Interview for

Wahid Omar

10/01/2021

Interviewed By:

Katherine Clifton

Date Interviewed:

Audio Recording of Interview
00:00 / 2:05:22
Summary

As a refugee from Afghanistan, Wahid’s journey took him to France, Switzerland, and later the United States. He discusses his experiences of escaping from Afghanistan and encounters with discrimination in the countries where he sought refuge. He also describes his efforts to educate and raise awareness about Afghanistan, Islam, and the Muslim community.

Transcript
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Additional Notes
Outline

Narrator: Wahid Omar

Date: October 1, 2021

Location: Washington, DC (Virtual)


Content Warning: Sexual assault, death

Summary: As a refugee from Afghanistan, Wahid’s journey took him to France, Switzerland, and later the United States. He discusses his experiences of escaping from Afghanistan and encounters with discrimination in the countries where he sought refuge. He also describes his efforts to educate and raise awareness about Afghanistan, Islam, and the Muslim community.

Topics: Family, Religion, Violence, Discrimination, Politics, Education, Career, Historical Context


Outline

Section 1: (00:00-14:12)

  • Family - Grew up in a close community in Kabul; lived in France for four to five years

  • Disability/Illness - Struck with polio; his father sold all his belongings so that he could travel to Switzerland for cure

  • Political - Father was appointed President of Public Health; in the 1970s, his father had had some difference in opinion with the government and was forced to resign and moved to Damascus

  • Violence - War broke out between Syria and Israel in 1973; saw jets, dropping bombs, firing missiles; evacuated to Lebanon

Section 2: (14:12-33:35)

  • Violence - Coup d’etat in Afghanistan; father was put into jail; went to France with siblings as a refugee; family, including father, later reunited in Switzerland

  • Culture - In France, learned a lot about politics and philosophy

  • Education -

  • Education was always interrupted; had to work various jobs, then learned about work study program in the U.S. and went to Omaha, Nebraska

  • Moved to Colorado and worked as a cab driver while pursuing bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and PhD

  • Activism - Became interested in development work when Taliban was topped down; volunteered for Afghans for Tomorrow

  • Displacement - Went to Afghanistan for brief UN mission, came back to Colorado for a break, then went back to Afghanistan to start USAID-funded program, and had to evacuate in August 2021

Section 3: (33:35-53:35)

  • Identity - Talked about John Okada’s No-No Boy (Japanese Americans who had crisis of identity–neither Japanese nor American); similarly, difficult to identity as single identity, either part of U.S. or Afghanistan

  • Home - Miss the environment, fruit, sunshine in Afghanistan; but when in Afghanistan, miss the freedom of the U.S.

  • Discrimination - Went to Benin as part of USAID-funded education program

  • Went to hair salon to get a haircut, where the barber put a new apron on him because he was white

  • When he was done and the barber put the same apron on the next customer, the customer screamed, “how could you put the apron of a UVO on my neck, it's dirty”

  • Felt hurt but realized there had also been normalized discrimination against Sikh and Indian people in Afghnanistan → started to see people differently, with more empathy and compassion

Section 4: (53:35-1:15:56)

  • Discrimination

  • Was looking for a house in France with Polish girlfriend; woman at agency called owner of apartment and assured him that Omar and his girlfriend was white“(they're perfectly fine people, the lady is blonde with blue eyes, and the mister is handsome and with green eyes”)

  • When 9/11 happened, he was a graduate student teaching French courses; the next day, his students were very quiet and he urged them to ask any questions they had; they didn’t really know about Afghanistan, Islam, the culture, and terrorism

  • His wife was afraid of going out for fear of being attacked

  • His students showed support for him

  • Education

  • Created course about Islam; had students visit families of different religious faiths; students had good experiences and realized they are not so different from themselves

Section 5: (1:15:56-1:25:19)

  • Education

  • Heard about Taliban closing down safe houses because they thought these were whorehouses; the woman in charge of one of the houses had a master’s degree in Sharia law and referenced verses from the Quran to defend the safe house; the Taliban commander let her continue her operation

  • Helped develop master’s degree in education in Afghanistan and was part of panel for admissions in Afghan University; panel did not want to admit a fundamentalist Muslim student because they thought he was dangerous; Omar argued on the student’s behalf to admit him, and the student’s view ended up changing over the course of his education

Section 6: (1:25:19-1:49:04)

  • Religion - Was taught to never question his beliefs; read a book by Rumi where he talks about the story of Moses; there are different ways to be close to God

  • Storytelling - When young, often visited an old lady who was a great storyteller; he later decided to pursue and collect Afghan stories; became his project for dissertation

  • Trauma  - In Afghanistan after 9/11, he and his friends met a cab driver and interviewed him because he had been a demining officer under Taliban during the civil war; driver burst into tears when talking about finding the raped and mutilated bodies of young Afghan girls

Section 7: (1:49:04-2:05:22)

  • Seeking Refuge/Immigration - As part of FHI 360, ried to help people filling out visa applications for people leaving Afghanistan; people are still waiting

  • Activism - His son, part of a metal band called AFREET, made a video to raise awareness about the situation in Afghanistan

  • Empathy - Encourages people to learn and educate and practice tolerance; not just look at the media, but look at multiple sources and perspectives