• Keynote Speaker, Zahra Arabzada

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Celebrating Unity Day 2022

Celebrating Unity Day 2022– a community-driven event at Fountain Valley School! Our day began in the Chapel with our guest speaker, Zahra Arabzada from Kabul, who spoke about her education in a United States boarding school, going to college, working in medical research, and then returning to Afghanistan. Despite the challenges she's faced throughout her life, Zahra has stayed strong and focused on her future.

After the keynote speech, students and faculty presented during breakout workshops centered around various cultural topics including Latin and Indian dance, Japanese flower arranging, Native American games and culture, and many more!

A special THANK YOU to all who have made this day possible – brave workshop leaders, faculty sponsors, and the many behind-the-scenes supporters.

Read her powerful speech:

"It is good to be with all of you on this special day!! My name is Zahra Arabzada. I want to thank Mrs. and Mr. Peterson for creating the space and opportunity for me to be here with all of you! And thank you all for being here today! 

Let me start by telling you a little bit about myself. I was born as an Afghan refugee in Iran and was later forced to return to my family’s hometown Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. I attended the first boarding school for girls in Afghanistan where I learned leadership skills, English and met many of my international mentors. At 15, I came to the US on a scholarship. 

I was an unaccompanied minor from one of - THE - MOST - CONSERVATIVE areas of Afghanistan, one of the most conservative countries in the world, who suddenly found herself at a private school in Rhode Island, not unlike Fountain Valley. Not the “easiest of transitions,” as you can imagine… Ignorance is bliss, they say! I was convinced that I spoke fluent English, knew all about the American high school system  (I had watched “Mean Girls” after all), and was ready and mature enough to start this new journey all by myself - all notions I would be disabused of very quickly on arrival.

But I survived high school, went on to study biochemistry, and after graduation worked in one of the US’ most renowned laboratories. And then my life was turned upside down again last summer when the Taliban took over Afghanistan - in a cruel replay of events that had first caused my family to become refugees over 25 years ago. It became clear that not only would I not be able to return to my home country any time soon but that my family was no longer going to be safe there either. 

I am here to tell you a bit about my and my family’s journey. And I have been asked to talk to you about identity and belonging - concepts I have spent a LOT of time thinking about. 

I want to share with you THREE insights that have served me well:
  1. The quest to belong is constantly evolving.   
  2. Get comfortable with the notion of not belonging. 
  3. Be creative and use your experience to connect with people. 
So first: our identities are constantly evolving.  

Let me take you back to the very first time I was made aware of my identity.  

It was 2003, I was six years old and I had just finished taking a quiz where I matched different shapes, wrote 1 to ten, and the Persian alphabet. In the end, I was handed a new set of coloring pencils and taken to another room where my mom was waiting for me. I stood right by the chair where my mom was sitting and facing a man in a suit. A massive Iranian flag hung behind him and he was holding my papers. He got closer and said “ Afarin” in Farsi, which means bravo and in response, I showed him my new set of coloring pencils. He then informed my mother that, despite having a perfect score and qualifying in principle to attend school with other Iranian children, the only option available to me was the school designated for Afghan refugees. The school with more pupils, less teachers, no heating, and certainly no colouring pencils.

At age six I was made aware of the limitations in place for an Afghan refugee in Iran. 

Despite being illiterate, both of my parents focused on one thing and that was to put all of us, 9 siblings through school. When Afghan children lost all access to education in Iran in 2005, my parents decided to return to Afghanistan. Afghanistan was the very first place that I belonged and there was a comfort in knowing that I would never be asked to leave. 

I soon came to realize that I was about to be lumbered with another "identity": that of being an independently minded woman in a highly traditional society.

The year was 2006, I was 9 years old, now living in my hometown Kunduz in northeast Afghanistan, close to Tajikistan. I decided to participate in a 5K running race organized by a telephone company. I had my eyes set on the orange bike that the top ten finishers would receive and was determined to not only participate, but WIN - never mind training, running gear, or understanding the concept of running. Police cars and humvees were guarding both sides of the street. My sister Fatima and I were among the top ten finishers of the 5K race, even though we almost keeled over when we finally reached the finish line in our flip flops, school uniforms, and hijabs…  “I guess pure stubbornness pays off!” But even though we were only nine and ten years old, our community considered us as girls to be too old to actually be biking in public, and so our bikes hung from our kitchen ceiling for years, unused, and collected dust. 

Fast-forward 12 years. By then, I had started running properly in high school in America, realized I liked it, realized it helped me cope with trauma and anxiety, and realized I was reasonably good at it. I had run a few half marathons and a trail marathon. 

