21st Century Pioneers in America

By Nikhil Misra-Bhambri

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21st Century Pioneers in America
Downtown LA Mosque. Photo courtesy of Vahe Martirosyan, https://www.flickr.com/photos/vahemart/29297355011/
Afghans in the San Fernando Valley continue sharing their vibrant culture with the larger community.
The San Fernando Valley is home to many international communities. Among these is a sizable group of Afghan immigrants who fled the snow-capped Himalayan mountains following a Soviet invasion in 1979. Forced to rebuild their lives far away from home, approximately five thousand Afghans have recreated their unique life and culture in Western San Fernando Valley. Through the years, they have established a growing commercial, religious, and social presence which they strive to preserve and share despite the social isolation enforced by the onset of COVID. Beginning in 1979, the Soviet Union’s ten-year occupation of Afghanistan forced millions of Afghan refugees to flee across the eastern border into Pakistan. Abdul Nasir, who now calls the San Fernando Valley his home, left Afghanistan in 1981 at age 17.” As soon as I crossed the border, I thought I left my body and spirit on the other side. Two of my brothers were arrested and died in prison because they opposed the Soviet government. At this point, my mother couldn’t take it anymore and begged me to leave,” he recalls. Arriving in the U.S. during the 1980s, the new and adventurous Afghan immigrants resided initially in Hollywood. Due to the language barrier and the need to immediately begin supporting their families, most took up minimum wage jobs. Many became taxi drivers, store clerks, security guards, and whatever other jobs were available to them. Nasir remembers working at a clothing company earning an hourly wage of $3.75, while he also pursued his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering at California State University in Los Angeles. Over time, Los Angeles’ Afghan community became larger as the immigrants began to sponsor their extended families to join them. Once their families arrived, many of them relocated to the San Fernando Valley, mostly Reseda, West Hills, and Thousand Oaks. Compared to Hollywood, the Valley was more family oriented and had a lower cost of living. Eventually, the hard work and diligence of Afghan immigrants paid off and they slowly achieved the American dream of a middle-class lifestyle. At this point, they also began to establish a noticeable business presence in San Fernando Valley. Today, there is a concentration of Afghan-owned grocery stores, restaurants, and security companies within the West Valley. Some of the businesses include Northridge’s Halal Kitchen Café, Reseda’s Melad Bakery and Deli, Family Meat Market in Northridge, Skewers Halal in Chatsworth, and Nan Dagh Kabob Dagh in Reseda. Since serving only traditional Afghan cuisine did not attract a broad enough market, Afghan restaurants and stores became pioneers of Mediterranean cuisine in the Valley. Vibrant Culture Adapts to America and COVID-19 The effects of the pandemic have taken a toll on the local Afghan restaurants. Omar Tahouri, owner of Family Meat Market, reports reduced store hours and lower budgets which have resulted in less inventory. Once a popular shopping destination for the local Afghan community, there has been a sharp decline in customers. Tahouri added, “a lot of things are uncertain. It may take three to five years before things get back to normal.” The older generation of Afghans strive to keep their culture alive and instill a core of strong family values in their community. Their homes are filled with the sounds of Pashto and Dari, Afghanistan’s two official languages. As a result, most of the younger generation is bilingual, with spoken fluency in both Pashto/Dari and English. Fond of music, the melodious voice of Ahmad Zahir, commonly referred to as the Afghan Elvis Presley, can be heard in most homes. Mustafa Lodin, a resident of Thousand Oaks and an undergraduate student at USC, says “when my father listens to Ahmad Zahir, he is reminded of his childhood days playing soccer and flying kites with his friends in Afghanistan.” Afghanistan’s mouthwatering cuisine, “unites the Afghan community,” according to Nasir. Family friends and extended families often host potluck dinners at one another’s homes and picnics at nearby parks. Indian, Middle Eastern and Turkic flavors are combined to form modern-day Afghan cuisine. Favorite culinary delights consist of kabob, Kabuli Palao (named after Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan), Mantu (Afghan meat dumplings), aashak (Afghan vegetarian dumplings), Bolani (a quesadilla with meat), and Naan bread (similar to the clay oven bread of India and Pakistan). Most Afghan immigrants remain devout Muslims, and have, thus, raised their children to be steadfast adherents of their faith. Following the communist invasion of their home country, religion became an even stronger part of the Afghan’s identity, as they fought to resist the Soviet’s imposition of atheism. In 1997, Afghans founded the Islamic Center of Reseda, which has become a popular gathering place for local Muslims from all different walks of life. Since the onset of Covid, religious gatherings have assumed a completely different flavor. This year’s Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha were the most isolated and socially distanced that the Afghan community has ever celebrated. Traditionally, on these holiest of days, Afghans pray at the mosque, and spend the rest of the day visiting relatives and elders. This year, Afghan families were confined to the four walls of their homes. Following a virtual morning prayer hosted by the local mosque, they had quiet celebrations with their immediate family. “Not being able to pray at the masjid during Ramadan, Jummah (Friday prayers), and Eid takes away the joy and bond that is developed when meeting one another,” said Nasir. Before the onset of the pandemic and despite ongoing political instability, many Afghan families tried to frequently visit their war-ravaged home country. ”The longing for our country exists. Once you have lived in Afghanistan, it is hard to cut that tie,” says Nasir. Even before the onset of COVID-19, the unpredictability and lack of security in Afghanistan, with its frequent terrorist bombings in urban areas, made travel too risky for most families. “I’m still optimistic that I will be able to visit one day,” says 21-year-old Lodin. Since their abrupt dislocation and migration from Afghanistan nearly 40 years ago, Afghans have successfully rebuilt their family lives in the San Fernando Valley. The preservation of their language, cuisine, and vibrant culture has recreated a life which resembles what they enjoyed during Kabul’s pre-Soviet days. Even during the pandemic, Afghans strive to keep their long-lasting traditions alive by adapting to the new normal. Zoom and online streaming have allowed them to continue participation in social and religious activities though in severely restricted ways. In these difficult times, restaurants and grocery stores fight to stay afloat despite tight budgets, so they can someday return to their pre-COVID role as community gathering spots. “Life has become much easier here during the past thirty years. America has become another home for me. I know more people here than in Afghanistan,” says Nasir. The greater San Fernando community, in turn, has also experienced the hospitality and colorful traditions which have made Afghans proud of their distinct heritage all around the world. Together, they hope to continue to share their heritage with their community neighbors as COVID-19 gradually recedes. Nikhil Misra-Bhambri is a freelance journalist who resides in Pasadena, California. He is a graduate from USC, class of 2019, with a bachelor’s degree in history. His areas of interest include history, ethnic communities, travel, religion, languages, Urdu poetry, and restaurants. He loves to read and is always looking for new stories to share with society.

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August 21, 2020