In The Displaced, Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, himself a refugee, brings together a host of prominent refugee writers to explore and illuminate the refugee experience. Featuring original essays by a collection of writers from around the world, The Displaced is an indictment of closing our doors, and a powerful look at what it means to be forced to leave home and find a place of refuge.
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Last, First, Middle
Most days I hide in plain sight. I am a Muslim refugee from a war-torn country — the sum of many fears — camouflaged by the trappings of Anglo-Americanness: fair skin, a mastery of the American vernacular, a picture of my blue-eyed wife and daughter on my desk at work, and called by a name that my late grandfather would not recognize.
I am an Afghan-American. My parents, Ashraf and Nina, like many Afghans in the late 1970s and early 1980s, fled from Afghanistan as the country became a frontline in the Cold War. In 1980, they made it as far as Virginia, where some of their friends, also émigrés from Afghanistan, had settled. They set about to build a life there, but they were interrupted when my grandfather Haji Mohammad Azam — my father's father — fell ill back in Kabul with a failing heart. In 1981, not knowing the extent of my grandfather's illness, my parents returned to Afghanistan to be at his side. My mother was four months pregnant with me at the time.
Choosing to go back into a warzone with no guarantee of a second escape spoke volumes about how precious my grandfather was in our family and my parents' dedication to him. That, combined with the strong pull of their ancestral soil, made a decision that many would have considered difficult an easy one for them.
One of the deep pains in my life is that I never got to know my grandfather, my baba jaan; I have only a handful of photos and not a single memory of him. He knew me though. Throughout my childhood my parents would frequently remind me of his strong attachment to me. Family lore is that my mother's pregnancy is what kept him alive. His longing to meet me, they say, willed his deteriorating body to carry on through the late stages of heart failure. After I was born, his love for me and my parents' sense of our fleeting time together in Kabul led them to ask him to choose my name.
My baba jaan was a man of deep faith so having received this task from my parents that was the first place he turned. The story, as it's been recounted to me over the years, is that he sat down with his well-worn Quran and asked God to guide his hands as he opened it to a random page, a page that turned out to be the beginning of the Surah Yousuf, the narrative of the prophet Yousuf. Known for its lessons in righteousness, courage, patience and forgiveness, the twelfth surah of the Quran is regarded by Muslims as one of its most beautiful and lucid. For my grandfather, this was a revelation.
He named me Mohammad Yousuf Azam. These names — his first and most generous gifts to me — were weighty, meaningful, and, I've always assumed, a mark of his aspirations for me. The name Mohammad I shared with my two grandfathers and my father, who, like millions of other Muslims, carried it in the hope of being able to follow a path as virtuous as Prophet Mohammad. My name was a product of my grandfather's hopes and conviction; it was my inheritance.
In the months after I was born, Afghanistan fell deeper into turmoil. These were the early days of the Soviet occupation, a period marked by raids on civilians and the razing of entire towns considered by the Soviet-backed forces to be strongholds of the, at times, equally brutal Afghan resistance movement. Kabul, where my family was from, was the epicenter of the chaos.
Both sides of my family had always been politically active in Afghanistan in one form or another. They were writers and industrialists with a strong love of country and equally fierce penchant for outspokenness. My mother was the daughter of a political prisoner. Her father, Mohammad Tahir Besmil, along with a number of her uncles, spent over a decade in prison for their part in trying to orchestrate a takeover of the Afghan monarchy long before the Russians ever set their sights on the country. For my family, the rumors of house-to-house raids and hasty arrests rang too familiar. With Kabul becoming more dangerous by the day and with the blessing of their families, my parents decided to leave again, this time likely for good. The question then became how.
At the time, in addition to aggressively seeking out dissidents, the Russian-aligned government in Kabul was systematically conscripting men of fighting age, going door-to-door as if demanding alms for the poor.
Families, mine included, would routinely send away or hide their young men knowing that, once taken, the likelihood of their return from the brutal war was slim. My parents worried that trying to leave the country with my father, thirty years old at the time, would bring him exactly the sort of attention they desperately wanted to avoid. So they chose to split up and leave the country separately. Their plan was to make their way back to America but, as is the case for many refugees today, the path there was neither direct nor without peril.
My parents settled on Berlin as an eventual rendezvous point. My father had studied in Germany as a young man and his family had business contacts there that they thought would be useful in securing a visa to leave Kabul discreetly. Because she had no idea how long it would take him to be able to secure this visa, my mother resigned herself to being alone with me for some indeterminate length of time.
