Mohammad Ismail (Reuters)

To my Afghan brothers and sisters…when I see you, I see hope.

“You’re not a victim for sharing your story. You are a survivor setting the world on fire with your truth. And you never know who needs your light, your warmth, and raging courage.” — Alex Elle

I was born outside of Washington D.C. in Arlington, Virginia to a Korean mother and Pakistani father. Still, somehow at 14 years old, I found myself surrounded by extremist men who saw me as nothing more than the filthy dirt they stepped on. My two younger brothers and I were kidnapped by our father in 2008 and taken to live in his hometown in rural Pakistan. My father is a Pashtun man, and we lived in the FATA region, only a couple of hours away from the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, 7.5 hours away from Kabul, and about 9 hours away from where Osama Bin Laden was found, shot, and killed.

Given my personal history living as a young teenage girl in rural Pakistan, the neighboring country of Afghanistan, these past few weeks have been hard, to say the least. I have gone back and forth trying to figure out how to process my thoughts in a coherent enough way to share. My goal is to spread awareness about the issues happening today in Afghanistan and to shine a light on the fact that this has been and still is going on, in other closeby regions/countries to Afghanistan, such as Pakistan. Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) borders Afghanistan and is typically a safe haven for Taliban guerrillas and al Qaeda terrorists. I lived there for 2 years and for those 2 years (when I was 14 until 16), I was not allowed to go to school. The FATA region’s literacy rate is 22% and only 7.5% of women receive an education. As I write this post, girls and women are being treated inhumanely, children are not being allowed to go to school, human rights are being seriously violated. I write this post from my safe home in the United States, in my sunny backyard, watching my puppy run around joyfully, living what feels like euphoria. Then I remember, that not too long ago I was one of those girls. Fighting for survival, suffering in silence because I didn’t know how to ask for help, wondering if I would ever see the walls of a classroom again, feeling so out of place no matter where I went. Today, I watch the news on my TV in a white picket fence house living the “American Dream” at 27 years old thinking, how the hell did I create this life for myself and how can I help others do the same? I have everything I need in life now. For once I am not living in survival mode because I don’t need to anymore. What I am living in though, is discomfort. I cannot sit comfortably in my skin any longer without trying to use my story to spread awareness. I cannot sit comfortably in my skin any longer until every aspiring learner out there has a fair shot at a quality education. I cannot and will not sit comfortably any longer. I am living proof that you can have everything, even your human rights, taken away from you but with the right mindset, support system, and goals, you can gain it all back (and more).

It was difficult growing up in the U.S. and not physically presenting as White, Korean, or Pakistani, and constantly being asked, “what the hell are you?” But now, it’s a privilege to be asked what I am because it gives me the autonomy to choose the answer. Men in the village don’t get to label me as a good-for-nothing woman ready to be married off or beaten to death. I am a Korean-Pakistani American, I am a first-generation college student, I am a survivor, I am unique, I am worthy, and I am anything that I want and choose to be. If you are a refugee that is able to read this message, please know that you can be all those things too. Your life is confusing right now but you can and will be anything you want to be. I will say that that the systems you are in the process of entering into are not necessarily designed or created for people like you or me, but you will still make it. You will learn to navigate them so seamlessly that no one will ever question again what you are or where you are from. You will develop a support system that will teach you, advise you, and help you grow. I am not sure how yet, but I want to be there for you too. Next to you, side by side, taking the lessons I’ve learned on my journey and sharing them. I know all this is difficult to navigate because I had to do it on my own 11 years and ago and am currently guiding my brothers through it today. They lived in the FATA for 8 years and I wasn’t reunited with them until this past December. I have been using the knowledge and advice I’ve received from my experiences to help them get back on their feet. They were taken from this country when they were in 3rd & 5th grade, today they are in their 20’s without a formal education, being mistreated in the fast food and retail industries because no one else will hire them. My brothers’ stories are sad but it's okay because they have the mindset, support system, and goals. These things are actually not super far out of reach, I encourage you to look around and see what you can do with what you have. Making the most of the resources — maximizing — is one the most critical skills I learned when I was in survival mode. You will get back on your feet and be stronger than ever, you will master navigating these dysfunctional unjust systems and most importantly, you will learn how to heal yourself so that you can live the beautiful life that you are so worthy of living. You will learn to re-create the narrative around the traumatic events in your life, you will find your passion, you will stop living in survival mode and start living in thriving mode. I believe in the power of storytelling and I hope that sharing my story will provide even the slightest bit of hope to the refugees around the world that are currently having their education taken away from them. Thank you to people like Malala Yousafzai and Zarlasht Halaimzai for sharing their stories and inspiring women like myself to do the same. Thank you for teaching women like me what it means to have a voice and how to use it.

For all the innocent youth out there who have had everything taken away from them and are looking for a sign to keep going — this one is for you.

If there is a translator who can translate this into Pashto or Dari, please message me as I would like to translate this post + other pieces of my writing in hopes that refugees are able to read them. My brothers and I speak/understand Pashto but do not know how to read or write it. If nothing more, please share/repost this to as many platforms our there to help me get my message out there to those that need to hear it.

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Writer | Traveler | Survivor | Advocate

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Saherah Khan

Saherah Khan

Writer | Traveler | Survivor | Advocate

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