Afghan (definition 2): a soft woolen blanket, crocheted or knitted, usually in a geometric pattern.from dictionary.com
First, a quick trip to Harlem, inspired by the awarding last week of a Congressional Gold Medal to the U.S. Army’s 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, for battlefield valor during World War I—103 years after the war ended.
These soldiers spent more time in battle, and sustained more casualties, than any other American regiment in World War I. Their patriotism—despite abuse by many Americans and by many American laws before, during, and after their risking and losing health and life fighting the Germans—is beyond me.
I can only be awed.
En route to the Hellfighters monument, Joey and I stopped at a statue of Frederick Douglass, at W. 110th Street.
On to Harriet Tubman, at W. 122nd Street.
The Hellfighters memorial is on E. 142nd Street. Behind it you see the 369th Regiment Armory in brick and terra cotta. On the far side of the monument, a votive candle was burning.
WWI was wars and wars ago.
When I was a kid in rural America, an afghan was a type of blanket. Nothing more.
Afghan people were on my radar beginning in 1979, after the Soviet military invaded Afghanistan. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Afghans were an abstraction for most Americans, for me they were real.
To make them more real for you, I’ll introduce you to three of the Afghans I had the privilege to know when they were our allies against the Soviets and later against the Taliban.
Before the Soviet invasion, the teacher’s father worked for a bank all week and came home by horse or donkey on weekends. The family’s house was made of “dust”—mud brick. They lived in an area known for fruit trees. Life was good. Until it wasn’t.
Somehow the teacher reached the U.S. He qualified for a green card during the 1986 Reagan “legalization”. Legalization opponents disparaged it as “amnesty” although the critics had been given amnesty for traffic violations, library fines, tax evasion, or other wrongs.
As have we all.
The teacher opened a restaurant. The poor people who walked in, he fed without charge or fanfare. One of his American daughters—brilliant and kind—pursued a medical degree.
The kid fought the Soviets. He arrived in the U.S. at about age 16 with someone else’s passport. Before we met, an immigration judge granted him asylum.
The kid testified six months later on behalf of a brother who had followed him to America. Now the kid claimed to be 18. The immigration prosecutor remembered that the kid had been forgiven for using another’s passport on account of being a minor. The prosecutor decided to bring the full weight of the U.S. government against the kid, whom he now regarded as an adult.
I fought the prosecutor’s motion to reopen the case. I lost.
At the new trial, I presented evidence that
most Afghans do not know their ages • it was customary in Afghanistan to give one’s age as of one’s next birthday, unlike the Western custom of giving one’s age at one’s prior birthday • the Muslim calendar used in Afghanistan is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian (Western) calendar, making someone older in Muslim years than in Gregorian years • upon release from immigration jail, the kid had been given an official document without a birth date; the kid filled in a date consistent with age 18 to make it easier to find work to support himself • 6 months after being 16, which means one is in one’s 17th year, one is nearly 18.
I brought an expert witness, a U.S. university professor who had lived in Afghanistan, learned to speak Dari, and had recorded folk tales told by Afghan women. She testified that it was common for Afghans to be ignorant of their birth details, and that physical and mental attainment—not age—determined when Afghans started school or were allowed to drive cars.
And I cited an immigration court precedent decision, Matter of Pula, establishing that fake documents routinely are part of fleeing persecution and do not preclude asylum grants.
This time the judge denied asylum. She wrote that the kid was old enough to be punished for his use of a bad passport. I appealed.
Years later, the Board of Immigration Appeals clerk who phoned me to confirm my address for mailing the decision, interrupted herself to express surprise at the outcome. The BIA almost always rules for the government. In the kid’s case, they found in his favor, 2 to 1. (The dissenter said that, while the appeal was pending, the Soviets had left Afghanistan, so the kid should be sent home. As if the Soviet withdrawal had made that fractured country safe for one who had taken sides.)
Eventually the kid became a U.S. citizen. I helped him bring in family from exile in Pakistan. They now live and work in Texas, which some say makes them more American than me, because I live in New York City. I don’t eat barbecue, so maybe that’s right.
The doc had been a medic with the Northern Alliance, an Afghan group that fought the Soviets and then the Taliban. His commander wanted to kill the doc for treating all the sick and injured, including captured enemies.
The doc was in America on a temporary visa for advanced medical training. Before we met, while he was caring for the poor at a NYC hospital, he was denied asylum in the U.S.
The doc came to me after the misogynist Taliban took control of Afghanistan. That change in country conditions put the doc’s wife, also a doctor, at particular risk.
I applied for asylum on the wife’s behalf. The case was randomly assigned to the second worst immigration judge in the United States, who denied asylum in over 98% of his cases.
I told the doctors that they were doomed before this IJ, and that the appeal process was stacked against them. I asked if they had considered living elsewhere.
They had dreamed of life in California. I encouraged them to act on their dream. Their move justified my motion to change venue so they could pursue their case near home.
The IJ was happy to grant the motion and kick the can down the road. In California, the case was randomly assigned to an openminded IJ. Using my papers and a California lawyer, the docs won asylum.
Thus America won too.
The doctors, like the kid and teacher/restaurateur, embraced America like . . . an afghan.