In 2018, I finished a 50-miler trail race in under 16 hours. As I crossed the finish line in the dark, utterly exhausted, all I could think about was what it had taken me to get there, and FINALLY feeling like I belonged. It didn’t matter that I was Afghan, that I was Muslim, that I was a woman, or that I had been a refugee. 
I was a runner. I was an ultrarunner. And at that moment, I knew I could do anything. 
 
So I want to encourage you to acknowledge that some part of your identity is handed to you and can never be changed- such as being born in a specific place. 

But for other parts of your identity, you can make a choice; whether to accept or reject them, or whether to develop them into something else. 
 
Now I come to my second point: get comfortable with not belonging to one permanent place 
In 2012, I arrived in America with two suitcases and was absolutely taken back by the beauty of my new school in Rhode Island. I could probably fit half of my village in this space, I thought to myself. My advisor Mrs. deHorsey showed me my dorm room. She pointed at the sticker she had placed on the wall that showed the direction of Mecca. It was absolutely unremarkable to me that a teacher would point out to me the direction I needed to face to perform a Muslim prayer because I had never met anybody who did not pray five times a day. I didn’t think twice about it. But today, many years later, I recognize this as a special act of kindness towards a child who had arrived, all by herself in a foreign country with a different culture.

But even though the teachers made extra efforts to understand me, they must have found some of my behavior very odd. 

Every night before the eight or ten PM check-in, you could find me standing by the library asking if anyone was going back to my dorm house - less than 100 feet away from the library. 

There I was, wearing my hijab, carrying a backpack that was half my weight, with a thick accent repeating the same question over and over again. When I couldn’t find anyone, I would run as fast as I could in a complete frenzy, holding on to my scarf which always flew off my head. 

I eventually admitted to my teacher that I was extremely afraid of the dark and that I was unable to walk to my dorm from the library after sunset. 

See, for the first FIFTEEN YEARS of my life, I had NEVER stepped a foot outside ONCE after sunset. Nights were always affiliated with the sound of gunshots and the beginning of a dreadful 12 hour period. I spent the first few nights at my new school [DRAW QUOTATION MARKS] “sleeping” in my closet because my dorm bed had been placed under a window and I was afraid of what would happen if the glass shattered during an explosion. Can you imagine what I felt like when I had to walk back to my dorm at night on my own? 

After my confession, my teachers and my newly-made friends accompanied me to my dorm for months.  Soon it was enough if someone just stood by the library door as I walked to my dorm at a normal pace, and eventually, I was able to walk all by myself. 

I spent many Saturday nights just walking around, embracing this newly acquired skill. And:
  • I was finally able to eat clam chowder, something that had tasted really odd to me when I first arrived.
  • I no longer had to tell people to slow down when they spoke to me in English. 
  • And I got the hang of popular clothes brands, like lululemon, which one HAD to wear in order to be cool at my school - another alien concept in Afghanistan, where you had your clothes made by a tailor in the market.
But still, it was difficult to feel that I truly “belonged.” I was always “the Muslim girl” - with my headscarf, my long clothes during running practice, and the need for extra lessons to catch up on 10 years of inadequate education.

Two years later, I returned to Afghanistan for the first time. Suddenly, I was a stranger in my own country. People immediately picked out that I “had been away.” 
  • I stood too close to men in the lineup. 
  • I looked people in the eyes while talking rather than shyly looking at my feet. 
  • When I returned to my hometown, it seemed small in comparison to places like New York City or Washington D.C. I had been on a plane that took me halfway across the world and struggled to talk to people whose universe did not expand beyond the next village. 
It was cruel to realize that I no longer truly “belonged” in the place that formed - and continues to form - such a big part of my identity.

Over the course of the past decade, I was only able to return to Afghanistan twice - due to visa complications and because my presence as an educated, Westernised woman put my family at risk. The lack of access to my motherland brought pain and a continuous feeling of loss - but it also brought me the privilege and the opportunity to build another home. I made new friends, learned so much about this new country, and grew in the process.  
It was only then that I fully came to terms with the fact that belonging cannot simply be tied to a PLACE, and certainly not to ONE place. 
  • Despite never being accepted by the Iranian government or society, a part of me will always belong to the alleys of the camps where I spent the first years of my life. 
  • A part of me will always belong to the friends who knew me as “curly Zahra” who defied the rules in Kunduz.  
  • A big part of me will always belong to my friend Palwasha, with whom I attended demonstrations for women’s rights in Kabul, without fully acknowledging how dangerous that was.
And now, I have added new memories and new friends. 
  • A part of me belongs to my friend Julia who taught me English swear words and had me repeat them to the dorm parent, oblivious as to their real meaning.  
  • A part of me belongs to Mrs. Peterson who picked my outfits for the tea party for seniors with a matching white scarf. 
The CURSE with leaving different communities, cities, or countries is that a part of you will always and forever live in the places you left behind, and often it feels like you are oceans away from your soul. 
The BEAUTY of it is that you are given the opportunity to build so many new homes.
 