The thought of his young daughter-in-law languishing indefinitely on her own in a foreign land with his newest grandchild was unbearable for my baba jaan, who intervened to see if there was a way he could be with us until my father made his safe exit. Given the difficulty he knew he would have in obtaining a German visa, he suggested that my mother and I leave Afghanistan through neighboring India, then he could join us there while we waited for my father to find his way out. My mother, just twenty years old at the time, about to be a refugee for a second time and carrying a four-month-old baby, was glad to have the company, so she agreed. In a matter of we weeks were off to Delhi. My grandfather, in one of his final acts of devotion and in spite of his failing health, followed closely behind us.
India was safe if not pleasant, but then again our notion of safety was relative back then. Years after our time there my mother recounted stories of the unnerving poverty and desperation she encountered, as well as the many unexpected indignities she, like so many refugees, experienced on her journey to safety. One particularly harrowing incident involved an overnight ride on a dangerously overcrowded train during which we ended up in a bottom bunk only to realize that there was an incontinent elderly man in the bunk above. Too shocked to disturb him, too afraid to complain and cramped to move, all she could do to keep me calm and distract herself from the dripping urine-soaked mattress above her was to breastfeed me through the night. As she quickly discovered, India was no place for a young refugee mother, at least not mine, to be. So, with the prospect of my father's visa to Germany still uncertain, my mother made a decision to head to Berlin early, leaving India and my grandfather behind.
Several months went by before my father managed to leave Afghanistan. When he finally arrived in Berlin we wasted little time before making our way to New York City to seek asylum and start our life together as a family. My baba jaan never did end up making it back to Kabul. Not long after he got word in India that we made it to Berlin, he left this world to find his own peace.
* * *
Living in New York brought with it two things families like mine were eager to have: opportunity and anonymity. My mother, who had studied early education in Afghanistan and had been a schoolteacher in Kabul, started working almost as soon as she landed. The only English she knew she had picked up waiting tables at pizza shop in Virginia during her first stint in the United States. So she sought out work that demanded she say very little. Her first job in New York was sweeping floors and providing treatments at a beauty spa on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. My father, who had studied economics and was fluent in German and French started off selling newspapers at a corner kiosk in midtown Manhattan, not far from Rockefeller Center — where my office is today. The three of us lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Flushing, Queens while my parents saved money to start a business selling imported middle eastern rugs and tapestries.
While they eventually opened a rug gallery in the shadow of the Empire State building, their business began from the back of an old Chevy van that my father crisscrossed the United States. In, with me riding shotgun on occasion. From time to time, an African-American Muslim man named Hossein, whom my father had hired to help with the long drives, joined us. Of all the trips I took in that van, I remember the trips with Hossein most vividly.
Our van only had two seats so when Hossein was with us I would get to lay across the stack of dusty rugs in the back, intoxicated by the distinctive perfume of mothballs as my mind wandered. I remember watching our headlights cut through the otherwise unbroken darkness on overnight sprints, amazed at how boundless America seemed. On those drives and in those early years it felt like all of it was mine and I didn't have anyone around me to make me feel otherwise.
My father's family business in Afghanistan had been in shoes and leather. His family had owned several factories and shops in Kabul so it made sense that our New York rug business eventually evolved into a men's shoe store, where I started working before I was old enough to read. I can't recall the addresses of many of the places we lived when I was growing up but the address of that store, 264 Fifth Avenue, is etched in my mind; it was the only place I could see my parents most weeks. It was home, and the revolving cast of characters my parents hired to work there — almost exclusively African and Caribbean immigrants — became family.
New York in the 1980s, at the least the part that I grew up in, was full of families like mine who had recently come from some distant place in search of a better life. I went to school with a lot kids from those families and it wasn't hard to spot us if you knew what to look for. We were the ones who dressed a little differently and carried our lunches in repurposed plastic shopping bags that could never be tied tightly enough to contain the unfamiliar aromas from our home kitchens. You would have found us tagging along with our parents for parent-teacher meetings to help translate and working at our family-run businesses on the weekends. We stood out and were each vulnerable in our own way.
While I grew up not necessarily knowing what a refugee was or that I was one, I don't recall ever not knowing the feeling of being an outsider. It didn't help that for years the only identification I had was a green card with the words Resident Alien across the top. As a child I watched helplessly as my parents struggled, like many refugees do, to integrate into the United States. I became fixated on the notion of being somehow displaced myself. Even my name itself, like my green card, became a billboard for my foreignness.
Growing up, my name — Mohammad — caused me to dread the fall. While some kids fretted about months of monotony, my angst was focused squarely on the first moments of the school year when roll would be taken out loud for the first time. By the first grade, I had come up with a routine designed to ensure that my teacher wouldn't even utter the name Mohammad. Before the start of the first day of class, while most kids were saying goodbye to their parents or getting reacquainted with friends, I would seek out my new teacher to ask that they call me by my "real first name," Yousuf. The modest bargain I made with myself was that I would live with Yousuf, which sounded enough like Joseph to get me by, but I would rid myself of the name Mohammad, which I could not fashion into anything that could pass. And for whatever it's worth, I wasn't alone in making these sorts of compromises.
