Sophia’s Story

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I Was That Boy

When my mother discovered that she was pregnant with me, she decided to abort me because she was raising six children in poverty in Kabul, Afghanistan. She could not afford to have one more child, especially a girl. However, a thought went through her mind: what if it is a boy? She had one son and five daughters, and in Afghanistan, everyone wanted a son to take care of them in old age. Hoping I was a boy, she kept the pregnancy. Months later, she was in labor and realized that I was in breech position. Resting in her mother’s backyard, she used Vaseline to massage her belly, and eventually, she turned me into the right position, and I was born. She was devastated when she discovered that I was a girl.

Through the years, I was always on her side. She kept me home from kindergarten because without my father being present in our lives, she needed me to run her errands. My older sisters and my mother were not allowed to be seen outside every day, so I began to run the streets of Kabul at a young age. I had a great childhood until the Former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The Russian war tanks begin to roll on the streets, breaking the pavement underneath their heavy weight. They occupied the same streets I used to feel safe on. My mother asked me to continue her grocery shopping despite the war because she wanted me to face life’s trials with courage. Bravely, every day, I left home to run my errands.

During one of my outings, I ran into an old friend who informed me of a new store few blocks from my house. It was a Russian store. She and I ran to the store with curiosity. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw canned foods. I ran home as fast as I could that day. Out of breath, I described all the different foods I had seen in the new store. My mother gave me some money and told me to purchase a can. I told her, “Mommy, I can’t! It is a Russian store!” she calmly lowered herself to my eye level and whispered to me, “It is okay. Kill the Russians and eat their food.” I grabbed the money and ran out of our home. With the purchased can in my hand, stared at it as I walked home. My curiosity got the best of me, and I peeled the top open. The opened can emitted a disgusting scent; it was a can of tuna fish. Disappointed and angry, I threw out the can in the nearest trash bin. Then, my eyes rested on several Russian soldiers leaning on their tank with their Kalashnikov assault rifles hanging over their shoulders, smoking their cigarettes, and lost in laughter as they conversed. I peered at them from behind the mud wall, grabbed the nearby pebbles from the ground, and began tossing the pebbles at them while trying to remain hidden. They eventually saw me, laughed, and went back to their conversation. I was luckier than most other Afghan children who were shot dead because they were throwing rocks at the Russian soldiers.

As the war raged, it destroyed the innocence I cherished. My mother withdrew us from school to protect us from the atrocities of war. After two years of living in trepidation and poverty, my father decided that we should escape. Since we could not afford to hire a guide to help us escape to Pakistan, my father became our guide. My uncle gave us a pass to travel safely in certain rebel zones. Unfortunately, my uncle’s pass was detrimental to our journey where the Russian soldiers were concerned.

On a hot June morning we boarded a bus in central Kabul to travel to Ghazni. I heard my father nervously whisper words to my mother. My sister next to me began to faintly cry as she said, “The Afghan Commander will search everyone for documents. When he finds the pass, dad will fight him, and we will run. He will sacrifice himself for us!” Fortunately, the Commander let the bus depart without a search because his sister was on the bus. We were elated, but we knew that our lives could end with just one wrong turn. We spent couple of weeks traveling by foot, by donkey, and in the back of pickup trucks through the mountains and small villages. We had run out of food and water after a few days into our journey. Dehydrated, each day we searched for rainwater in the holes of rocks in the mountains. We pushed aside the bugs and debris in the water as we indulged knowing that it could be our last drink.

The day finally arrived when we anxiously crossed the border into Peshawar, Pakistan. My father rushed us into a mud building with a small dusty kitchen and a hidden unfurnished room where we rested. Our first hot meal in weeks was potato stew. I smelled the rotten potatoes as it entered the room, but I devoured it. We spent one year in Islamabad, Pakistan, before arriving to the United States as political refugees. I was told that dreams became reality in America, everyone was rich, and I’ll also be wealthy.

After a long anticipation we arrived at the Ronald Reagan National Airport in June of 1983. My brother, who had escaped before us, met us at the airport to take us to our first home in Arlington. It was a small two-bedroom, one bathroom apartment in an impoverished neighborhood. Eleven of us shared the apartment. At nights, we walked around the neighborhoods rummaging through people’s trash for household items. Overtime, we found several mattresses that we used as beds at nights and during the days we stacked them up and used them as sofas. We also found an old broken television, which my mother fixed. The television’s basic channels brought the rest of America into our living room.

September arrived and I was terrified of attending seventh grade. I did not speak English and I had missed four years of school. On the way to school, I asked my brother, “What should I say when I get to school?” He said, “Say hi to people you know and say hello to people you don’t know.” He handed me a piece of paper as I stepped out of his car. He sternly advised me to not lose that paper. I watched him drive off, I was alone. I stood in the hallway, completely separated from my environment. I heard a loud ringing, and everyone disappeared. From a distance a tall lady approached me. She took the piece of paper I had clinched in my hand and she led me to my ESL classroom. I sat at my desk and I took a breath of relief. Until that point, everything had happened to me without my control. In my own seat, I knew that I was in control – by following my dreams, I could make things happen.

Over the years, my sisters had arranged marriages and moved away one-by-one. I accepted the beatings, but I stood steadfast against an arranged marriage. I asked my family for permission to attend college. My brother angrily replied, “Forget about college! You’re not allowed.” Months later, I mustered the courage to enter Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). In secret, I worked, attended classes, came home, ate dinner, and went to sleep. Once everyone went to bed, I studied all night in the dark on the kitchen floor with a flashlight. I kept my routine for a couple of years until my father caught me. He said, “You can complete NOVA, but you can’t leave home. My daughters leave my home either on their wedding bed or on their death bed!”

Few years later, I received my acceptance letter from James Madison University. Within weeks I moved away with my father’s blessings – he had realized my determination. After completing my undergraduate degree, I served as a Speech and Language Pathologist. Then, I obtain my graduate degree in Curriculum and Instructions with a Reading Specialist endorsement at Virginia Tech. I became as a Reading Specialist in the middle school and later as a Literacy Coach in DC. Right when I was hired as a full-time English professor at NOVA in 2010, my mother needed eye surgery. She had thick cataract in both of her eyes. I searched for the best eye surgeon and set up her surgery dates. After the surgery on her second eye, I found myself sitting across from her in my living room. She had a white gauze over her eye as she stared at me. I asked her, “Mom, are you okay?” She replied, “You were that boy!” She told me the story of how she did not abort me because she had hoped that I would be a boy, and how disappointed she was when I was born a girl because she did not want me to suffer the same horrible fate she was confined to. However, she said that I had proved her wrong by taking care of her better than a son. She was never allowed to set foot in school, but I strived and gained my freedom through education.

After ten years of enduring Parkinson’s Dementia, my mother lost her battle and passed away on March 5, 2020. I sat next to her bed, holding her hand, and praying over her as she took her final breath. I kissed her forehead and thanked her for her struggles to raise us and for giving me life. I buried her with honor and respect next to my father and I promised her that I will lead as her legacy by empowering other women through education so they too can lead independent lives. Today, I am not only a full-time English Professor at NOVA, a wife, and a mother, but I am also the co-founder of Female Refugee Education Empowerment (FREE) non-profit organization. I am dedicating the rest of my life to empowering other women so they can determine their own fate in life. 

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