Home is Where The Heart Is: Part I

original article published October 5, 2021 by the Tri-City Voice

Fremont Welcomes Afghan Refugees

The recent withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and the swift takeover by Taliban forces has sent thousands of Afghan families suddenly scrambling for a way out. Many with US ties are literally fleeing for their lives, desperately hoping for a seat on an airplane that will fly them away from their homeland, now in control by a historically repressive and anti-American regime.

This is just the latest crisis to unfold in a country that has been devastated by decades of drought, famine, and war. The Soviet invasion of 1979, the first Taliban takeover in the 1990’s, and the American invasion in 2001, have all sent Afghans fleeing to other countries, including the United States. In 2019 there were at least 132,000 foreign-born Afghan immigrants living in America, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Many Afghan refugees now call Fremont home. A 2009 study showed the city had the largest Afghan population in the US with as many as 30,000 living in the area. Says Mayor Lily Mei, “We have one of the largest Southeast Asian Indian and Chinese populations, and we are also home to one of the largest Afghan populations outside of Afghanistan.”

Afghan restaurants, markets, and other businesses line a small stretch of Fremont Blvd in Centerville, an area affectionately referred to as “Little Kabul”. Where else can you buy freshly baked naan bread, halal meat, or shop for a variety of products imported directly from Afghanistan and Pakistan?

So when the Taliban took control of Kabul, it hit this area hard. Friends and relatives of those stuck in Afghanistan waited desperately for news of what was unfolding over 7,500 miles away. Mywand Zazay, a young Afghan American who opened the Zazay Halal Grill in 2015, says his father is still there. “He left for vacation, and that’s when everything went down.”

Zazay’s parents came to the US in the 1990’s and settled in Fremont. He was born in Oakland, a first generation American-born Afghan. Zazay, like so many others, has become part of the “great American melting pot”. And no place is more diverse than the Bay Area, where hundreds of cultures and ethnicities are represented.

Says Hayward City Councilmember Aisha Wahab, “We’ve always been very open to foreign cultures in the Bay Area. You can walk five miles and run into people from the most random parts of the world, people who have made the Bay Area their home. I think it makes people feel at ease, thinking that they’re not the only ones who are going to stick out like a sore thumb.”

Wahab is the first Afghan American woman to be elected to public office in the United States. She cites another popular theory as to why so many Afghan refugees settle here. “Many people say it reminds them of Afghanistan – the hills, the weather. It’s beautiful. Unfortunately, you look at Afghanistan today and it’s not the same Afghanistan that my parent’s generation came from. So much war has destroyed everything.”

Wahab is proud of the response from local government to the current crisis. Cities throughout the Bay Area have all stepped up and declared their support for Afghanistan, and have pledged to continue to welcome Afghan refugees with open arms. Says Wahab, “The Taliban poses a great threat in so many ways. It’s the average people in the street who are protesting that give hope for the future of the country.”

While the Taliban has officially condoned travel in and out of Afghanistan, and has tried to reassure the world that they are a “kinder, gentler” reincarnation of their 1990’s tyrannical self, the signs all point to a return of public executions and the systematic oppression of women. Says Zazay, “There are still flights out of Kabul now and then, but you still need to go through security, and there are checkpoints everywhere. They can stop you and search your car at any time. That’s why my dad is staying put. Even though he’s Afghan-born and well known there, if you go out, there’s too much of risk of being apprehended and questioned by the Taliban.”

Zazay helped organize a rally, in coordination with the City of Fremont, that took place on August 21. Over 70 people attended, marching down Thornton Avenue carrying signs that read ‘Keep The Airport Open”, ‘Save Our Allies”, and “Evacuate Afghanistan Now’. Says Zazay, “It was a call to action. It was amazing to see the amount of support we got from the community, old and new alike. This is what we need to do more of. This is what makes a difference.” Hundreds attended a similar rally at Hayward City Hall on August 18.

It has been over a month now since Kabul fell to the Taliban. Most of those who have been able to get out are now living on a US military base somewhere in the world, awaiting the moment when their paperwork is processed and they are clear to enter the country of their choice. For most of them, that means the United States, and a chance to start over, literally, as many have escaped with just the shirts on their backs and a few prized possessions.

In may respects, Fremont has become the New Afghanistan. Despite the high cost of living, Afghan refugees continue to arrive here, joining friends and family who have already made the long journey, and drawn by the prospect of becoming part of a community that reminds them of home.

For More Information and For Ways You Can Help:

City of Fremont Afghan Relief Help Fund: https://www.fremont.gov/ARHelp

Afghan American Women’s Association: https://a-awa.org/

Afghan Coalition: https://www.afghancoalition.org/

International Rescue Committee: https://www.rescue.org/

Jewish Family & Community Services: https://jfcs-eastbay.org/urgent-afghan-evacuation/

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