I know how challenging it can be to find your place in a new country.
In 1981, my family fled the Soviet-Afghan War and were resettled here in Northern Virginia. We spoke no English, had no community and encountered a completely different way of living. For me, as a young Afghan woman, this meant pursuing an education in secret. Today, I’m an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College.
I don’t just teach reading and writing but help Virginians share their stories. Storytelling is how we build trust and foster empathy. It brings people together. That’s why I’m launching “Journeys to NoVa” a new column for InsideNoVa. Virginia is home to 1.1 million immigrants, including more than 6,000 Afghan evacuees. By sharing some of their experiences with you, I hope all of us can better know our neighbors.
To start, I spoke with Yalda Royan, an Afghan women’s rights activist and colleague at NVCC. Growing up in Afghanistan, Royan bucked every social norm in leaving her abusive husband years before and fighting to establish independence for herself and two daughters. In Kabul, she served as the deputy chief of party for Musharikat, a pillar of Promote, the largest USAID-funded program for Afghan women, and consulted for U.N. Women, the World Bank and the feminist organization VOICE Amplified.
When Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15, 2021, Royan immediately became a target because of her advocacy work and ethnic and religious background. Further, she feared her ex-husband would try to keep her and their daughters in Afghanistan rather than allowing them to leave and seek safety elsewhere.
It took two attempts to drive to the airport under the hail of gunfire before she and her daughters finally made it into the terminal. When passing Taliban forces on the road, “I kept my eyes closed,” Yalda said. “I didn’t want to see those ugly faces. I wanted to remember the beautiful memories I have of Kabul.”
Still, the scenes inside the airport were traumatic. For two days, the family waited among thousands of frightened evacuees without food and with little water. She grieved those who’d been left behind. For years, she had provided financial support to several families in her community. After Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, with the banks closed, she hadn’t been able to leave them money for food, let alone travel.
Royan and her daughters were lucky – not just to have passage but to have secured their passports and other important documents before fleeing their home. This made it much easier to be granted humanitarian parole, a temporary legal status, once they landed at Dulles International Airport. The team at VOICE Amplified launched a GoFundMe to help Royan and her daughters secure an apartment, and her aunt, who lives in Herndon, helped them find donated and second-hand furniture.
Still, Royan felt wildly out of control. “I was an independent woman back home,” she told me. “Then overnight, I became a recipient of help. I was embarrassed.”
Everyone assured her that Americans were happy to assist. But Royan comes from a culture that views accepting help as shameful. She was relieved when her work visa was approved five months after being relocated to Virginia and she was hired in NOVA’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
With one daughter enrolled in school and the other searching for work, and Royan’s new career providing much-needed financial stability, she began to flourish. Around this time, a colleague introduced us, and we bonded over our shared feelings of inferiority. We love our homeland, but our culture is not empowering for women.
“Most of the time, I keep things in my heart rather than say them and risk saying the wrong thing,” Royan told me. “The trauma and cultural things women face in Afghanistan make it difficult to convince ourselves that we are strong and good enough.”
And yet we push against the doubt. For Royan, that means advocacy. In the past year, she’s spoken twice at the U.N. Security Council about the dangers Afghan women and girls are facing. She has urged leaders to hold the Taliban accountable. And she continues her work with VOICE Amplified. At NOVA, she works with community partners to address the needs of minority students.
It’s a blessing for both of us to have made our homes here in Virginia. Though she arrived many years after I did, she has become a role model for me. As I watch her battle her own insecurities and work tirelessly for Afghan women, I’m reminded how powerful and strong we are. No matter how much we are repressed or the number of challenges we face, we continue to rise up.
Sophia Aimen Sexton is a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College’s Annandale campus.