I escaped Afghanistan as a refugee and I view this world as borderless
‘We cannot label people as criminals just because they seek safety outside of their country’
Basira Abdulshukur is a 19 year-old student at UC Davis, studying Neurobiology, physiology and behavior with aims to become a doctor after graduating. At first glance, Basira is a typical college student – worrying about what she will wear tomorrow or the latest gossip.
However, her story is different: she has had to overcome more strife than most people see in a lifetime. Afghanistan had been having ongoing wars for the past eighty years, but with the beginning of The Afghan Civil War she was forced to flee. She lived as a refugee within numerous neighboring countries, and her family struggled for food and shelter at their lowest points. Nevertheless, her struggle has given her a new outlook on the world and an unwavering appreciation of everything and everyone she has in her life today.
Basira is described by her closest friends and family as one of the most loving, genuine, and strong people they have had the privilege to get to know and grow up with.
Why was your family forced to flee Afghanistan?
To begin my story, it is important to note that before everything changed for our family, for the first time things seemed to be going uphill and the future seemed promising. My dad pursued a higher education to pave a brighter future for himself and our family. After studying for seven years in Russia he received his degree qualifying him to be a civil engineer. This degree meant everything, it was the key to a better life. But when he came back to Afghanistan his world had turned upside down.
Afghanistan was falling apart, people were dying. I had heard stories from my family friends whose homes had been invaded by armed “government workers” aka the Taliban, they had been millimeters away from death, as the lives of them and their children had been threatened at gunpoint. Walking to the grocery store meant risking our lives dying from a bombing. For fear of our lives, we were forced to leave everything behind in Afghanistan including my dad’s esteemed job as an engineer. In the years following, we went from living as the top tier in Afghanistan to struggling to find food.
How many countries did you have to escape to during this period of time and what was the journey like?
To escape our home town of Sheberghan, Afghanistan we crossed the border into Uzbekistan, at this point I was only 3 years old while my two sisters were only a few years older. After we arrived we had no money. We spent weeks on the streets and outside government offices, begging the government officials to give us some sort of documentation so we could start our new lives and so my parents could get a job to support our family. We no longer wanted to live in fear of getting kicked out of the country at any moment. We lived day by day.
At times we would live with families that we somehow knew through the friend of a friend of an acquaintance, other times we would live on the streets. During our time in Uzbekistan there is one specific moment that sticks out in my memory. My parents along with me and my three sisters, ranging from the ages of three to nine had been waiting outside of the government office for hours that night.
One of the only memories I remember from Uzbekistan took place on a very cold night and I remember clearly that I was complaining about how hungry I was because we could not afford anything to eat. I remember an elderly lady offering me her waffles. Nothing had ever tasted so good, and I will forever be grateful of that lady. My parents finally got to talk to the government officials, but we were denied any form of formal documentation and therefore kicked out of the country.
Next we fled to Tajikistan. To get from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan we traveled in a five seater Sedan, we fit the driver, my mother, my father, me, and my four sisters into the Sedan. We drove for miles through the snow and at points the car would break down and my dad and the driver would have to get out of the car and push the car up a hill while it was snowing.
Once we arrived to Tajikistan, fortunately we were able to stay there for a couple of years without getting caught. During this time in order to make money my dad would make his own candy out of sugar syrup and our whole family would help wrap and decorate the candy. We would all go to the bazaar and try to sell as much candy as possible. Every day, straight after school my sister would go to the bazaar to help tend to our little candy stand while my dad would try to find other ways to make money; every cent counted. My dad would carry ten to twenty pounds of tea around the streets and bring one of my sisters along with him just so people would feel bad for him and buy the tea. At the end of the day my dad would always come home with blisters on his feet from walking miles and miles.
Our typical dinner consisted of watermelon and bread. In the moment I didn’t see our state of living as struggling. I was so thankful then and did not even think twice about why we were not as privileged as some of the other people we knew. Back then, we had nothing but I did not mind, now it seems I have everything I need but still want more. Sometimes, on the rare occasion that we would get to eat dessert we would cut up one banana and share it between the six of us. Those few slices of banana were everything, I would save those few slices, I would cherish them.
