For as long as she can remember, her Asian features had made Hadia Sadiqi a target for ostracism in her native Afghanistan. Anyone who saw her knew instantly that she was Hazara, part of a long-persecuted ethnic minority. Non-Hazara children teased her, and teachers singled her out for harsh punishment and eventual expulsion, she said, simply because of her distinctive appearance.
“Look at me,” she said. “I look Asian, not Indian or Middle Eastern.”
The Hazara hail from Hazārajāt, a mountainous region of central Afghanistan, and are thought to descend from Mongol soldiers who traveled with Genghis Khan in the 13th century. The Hazara people speak their own dialect of Persian, Hazaragi, and most are Shi’a Muslims. By contrast, the majority of Afghan Muslims are Sunni.
After the Taliban seized power in 1996, a jihad against the Shi’a Hazaras brought increased persecution. As recently as March 2018, an ISIL suicide bomber killed 33 people in a Hazara area of Kabul. Months later, an attack on a Hazara wrestling club in the Afghan capital claimed 30 lives. A suicide car bomber, followed by a series of other explosions, killed scores of school girls in Kabul on May 8, 2021. Dozens of them came from Hazara families.
But it was a family situation, not fear of the Taliban, that drove Hadia, her mother, two younger brothers and one of her sisters to flee from Afghanistan. They escaped via Pakistan and eventually made their way to Oregon. In Portland, Hadia said some Afghans subjected her to the same anti-Hazara sentiments that had plagued her in Afghanistan. This time, in a new country, she stood firm against her demons.
“I have two different lives,” she said in a Zoom interview from her home in Northeast Portland. “Back home I couldn’t even think about going to college and having a career. I couldn’t think about helping others. It was me, always receiving help.”
So this is the story of a 25-year-old woman whose father was brutally murdered, whose mother forged a career that provided the family with contacts among the U.S. military and diplomatic corps living in Afghanistan, and who freely admits that she fibbed about her age in order to pursue the education she missed out on in her home country.
As was the tradition among many Hazara, Hadia’s grandparents were farmers. But when their land in central Afghanistan was seized by the Taliban, “they had no choice but to move to Kabul.” Both her parents were born in the Afghan capital.
At school, Hadia said at least one teacher subjected her to “racism,” blaming her for things she had not done and faulting her relentlessly. Other students teased her so much that in seventh grade, Hadia stopped going to school.
“I felt shameful. I didn’t want to show my face at school,” she said. “My nickname at school was ‘Chinese.’ I didn’t know anyone Chinese, and I am not from China.”
Right around the time that she left school, Hadia’s father was murdered in a brazen robbery in the family’s Kabul home. The killer was the boyfriend of one of her older sisters who broke into the home late at night, searching for money and other valuables. At first, the police and even some family members blamed Hazia’s mother, Basira Sadiqi.
“First she lost her husband, and she had six kids to raise,” Hadia said. “And also she lost her reputation.”
With little formal education and no work experience outside the home, Hadia’s mother turned a hobby into an enterprise as she began making and marketing embroidery work. Word about the quality of her designs traveled, and the business expanded to the point where Hadia’s mother hired 20 other Hazara women to work with her. Meanwhile, she fended off proposals of marriage.
“In our culture, if your husband dies, you are supposed to marry his brother,” Hadia explained. “I had an uncle who wanted to marry her. But she said, ‘enough of husbands. I want to be me.’”
Her mother wanted Hadia to go back to school, this time in the company of her younger brothers. Afghan schools are gender-segregated, so Hadia was the only girl in a boys’ school. That experiment ended when the teacher wouldn’t let Hadia use the boys’ restroom.
Hadia felt purposeless. The only future she could see ahead of her was to get married — and there were offers. But Hadia did not see marriage as an automatic safety net. Her parents’ marriage had not always been happy. Her father was “a good guy,” she said, but very critical, “whatever you did, it wasn’t perfect.” Hadia wanted more. She just wasn’t sure what that entailed.
