Editor’s note: In My Childhood, part 1, Rahela described her beloved older sister’s marriage at age fifteen and her mother’s attempt to feed five children with bread baked in a primitive oven. When her father’s business failed, the family immigrated to Iran. Her story continues here.
When we decided to emigrate to Iran, to a place just across the western border of Afghanistan near Herat, we had to sell everything to make money for the trip.
On the way, the weather was very cold and we spent a night in a room. My father warmed my hands with the candle that provided lighting for the room. My parents told me we would have a better life in Iran.
When we arrived, we stayed at my aunt’s house for about one month until my father found a job. We rented two rooms beside my aunt’s house where we had a shared bathroom and kitchen.
Everything improved and I prepared to go to school. The Iranian school could not accept me because Afghans were required to pay tuition and my father could not afford tuition for all five children. But there was also an Afghan school nearby so we registered here.
Life in Iran was much better for us than in Afghanistan. There was discrimination and harassment against Afghan people but I went to school and made lots of Afghan friends and my teachers liked me. I was very calm and respected them and I tried to participate in my classes and do some artwork. I joined the choir and led the chanting of Islamic hymns. Once we gave a concert for about 400 students. I remember my school’s library. It was small with about 200 books and I was amazed. I wanted to read all of them. I liked the books with pictures and cartoons.
I enjoyed life in Iran because we had electricity and we did not have to pump the well for ten minutes just to fill a 20-liter barrel. We did not have to carry our clothes to the river to do our laundry. In Afghanistan, it was a ten-minute walk to the river to wash the clothes. My mother did not have to make bread and burn her hands and eyebrows, and I didn’t have to eat burned bread dipped in water.
At first, my father worked as carpenter and then he became a welder and a builder. He learned many skills and did the work of an engineer, constructing many different types of buildings, although he could not be recognized as an engineer in Iran. Nor could he buy a house or a car because we were Afghan.
My brothers went to work from an early age. They worked as apprentices in Iranian shops and as street vendors and peddlers. One of my brothers sold magazines, the other hawked for customers for a photography shop, and the youngest sold bread near a Shi’ite shrine. They would come home with a sore throat from all the shouting. I helped them by going with them and watching over their inventory.
While I waited, I would do my homework. In cold or warm weather, I would sit in a shelter—near a wall or on a bench—for five or more hours each day with my books.
My brothers had problems because the Iranian authorities didn’t let them sell at the subway, so they would run away whenever they saw an official approaching. Nonetheless, my brothers were able to afford school supplies with what they earned. Such were our lives. I gained confidence from helping my brothers.
I never made an Iranian friend. I did not have the courage to introduce myself as Afghan because Iranians would ridicule us. When I completed sixth grade, my family decided to return to Afghanistan. It was 2002, and Karzai had become president.
When I turn the pages of my book of childhood, there are lots of paragraphs and sentences about my soul and about life experiences too sad to explain. At least I am lucky to have an education so I can write about some parts of my life. Although my childhood is now just a memory, I draw lessons from my experiences that help to guide me in present times. I can empathize with people who suffer from poverty and understand how they might be helped. These experiences have made me stronger. They taught me that good things don’t come easily; we should take care and make the most of that which is precious to us.
Photo: Spc. Michael D. Carter