After Tajikistan, we moved to Kyrgyzstan. Here my dad sold boxes of cigarettes to make money. Eventually, my dad met a friend who worked for the government in Kyrgyzstan and told him about our story. He was told to go to America for a better life. With the help of my dad’s friend we were able to get visas and come to America. America had become our sliver of hope for a better life.
Can you describe your financial condition when you came to America?
At the age of 8, my family and I flew to America with the plane tickets that “World Relief”, a refugee organization had given to us, provided that we would pay them back eventually when we got back on our feet. We arrived at America with just $20 and few pieces of clothing. When we came to America my dad’s health was already deteriorating and his University degree from Russia was deemed as worthless in America because of the differences in curriculum. Regardless, he took on a job in construction which required great amounts of physical labor. Every morning my dad would wake up at 5 AM and bike 10 miles to get to work. Due to this type of physical activity my dad is now considered disabled because of his back and cannot walk without experiencing a sharp pain.
When we had first arrived to America we stayed with some close friends who we knew from Afghanistan for a couple of months. Eventually, we started receiving aid from the government, and with the help of my dad’s job we were able to afford our own small two-bedroom apartment. My mom had given birth to a son and we were seven people trying to fit into a two-bedroom apartment, but this was the least of our worries, we were just happy we had a home.
How has experiencing life as a refugee influenced your perception of the world?
Being a refugee has shaped my view of the world almost entirely. I grew up a refugee in search of safety and a better quality of life. Although I came to the United States legally, my family spent eight years migrating country to country illegally. Nowadays, people automatically label illegal immigrants as an intruder who only wants to take over their land. However, people must realize that these people have risked their entire lives and have faced life-threatening obstacles that one cannot imagine just for their survival.
I sympathize with those who are undocumented because I know what my family has endured to get where we are and the conditions we have faced. These people have been driven out of their homelands with no choice most times because of war and the invasion of their country. They have no fault or control over the events that have led them to flee. In the end, I view this world as borderless and I see all humans the same. We all desire a life of happiness and peace and we will do whatever it takes to survive. We cannot label people as criminals just because they seek safety outside of their country.
How did you adjust to life in America?
It was difficult for my parents to adjust to a new lifestyle because it was completely different than what they were used to all their life. Even today, my parents do not speak English fluently. We have preserved many aspects of our culture such as the food, customs, holidays, etc. Contrary to this, my siblings and I have assimilated into the American culture with much more ease. I was able to learn the English language within a matter of a few months.
However, during the first year, I was constantly bullied at school because of my insufficient knowledge of English and I struggled to make friendships. Not only that, but my grades were very poor as I did not understand the curriculum. The following years, I excelled in school and easily made friends because it was easy for me to adapt to a new culture at a young age.
How are you going to use the opportunity of education you have earned in UC Davis to change your life and begin a new chapter?
Because I recognize that I am part of the very few who are fortunate enough to escape a life of terror and war to living a luxurious lifestyle here in a safe country, I have vowed to myself to give back the world. I aspire to be part of the contribution that will be to the betterment of society. I am currently studying Neurobiology, physiology and behavior and I plan to attend medical school in hopes of becoming a medical doctor.
During my vacation in Afghanistan, I was able to visit the local school and observe the education system that students receive. I was highly disappointed to see that not much was being taught at school and the school was not making an effort to reach out to its students and emphasize the importance of education. Thus, the students were constantly off-task during their mere 4-hour school day and many did not even attend school most days. I want to better the education system in Afghanistan because there is a large population of people who are more than capable of bettering my country who only lack the prestigious education that I have.
Many do not comprehend the impact that effective education has and the capacity of their powers to use their knowledge to the advancement of their own lives and the country that they live in. Therefore, I, along with a team of those who have similar aspirations as myself, plan to strengthen the education system and provide adequate education for the future of Afghanistan. I also hope to better the health care system in Afghanistan because so many desperately need the medical attention that they do not receive.
It is not that Basira is thankful for the hardships that she has had to live through or that she would wish them upon anyone. Instead, she realizes that her perception of the world and who she is today has been completely altered by these chains of events. She has a sense of strength and ambition that is so rare. Everything her family and herself have sacrificed just gives her more reason to fight for her education and a bright future.