“You are rich, if you live in America you are rich” repeated Andrew Nouri, 24, as we sat in the Athens Alliance-Relief center. Andrew, who has lived in Afghanistan his entire life up until last year, bases his view of America off movies, music, and celebrity tabloids. His youngest siblings, Dara and Daria, age 7 and 9, were the most intrigued by America. “I do not like Afghanistan,” Dara told me. “I do not like my home in Afghanistan, and I do not like now living in Greece.” When I asked them why that is, the younger of the two, Daria, responded “It is not America, and I just love America.” I listened to them go on about the wonder of America, a country to which they have never been. Even their studying of the English language is fueled by the hope that one day they will live in America. But does America live up to these expectations?
To get the perspective of an Afghan American, I first spoke with Shah Haya, 70, who has been in this country for 46 years. “When I moved here (1971), it was the America I thought.” Haya told me, “There was so much opportunity to build yourself up. You could find work and study. Today, it’s not. Today it is limited and hard.” While many in Afghanistan still operate under a romanticized view of the Western world, he points out the discrepancies that have come to be. “You want to educate yourself,” he tells me, “but you cannot do that here, because of the price. So you have to work, you have to pay, you have to borrow money from the bank who will charge you all that you have.” Haya feels he has watched the country shift from one with countless opportunities of growth to one that sets traps to keep its people in debt. “And then, when you finish school, you have to pay all these bills, and you just work for companies, you don’t work for yourself. Education and healthcare should be free.” This now money-hungry country is not the one of opportunity and support that Haya expected and first knew. “If the government spent money on the right things, there will be change, good change. I wish one day I am alive to see these changes, but I don’t think so anymore.” Haya concluded.
Relating to the experience described by Shah Haya, a man by the name of Emde Mirza took the time to speak with me on America’s growing competitive nature, and how it has warped the country from what he expected. Bundled in a winter jacket, scarf, and hat, Mirza has operated his own produce stand for 4 years on 112th st. “I love the stand, but really there is not much other things for me to do” Mirza explained. Before coming to America 11 years ago in 2006, Mirza lived in Kabul, Afghanistan. He was under the impression that the American assists the pursuit of an education without the burden of unreasonable price tags. “You come to America, you study, and you can be Lawyer, Doctor, anything you want.” said Mirza describing his view of America prior to moving here. Mirza was surprised and to a degree, discouraged by the competitive and expensive nature within both Universities and the job market. “It is hard to do much else,” he reiterates while ringing up several customers, “but it is a good place with no crime.”
Exploring a different aspect of American expectation vs reality, I spoke with Sal Bahri, a man on an extended visit from his home in Afghanistan. “I expected more pride from where you are from. It is home to immigrants, but nobody keeps their culture after a while.” Recognizing America, and specifically New York City as one of the most culturally diverse and expressive places in the world, I questioned this assertion of Bahri’s. He went on to ask where I am from, not where I was born, rather where my grandparents were from, and their parents, he was asking for my heritage. Upon telling him that I am of Italian descent, but do not speak Italian, he responded “Yes, that is what I mean. Your parents did not keep the culture, the language, they did not teach you to keep it.” Bahri had expected America to be a melting pot of cultures around the world even more so than it already is. He was under the impression that there was not much of an “American-only culture” at all,but that all Americans strongly held on to the culture of their original heritage. “It is not too bad a thing, but worries me that I would lose my culture if I moved” Bahri added.
While discrepancies in expectations are widespread, nearly everyone I spoke to, in the same breath, made a point to mention their fondness of America. While America may not have streets of gold and the unparalleled opportunities of an easy climb to riches, it is still the home that many long for. It was Shah Haya who told me, “When i come to this country, I didn’t feel like I’m a foreigner. When i come to New York I was thinking that I fit with Americans. I don’t even feel different.”