As her mother’s business thrived, Hadia saw a change in her as well. From a start with a stall in a crafts market, Basira picked up clients among the American and European communities in Kabul. Word spread to the U.S. military camp, where female Army soldiers were eager to buy her colorful products, and male soldiers wanted handmade souvenirs for their wives and girlfriends. With her children in tow, Basira started selling her wares at a weekly bazaar at the camp.
For Hadia, the trips to the camp opened her eyes to a world she had not dreamed of. She had never before seen Black Americans, nor had she met many people with pale skin, pale hair and pale eyes. She did not speak English, but still she felt a sense of warmth.
“When I entered the camp and saw people from other countries, especially Americans and Australians — they were kind and they made me feel loved,” Hadia said.
“At first I was afraid because they had guns,” she went on. “But even though we didn’t speak English, we could see in their eyes how much they felt for the Afghan people.”
Basira’s business did so well that she saved enough money to buy a house for her family. But threats began arriving from the killer of Hadia’s father. No one was ever brought to justice for the crime, and the perpetrator feared punishment if he did not take further retribution. Specifically, warnings came that Hadia’s younger brothers would be the next victims. Basira decided that the only way to save her family was to leave the country.
“We never even lived in the new home,” Hadia said.
It was 2014. Her oldest sister was married and remained in Afghanistan. The rest of the family packed up in less than a week and made their way to Pakistan.
“Five people in a taxi,” Hadia said. “The road from Kabul to Pakistan was all Taliban, really dangerous.”
Although they had no passports or government identification cards, they crossed the border and arrived in Attock, in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Through a friendly Afghan, they found a place to live. Once again, her mother’s resourcefulness kicked in as she started a carpet-making business with her children as laborers.
But their status as Hazara marked them as outsiders. The carpet trade was filled with bribery and corruption, Hadia said. Her mother applied for emigration through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“The Americans, luckily, accepted our paperwork, but my mom refused to go to the United States because of all the bad stuff she had heard,” Hadia said.
Americans were amoral, her mother insisted. Women in the U.S. did not cover their heads. Criminals were everywhere. People used foul language in everyday discourse. Basira told her children they would hold out for permission to emigrate to Australia or New Zealand.
But permission from those countries was not forthcoming. When U.S. officials once again offered the family a chance to relocate — and said it would be their last such offer — Basira relented.
“When we were accepted, they didn’t tell us where we were going to go,” Hadia said. “When we got to the airport, they told us we were going to Portland, Oregon.”
They were puzzled. What was this place, Portland, Oregon? “But the immigration guy at the Islamabad airport told us not to worry, ‘Portland is in America. You’ll be fine,’” Hadia said.
Like so many young refugees, Hadia imagined America to be a glamorous land of luxury, conjured up by some Hollywood screenwriter. In Portland, the taxi deposited the Sadiqi family at a run-down apartment building in Northeast Portland, scenically located next to a homeless shelter.
“I was like, is this where I am going to live for the rest of my life? I used to live in a big house, even in Pakistan,” Hadia recalled. “I was confused. Why am I here? Me, being neighbors with a shelter?”
But if the surroundings were disappointing, the people Hadia met were the opposite. Leslie Gould and her husband Peter — along with Leslie’s two sisters — had volunteered to serve as cultural liaisons for a newly arrived refugee family in Portland. Serving as commander of a field hospital in Afghanistan, Peter Gould, a nurse, had felt a powerful connection to that country and its people, said Leslie, a novelist and adjunct professor at Warner Pacific University. Peter had helped five of the doctors who worked as his translators in Afghanistan to emigrate to America. Not so secretly, he hoped that the immigrant family they would be assigned to would turn out to be Afghan.
The Goulds took the Sadiqis grocery shopping, to medical appointments and explained the city’s public transportation system. Leslie remembers frantically texting one of Hadia’s younger brothers, Mohammed. It was the Sadiqis’ first Ramadan in the United States, and they were gathered at Beaverton’s Islamic Center of Portland, the region’s only Shi’a mosque. It was late at night, and Leslie was worried about how the Sadiqis would get home.
