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Afghan Returns to Collect the Stories of Her People

Many immigrants in America lead divided lives: They inhabit the world's richest nation, but they feel profound ties to some of Earth's poorest countries.

Take the case of Maliha Zulfacar, who left Afghanistan as a young mother in 1979, the year the Soviets invaded her country. She escaped by way of Germany and eventually settled in the United States, where she now teaches ethnic studies at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.


For two decades, Zulfacar dreamed of her homeland but felt isolated from it. In the last years of the Taliban's rule, she sought ways to reach out, even visiting Afghanistan once for a conference on women's issues.

Then, when the United States invaded in 2001, Zulfacar seized the opportunity to do what she could. She launched a fundraising drive to buy chairs for a school. She helped open a day-care center at Kabul University, and began work there as a part-time teacher.

Her efforts allowed her to reconnect with her old city and neighborhood. Through her interactions, an oral history project soon took shape, allowing her -- and the people she interviewed -- to come to terms with Afghanistan's turbulent recent history.

"I was really searching for familiar faces," she recalls. "Walking the streets, trying to, you know, greet people. I look different than everybody else, so everybody would look at me and smile."

When Zulfacar stopped to talk, crowds would form. So she started inviting strangers to her house for lunch. That's when the stories spilled out.


Zulfacar interviewed most anyone, such as Najib, a 10-year-old boy she found selling cigarettes on the street. When Zulfacar asked him about his family, Najib told her he had five sisters. "Two are dead, and five brothers -- one is dead," he explained. He went on to describe attacks by Russian forces, and told of once hiding in the grass with his father when the Taliban ambushed the family's car.

Zulfacar believes the chance to tell their stories has been therapeutic for many of her interviewees, especially for the older people. "It has been so difficult," she explains. "Everybody is in a stage of survival. And it was kind of luxurious for them, for somebody to ask what they have gone through."

Zulfacar has a way of drawing people out, of following with interest each dramatic turn in their harsh lives. For example, she listened intently as a domestic worker named Layla told of her years as a refugee, and the humiliating deprivations her family endured. "I had a tandoor oven and I baked bread for others," Layla confided to Zulfacar. "But we didn't always have enough for ourselves. So I would collect small, hard pieces and soak them in water for the children to eat."

The woman shyly leaned in toward her interviewer. "You're like a mother to me," she told Zulfacar. "That's why I'm telling you these things."

Zulfacar says she's been amazed at the resilience of ordinary Afghans who've endured decades of conflict. She recalls one man telling her how he would laugh as he ran from one corner of the street to another as rockets flew overhead.

"He will laugh and laugh and laugh," Zulfacar recalls. "Then immediately, he will say, 'Yeah, but my son died.' And immediately he would start to cry. It was between laughter and crying at the same time."

This month, Zulfacar embarked on yet another project. She managed to secure visas and scholarships for two young Afghan girls, who are staying at her house in California while they get settled.

Both are 19 years old. Farida is tiny with a mop of dark hair. Olker is bubbly and blonde.

On a recent day, while they fried chicken for dinner, Zulfacar helped them practice their English and asked Olker -- a Muslim -- about her visit to the mission church downtown.

"Akbar told me you went to church," Zulfacar told Okler. "Why do you want to go to church?"

"I like it -- church," Okler explained. "I like it. I go in there and I pray to God, and so cool my heart."

Zulfacar is a single mother to two grown children, and her new activism and long separations have been difficult for them and her.

So, what motivates her? Partly, it's guilt. She says she felt profound guilt for many years, being cut off from Afghanistan.

Now, that's gone. But Zulfacar also insists that her work helps her as much as anyone. She marvels at the stories of survival. "What is it about them that they're so resilient they continue to smile?" she asks. "And I think to listen to their stories somehow stopped my self-pity -- it brought a different perspective to life."

Zulfacar has hours and hours of taped interviews. She plans to use them for a book, and maybe put them on a Web site. She has also put recorders in the hands of students at Kabul University who have collected their own interviews. Those transcripts are now being edited for publication, to produce what Zulfacar says is all too rare: a history of Afghanistan... as told by Afghans.

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