Ahmed Zabi Rahat was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, and came to the US a decade ago on a US State Department’s funded program (YES) for high school students. He completed his Bachelors in Economics with Political Science minor from Bluffton University, Ohio. He also holds a Masters in Conflict Transformation and Peace-building from Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), Virginia. In his personal narrative, Ahmed shares how compassion and open communication transcends the barriers of faith and race for social harmony in a country as diverse as America. He is currently working as an Organizational Development Coordinator for the Center for the Theory of Change.
My story about how I ended up in a small town in America from Kabul is perhaps almost a fairy-tale. I was welcomed and became part of a wonderful, supportive and loving community. I consider myself lucky and blessed to have the opportunity to have grown and to continue learning and growing in America.
I spent most of my childhood in Afghanistan. I don’t usually like to recall my childhood since it was filled with pain, grief and war; however, those experiences have really helped shape my identity and have made me more resilient in more ways than I can count.
I came to America through a State Department and American Council funded High School Exchange Student Program called Youth Exchange Student (YES) in 2007. The program only accepted 40 students (20 male, 20 female) out of ten thousand students who applied that year. After going through multiple exams and spending a month in Kyrgyzstan to get acquainted with the US culture and customs, I finally arrived in America in summer of 2007.
The program placed Afghan students randomly with American families around the US. I was placed with the Martin family in Berne, Indiana. Berne is a small town. It was settled around 1852 by Mennonite immigrants who came directly from Switzerland, and named the community for the capital of Switzerland. The Martin family is also from the Mennonite cultural and religious background. Mennonites are Christian groups belonging to the church communities of Anabaptist denominations named after Menno Simons (1496–1561) of Friesland in what is now the Netherlands. Mennonite emphasize adult baptism, rejects violence/war and are immense advocates of peace, building relationships and solidarity with other faiths and cultures.
In Kabul, my high school had over eight thousand students, more than the entire town of Berne. Berne is not a very diverse town. So, when an Afghan student moved there, the word got around. Before coming to America, I was nervous, afraid and uncertain about what I would be facing.
The Martin family, whom I consider my family now, and the Mennonite community welcomed me with loving, caring and open arms. I was able to speak to church members and the community about Islam, Afghan culture, and the relationship between Christianity and Islam. I was able to share how Islam viewed Jesus and Mary and how I grew up learning about Jesus, his teachings, and his importance in Islam. I quickly became a bridge between the two cultures and the two religions. Although I am not versed in theology for either Christianity or Islam, I quickly began connecting the dots and saw many similarities between the two faiths, particularly how they viewed spirituality, one’s relationships with God, family values, and community ethics.
After finishing High School at South Adams in Berne with the support of Martin family and my family in Afghanistan, I was granted a scholarship to attend Bluffton University for my Bachelor’s degree. Bluffton like Berne, is also held within a very small community. Similar to my experience at Berne, I was welcomed with open and loving arms at Bluffton University. My American friends come from diverse backgrounds. Some of my friends are hardcore liberals and some are hardlined conservatives. I have friends who are in the Marines and have served in Afghanistan, and I also have friends who are conscientious objectors.
One of my friends invited me to his grandfather’s birthday party when I was a student at Bluffton University. His grandfather is a Vietnam veteran. The entire family welcomed me and were great hosts. They had a corn-hole tournament and his grandfather and I teamed up and won the tournament. I also tasted moonshine for the first time in my life with his grandfather… I must say that it was also the last time I tried it!
Some Muslims and immigrants from the Middle East or Central Asia have negative experiences with small towns or the southern parts of America, and some do face prejudice and racism. My experience was the contrary. I developed my identity in Bluffton and Berne with the Martins, and I very rarely felt not welcomed or at home.
I played soccer at Bluffton University; was a student leader, and a resident advisor to students on campus. I received a Bachelor’s degree in Economics with a minor in Political Science. After receiving my Bachelor’s degree, I attended Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Virginia and received my Master’s in Conflict Transformation and Peace-building with an MBA Graduate Certification in Social Entrepreneurship. Just like Berne and Bluffton, EMU also accepted and welcomed me with open, caring, and loving arms.
My American friends and my family (Martin Family) never asked me to change religion or act American. We fight, laugh, love, and cry together. They love me for who I am, with my imperfections… and I love them for their support and friendship. That is what America and American value is to me. My identity is a combination of a variety of different experiences with diverse communities. I am a third culture person. Islam, Christianity, Afghanistan, and America are all part of my identity, and will continue to shape my life as I grow and learn.
My greatest achievements have been my relationships with my Afghan and American families, finishing graduate school, working, and living/surviving in New York City. I have many great stories and experiences that I can share from the last decade.
As Mother Teresa quoted: “Some people come in our life as blessings and some as lessons.” I have had the pleasure of learning from both blessing and lessons.
Communication, love, and kindness have broken many barriers in my life. When people come together to listen and understand, we can truly break cultural, religious and political barriers, as I have and will continue to do so. That is what I believe when encompassing my identity as both an American and an Afghan.