Through My Eyes: As an Afghan-Canadian, I feel grief and hope for my community

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By Swidda Rassy

When I was a kid, my mom would give me a $5 bill and, without saying a word, I knew exactly what to do with it. I’d leave my apartment, run downstairs to the lobby and enter the mini-convenience store connected to my building. “Can I get a $5 calling card please?” I’d ask the tall man behind the cash register. 

As soon as I returned home, I’d give my mom the calling card and watch as she dialed the numbers on the back of the card. It was usually during this time that my older sisters would gather around my mom, ready to eavesdrop on her conversation.

What would it be this time? A sick sister that needs money for surgery? A nephew that needs money for school? Or maybe, a cousin that needs money to smuggle himself out of Afghanistan? All of this had happened to us before and I braced myself for more bad news. 

Truth be told, I never liked when my mom would call her relatives back in Afghanistan. Because every time she did, we would always hear bad news. I still remember the day when news circulated about a bomb going off in a neighbourhood in Kabul close to where my mom’s family lived. My mom was frantic. Her hands were shaking while trying to dial the number to get a hold of her family to make sure they were alive. Luckily, everyone was accounted for and, just like that, my mom could breathe again.

The Taliban’s resurgence back to power is a frightening thing to witness, even from afar. Although Canada has promised to take in 20,000 Afghans as refugees, what will happen to the millions of men, women and children who will be left behind? 

I can’t imagine living a life like that, where leaving my house to run a quick errand meant putting my life in serious danger. Living in Canada, there are so many things I took and still take for granted. Going to school and having an equal opportunity to study. Getting a job in whatever field that I desired. Or, simply, going out to dinner at a nice restaurant with my friends and catching up. 

All these things that I once thought were normal, I’ve now realized are a luxury for many Afghan people. I can’t help but feel incredibly grateful that by some random chance, I escaped the reality of living life in Afghanistan. Yet, my feelings of gratitude are overshadowed by sadness. Why me? Why do I get to live a comfortable life while my people are suffering? 

Survivor’s guilt is something that affects many in the Afghan diaspora. For many Afghans living outside of Afghanistan, our parents risked their lives to leave the country they loved so dearly. As grateful as I am that my parents made that life-changing decision, I can’t help but think about our loved ones that weren’t so lucky—the ones that my parents had to leave behind. 

According to a peer-reviewed article in Verywell Mind, a mental health resource site, survivor’s guilt is a particular kind of guilt that develops in people who have survived life-threatening situations. Survivor’s guilt can also be intergenerational, as memories and guilt for having survived are passed on, according to an article in Today’s Youth and Mental Health. In the case of immigrants or refugees, this guilt can lead to issues that inhibit settlement in a new society, such as idealization of the past, a desire to return home and resistance to claim their place in the new society. 

Today, the feeling of survivor’s guilt among Afghans is stronger than ever. After seeing the recent events unfolding in Afghanistan, many Afghans worldwide—myself included—are filled with anger, fear and, most of all, helplessness. 

Given Afghanistan’s long history with war, the solution is not obviously simple—that’s what makes the feelings of grief and helplessness worse. The Afghan diaspora can only see the atrocities from afar and, while our privilege allows us to raise our voices and help bring awareness to the current situation, the reality is, there is only so much we can physically do. Our silent suffering can not be easily understood by others. 

According to a study by the European Journal of Psychotraumatology, refugees who experienced war events and displacement show elevated rates of shame and guilt. The findings indicate that exposure to multiple traumatic events poses a higher risk factor for suffering due to mental health issues—such as post-traumatic stress disorder or survivor’s guilt. 

Looking back, I wonder if my mother thought it was her responsibility to take care of her relatives back home. Maybe in some twisted way, all the hours she spent on the phone talking to her family and the money she would send them to make sure they were taken care of was her way of coping with the guilt she felt for leaving them behind.

As a first-generation Canadian, seeing my parents cope with the trauma they endured has shaped who I am today. But if I have learned one thing from all of this, it is to never underestimate the resilience of the Afghan people. They have experienced war, poverty and displacement, yet they cling onto the small piece of hope that maybe one day they will experience peace. 

Because even among all the rubble, a flower can grow. 

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