“The MAX train shuts down at midnight,” she texted. “Be sure to get the train before it shuts down for the night.”
Hadia says now that maybe she was a little extravagant on some of the shopping trips she took with Leslie or her sisters. At the time, Hadia says, she did not know the Goulds were paying for the purchases out of their own pocket.
“Not at all,” Leslie demurs. “It was our privilege.”
One day, driving to meet the Sadiqis at their apartment, Leslie encountered a SWAT-team vehicle. For a moment, she froze, worried that the sight would re-traumatize the Afghan family. She feared that the family might be too frightened to leave their home. But off they went, no problem, said Leslie: “They didn’t say a word.”
Though the Goulds suspected that Hadia might be older than the age listed on her paperwork, they never questioned her. On the contrary, they came to admire the spirit of a young woman who had been plucked out of her own culture, far away and deposited in a new and challenging environment.
“She was so spunky, so resilient,” Leslie said.
“In every way, my heart just melts when I think about what they did for us,” Hadia said. “Without these people, we would have been so lost here.”
That fall, Hadia enrolled in middle school. She was not tall and had what she describes as a babyface. She barely spoke English and had little education beyond seventh grade. But she had six or seven years on all her classmates, and that fact made her terribly uncomfortable.
“I was feeling so old because I was actually old,” she said.
She quickly transferred to Reynolds High School. Once again, she was older than her freshman classmates, “but nobody knew it.” She fell into a group of other immigrants, struggling just as much as she was to find a place for themselves in a new land.
“That was positive. That was what kept me in high school,” she said.
But once again, she encountered Afghan students who looked down on her as a Hazara. It is possible that very few humans on the planet are meaner than some teenage girls. Hadia loved the school. But the contempt, the snide comments, the teasing from the other Afghan girls made her life miserable. She was ecstatic when her family moved to an apartment in Northeast Portland and she could settle into Madison High School (recently renamed Leodis V. McDaniel High School.)
As her English improved, so did her confidence. One day, she marched into the offices of IRCO (Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization) and announced that she needed a job. You are 14, she said they told her, relying on the age that Hadia had given them; no one will hire you. But an African friend offered to call someone he knew at a Portland restaurant. Soon Hadia was cooking and cleaning at a restaurant in Northeast Portland called the Horn of Africa. She continued to work there until the pandemic shut down all but a small takeout business.
Her grades and student activities were so strong that by her junior year at Madison, Hadia decided to apply for a scholarship that would take her to Princeton University for the summer. Just as she received word that she had been selected, her family learned that Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services was demanding repayment of the cost of flying them from Pakistan to the U.S. This came as a surprise to Hadia, who had never asked how their trip was financed.
Hadia took the scholarship, and when she returned to Portland from Princeton, she worked two jobs and, with the help of some teachers, set up a GoFundMe account. Within a few months, she had paid the $5,700 loan off in its entirety.
She had also cast off her hijab, a decision that displeased her mother, who prays every week at the Islamic Center of Portland. Hadia said she remains an observant Muslim but prefers not to cover her head unless she is among other Muslims.
In June 2020, Hadia graduated from Madison High School. She was a member of the International Youth Leadership Council and started a peer-to-peer counseling program called New Dreamers. Her grade point average was 4.0 — “always at the top of my grade. I have a lot of motivation,” she said.
That streak of determination came in handy when she plunged into remote learning at Portland Community College.
“I learn better when I am in a classroom,” she said. “Then I said, ‘This is my first time going to college. I am going to do my best.’”
Hadia said family members in Afghanistan still express dismay that at 25, she remains unmarried. What will become of her? But she revels in the opportunities that await her. She dreams of working in the medical field, ideally as a dentist. Her “backup plan” is to become a high school counselor.
“Back home, we had a great life, but we could not fit in,” Hadia said. “Afghanistan was not my option. I just lived there for a while. Now I feel like America is my choice.”