and take care of the children. My father was 16 years older than my mom, and though it was not arranged, it was technically not a love marriage either. At least until ten years later, my mother had really grown to love him in that sense.  She tried to teach herself English and the most advancement my father approved for her at the time was a typing course, which was offered for free. Although she was trying to catch up with language skills and fit in as a member society, she felt painfully out of place. This feeling led to a sense of inadequacy for years to come.

Shopping for groceries was a feat, consisting of strength and determination each time. I remember my mother carrying 10 bags of heavy groceries, 5 on each hand. Our apartment was in a very old building in Jamaica, and we all shared one bedroom. My father would sleep on the floor, with one bunk bed and full-size bed touching because the room was so small. Every night, I would hold my mother’s hand to fall asleep. My father was determined to learn English and would copy words from the dictionary into a small pocket-sized notebook he carried everywhere.  He spent a lot of time with my sister and I, and always made it a point to play games and go to the park or beach. His inner child made him an amazing father and his devotion to spending time with us, with the little free time he had, spoke volumes.

Regardless of his determination to succeed in his own business, his business failed. This led him to pursue a career he was very reluctant about, driving a yellow cab. I recall my parents arguing about the next best way for him to earn income late one evening. My mother disagreed, but he made the decision- he would drive a yellow-cab. His very first day on the job coincided with my first day of kindergarten, and I was ecstatic about starting school.  The afternoon of November 5th, 1987, my mother appeared frantic, already under stress from the recent loss of her father from a stroke.  We were staying with my grandmother, to mourn the loss of my grandfather for 40 days, as is the Islamic tradition. Everyone was praying as usual, but my uncles were mysteriously quiet, as my mother complained that she had not spoken to my father as usual that day. Apparently, they had known all along, that my father was in the hospital. The terrifying and shocking truth would be revealed later that day. As my mother became increasingly worried that evening, a loud knock at the door had the whole family alert and running to open it. I stood there watching quietly, my first day of kindergarten, never predicting that what I was about to witness would change me forever. Two NYPD police officers routinely stood at the door and asked for Fatana, my mother. As she approached them, they asked who Ahmad’s wife was and with her voice shaking and broken English, she said “I am, why what happened?” The police officer said, “I am sorry mam, but your husband is gone.” She said “Noooooo,” and broke out into a seizure-like wailing cry. She was shaking non-stop. Her brothers and sister took her and laid her on the bed, and I stood their frozen, not fully comprehending what had occurred. My 9-year-old sister crying and kept symbolizing a gun in her hand and pointing it to her head, telling me that our father had been shot in the head. I was still frozen, only concerned about the well-being of my mother, as I silently listened to her loud cries and uncontrollable shaking. The officers told us that my father was murdered in an apparent hold-up, though the police found his wallet with $10 in it. His killer was never found. Many cab-drivers were killed that year, and presumably not investigated.

NYTimes Article

My father’s murder transformed life for my mother in a way she would never expect. She came to this country, a refugee, fully dependent on her husband for income and shelter, for herself and her two daughters. We quickly had to get rid of his things and move in with my grandmother, who had just lost her husband too. It was a grieving environment. My three uncles and two aunts were also living in what now was a crowded 2-bedroom apartment. Plan B was to move to Alexandria, Virginia, where I continued my kindergarten year. Since then we moved back to New York, and within New York I went to 8 different elementary schools, 2 middle schools, and 2 high schools. We were in constant survival mode, and always lived with other family members, who were also here as refugees. Despite all the moving, I was a successful student, staying focused on my grades. I loved drawing, reading and writing poetry in my adolescence. I was a spiritual wanderer who would over-analyze the injustices of the world. As the first-generation college graduate in my family, I earned a B.S. in the Administration of Justice, and later pursued my M.S. in Educational Psychology, Learning & Decision Making in Leadership.

This wanderer watched my mother transform to a female refugee with little confidence and years of struggles and losses, to an independent woman with a career, who is the beloved matriarch of her family.  It took many years for her to overcome the trials throughout her life; her mother dying when she was only 2 years old, marrying someone 16 years her senior, immigrating to the U.S. due to war, having to start a new life, and just when things were veering toward stability; then losing her father and husband within weeks of each other. Left with a 5-year-old and 9-year-old girl in a strange land with no guidance. It is because of my mother never giving up, that I did not give up. No matter how much we grieved the loss of our father, my mother’s love and hard work contributed to the woman I am today.

Though all these experiences paint a picture of sadness and loss, heroes surround my everyday life. My mother who taught me unconditional love, loved me on days when love seemed an impossible feat after incredible, seemingly unrecoverable losses.  I am inspired to be a true example of compassion and impact for my daughters. I strive to do this through our organization’s social responsibility, to provide resources and assistance to women, like my own mother who came to the U.S. as a refugee, to be empowered through education and pave the way for change and leadership in their families and communities. 


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