As YOU discover how you are changed as your community changes and as you move through life, use that experience to build new relationships, learn empathy, and grow in the process. 

And this brings me to a third insight that I wanted to share with you: Be creative.  Be the connector, the bridge between different communities in which you have ever existed. 

As you know, in August, the democratic government of Afghanistan collapsed and my country was taken over by the Taliban. Twenty-one years of hard work of so many Afghans and our allies crumbled in front of our eyes. Chaos and fear took over the entire country and EVERYONE rushed to the airport. 

Fifteen members of my family were still in Afghanistan; ten were hiding in a small apartment in Kabul, my parents in the basement of our house in Kunduz, and three were hiding in our village. Scattered all around Afghanistan, they all feared being persecuted by the Taliban for being lawyers, activists, human rights defenders - and for having educated their daughters and sisters abroad. The chaos grew every day and leaving Afghanistan seemed impossible. 

My sister and I started working on finding ways to evacuate them. It felt as though the lives of our family members depended on OUR ability to find a solution. With the passage of every day and a deadline of August 31 [QUIETER] - the final drawdown of US soldiers from Afghanistan - we were running a race against time and this was a race like no other. Soon we found that this was an impossible task to be done alone. 

I reached out to my support group in the US  and we were able to ask many government office holders to assist us in evacuating my family members. Many members of my first home away from home, boarding school, enabled me to continue pushing forward. Mr. Peterson took on the responsibility of editing all letters that we sent to various legislators. 

I combined forces with Free to Run, an organization that empowers women and girls to safely and boldly engage in sports in conflict areas. Twenty people from three different continents had one main mission. Day in and day out, we knocked on every door that we saw as an opportunity. We all encouraged – actually forced ;) – one another to go for a quick run, or sleep for an hour longer and to find motivation from resilient and strong family members or staff that we were hoping to evacuate. 

After many long, sleepless nights, my family was able to enter the airport and board a charter flight to Qatar on August 27th, the day after one of the deadliest suicide attacks, in which at least 183 people were killed, including 170 Afghan civilians. 13 members of the US military also died in the attack. Their sacrifices enabled my family members along with thousands of other Afghans to reach safety. 

As the charter flight finally took off from Kabul International airport, my eyes closed for 12 hours straight and a massive weight was lifted off my shoulders. It felt like this was the first time in weeks if not months that I got proper sleep, free of worries.

But this has not been the end of the struggle. My family members have lost their homes, their friends, everything that was familiar to them, and have arrived in a foreign country with literally the clothes on their backs. My parents are refugees for the second time in their lives, suffering the pain of losing access to their motherland for the second time. My father has lost vision in his left eye in the process due to a lack of access to a doctor. They have lived in four different countries, eight different military camps, two different temporary housings and as of the last month, 11 out of 15 of my family have moved into their final permanent apartments and the other four are still waiting to be resettled to their final home. They don't have any other choice but to build their lives here. 

I hope that none of you will have to go through the loss of your country and a nightmare evacuation to recognize the value of living in various communities.

I’ve resented war and poverty for stealing so many moments of my life that could've been joyful, stress-free, and “normal”. I have come to accept the very fact that those hard experiences, the heartache that came from not being able to see my father for seven years, losing access to my motherland, and many other experiences have also given me the resilience, strength, and maturity that I needed to succeed in life. 

I encourage you to make sure you make the most of the communities that you live in and learn as much as possible since you never know how you will be the bridge between communities. 

In these times of global connections, and at the same time, great divisions, humankind needs all of us to build bridges between communities and peoples so that we can all survive and thrive.  

So, in summary, here are the three lessons I shared with you:
  1. The quest to belong is constantly evolving. Understand your evolving self and be aware of your connections to your current community.   
  2. Get comfortable with the notion of not belonging. 
  3. Be creative and use your experience to connect with people. 
I hope the journey of each and every one of you is filled with adventures, joy, and opportunities to learn, grow and share.

Thank you for having me! "

-Zahra Arabzada

[Video of her speech can be found on FVS Channel on YouTube]
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