Guest post by Afifa Yusufi, a community activist in the Afghan community in New York. Afifa has served on the board of Women for Afghan Women, is a member of Business Council for Peace and a number of other nonprofit organizations. She is currently serving as a board member and vice president of a Virginia-based nonprofit, which helps women and children in Afghanistan. She is a contributor to the book One Story, Thirty Stories: An Anthology of Contemporary Afghan American Literature. She has a B.A. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Queens College and is currently completing her MSW.
It’s the summer of 1985. I am five and my sister Farida is eight or nine. My oldest brother Quasim is driving my mom, Farida and me to Queens from Albany. My brother Hamid is staying in Albany because he doesn’t want to come on this trip with us. It’s my first trip to Flushing. Farida and I are in the back seat of our green four-door sedan. We are listening to Afghan music, which sounds more like clashing pots and pans than music (years later, I’ll learn to love this music).
The drive is long and the trees along the highway are beautiful and green. Looking out the window, I see fields of green grass and farmland. But as soon as we cross a bridge, the view changes from rocks, trees and fields of grass to congested streets, tall buildings, cars and lots of diverse-looking people. I have never seen so many Asians before. I notice the graffiti all over the trucks and walls, and I see garbage on the streets. Seeing all these cars and tall bridges, I feel excited. There is so much for Farida and I to absorb and be amused by, especially after being in the car for almost thee hours! Out of boredom, Farida and I start to match the shapes of the lights on the bridges and cars with the different eye shapes of people we see on the street. We call out almond-shaped lights as Afghans, Arabs and Indians. We call the narrow-shaped lights Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese. The round lights are European. I have never seen so many diverse groups of people in one place, nor so many shaped headlights and bridge lights.
We are young and think all Asians look the same, but now we see so many different faces. Are they Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean? We have never heard of Koreans before! There are so many things we have never heard of. My parents’ friends once took me to Coney Island and I heard so many people speak a language I had never heard. I found out the language they were speaking was Spanish.
We arrive at the mosque/community center on Sanford Avenue, where my father has been involved for some time.
It’s a big old white colonial house with many floors and rooms and a cabin in the backyard. The basement is eerie with an old dentist’s office full of rusted equipment and cement models of hundreds of peoples’ teeth. Maybe the person who once owned this big white house was a dentist.
My favorite part of the house is the small wooden cabin in the backyard. My little friends from the mosque and I go inside it and see the shelves and shelves of books. I feel as if it is my own private space and I host tea parties for my friends. I pick up the books off the dusty cobwebbed shelves and pretend I know how to read and what the book is about. I want so badly to know what words all these tiny letters on these pages form and what stories they tell. I’m only five and in kindergarten, but I wonder if I will ever be able to understand what is in these books. I love playing with the kids coming to the mosque and running from one room to another and discovering all these old things the previous owners left behind.
I begin to like it in Flushing. My family finally moves in to the second floor of a three-story building on Barclay Avenue. We have nice Afghan neighbors that live above us and below us. My brother thirteen year-old brother Hamid, is hesitant to move to the chaotic city at first and wants to stay with my grandmother in Albany, but finally decides to come to Flushing. I enroll in PS 22 and my dad walks me to and from school every day. My parents take us to pray at the mosque often, and I meet many friendly and nice Afghans –adults and children—and I realize that my dad is getting very involved in the leadership.
Soon my older sister comes to visit with her daughter Jessica from Ohio for several months, while she finishes her Masters in teaching. She buys a house on Long Island and moves to the city with her husband, who gets a job as a deputy commissioner for Mayor Koch.
My sister Fauzia grows up to be a very pretty young sixteen year-old and starts getting requests for marriage. Many of my father’s friends ask for her hand for their sons, but my parents do not agree. There is a man who has probably seen her at the mosque and asks his sister-in-law to come and ask for Fauzia’s hand, and the sister-in-law does. This man becomes my future brother-in-law. My parents agree because they like this young man, who is from the same area in Afghanistan that we are from and our families knew each other back there.
A year passes and I finish kindergarten. I become close friends with the downstair’s neighbor’s daughter, Soniya. Fauzia gets married and I learn to play Chinese jump rope. Mr. Softee is a daily treat and hearing the sound of the truck is the highlight of my day. I wear charm necklaces and jelly shoes. I hear Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita” and Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” on boom boxes on the street and they become my all-time favorite songs. These are my first memories of Flushing in 1985.