I had a lot of friends from immigrant families with strange sounding names and most of them went even further than I did in trying to fortify their American-ness. Instead of going by their given names, many of them took on noms de guerres like Michael, or Danny, or Jessica in the struggle to fit in. I never had the courage or the permission to go that far myself. I had abandoned Mohammad, but I never asked to be called Joseph or Joe, in part because it felt dishonest but mostly because I was worried about my parents somehow finding out and seeing it as a rejection of who we were. Ironically enough, years later they would do it for me.
* * *
In 1996, worn down by New York, my parents moved us to Orange County, California, a place that glimmered with blinding affluence and whiteness. One of the first places I went when we landed in California was my soon-to-be high school in Dana Point. I was a sophomore at the time, and while I never expressed to my parents the unease I felt in moving there, they recognized it. The effort I had put into curating my identity in New York, the ways I had come up with for managing my otherness — all of it would need to start anew, or so I thought.
When it came time to enroll me in school, my father made a choice that short-circuited my unrest, at least for a time. As we stood there at the registrar's counter, he very casually, and without so much as turning to me, registered me as Joseph Azam. To this day I don't know what went into his decision. Perhaps he and my mother had noticed my mushrooming anxiety, and, perhaps they realized it had something to do with how I thought I was going to fare in this new place. In any case, my father's decision liberated me from the immigrant self-gaze that had consumed me for so long, but it also felt like a death.
So much of what I had been through with my parents over the years — Kabul, India, Germany, our early days in New York — seemed to fall instantly out of focus as the name Yousuf faded. Being known as Joseph or Joe outside of my family brought with it the ordinariness and anonymity that I had so desperately wanted at age six, but at fifteen it brought me discomfort and waves of guilt at home.
I wondered what went through my parents' head when they'd call me down for dinner by a new name or if my young sisters, who quickly took to calling me Joe, would eventually forget the name they had called me when they first learned to speak. I wondered whether it stung my parents that on top of the many things they lost and left behind in Kabul, a decade and a half later they felt the compelled to surrender my name as well. More than anything, I brooded over what my grandfather would have thought of the way in which I had treated his exquisite gift to me.
I'll never know exactly how or to what extent going through high school under an alias colored my experience, or whether or not it somehow helped clear a path for me — to college back in New York, to graduate school, to law school, to a career in corporate America. What it did do was leave me with an entirely new dilemma over what was worse: being identifiably foreign or secretly false. It was a question I tortured myself with throughout high school and one that was thrown into relief not long after I graduated at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Center just south of Los Angeles.
My parents had become naturalized U.S. citizens when I was very young but hadn't gotten around to filling out the paperwork for me to claim my derivative citizenship until we had moved to California. I was eighteen years old by the time my application was up for review, which meant I had to go in for a citizenship interview as part of the process. I remember breezing through my interview and sitting in a drab corridor in the immigration center as I waited to submit my passport application that same day. The florescent lights above my head had lulled me into a trance when my eyes suddenly fixated on the first fields of the still blank application: Name (Last, First, Middle); Place of Birth; Address; List All Others Names You Have Used.
No sooner had I realized the choice that lay in front of me than my number was called; I found myself standing with my father at a counter once again being asked to register my name. This time the decision was mine alone to make, he made sure of that. At a loss for what to do and with an impatient clerk scowling at my empty form I panicked and dropped the stack of documents that I had been toting around all morning. Realizing that she had frazzled me, even if she was unsure of why, the clerk behind the counter told me to take my time gathering myself and cleaning up my mess. She had no idea how many years I had spent trying to do just that.
Excerpted from "The Displaced"
Copyright © 2018 Harry N. Abrams, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
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Table of Contents
Last, First, Middle JOSEPH AZAM, 10,
Flesh and Sand FATIMA BHUTTO, 21,
How Succulent Food Defeated Trump's Wall Before It Has Been Built ARIEL DORFMAN, 30,
The Parent Who Stays REYNA GRANDE, 37,
God's Fate ALEKSANDAR HEMON, 46,
Second Country JOSEPH KERTES, 60,
Refugees and Exiles MARINA LEWYCKA, 68,
The Ungrateful Refugee DINA NAYERI, 75,
A Refugee Again VU TRAN, 89,
Refugee Children: The Yang Warriors KAO KALIA YANG, 96,
List of Contributors to this Sampler, 105,