From Khwara Banda to Muncie, Indiana
Mohammad Saber Bahrami’s story as told to Bibi Bahrami
I was born in a very small village in the Laghman province in Afghanistan to Shamsi and Bahram. The village was called “the poor people village” or “khwara banda.”
When I was five years old, my father died of tuberculosis. My only memory of him is standing at the end of his deathbed. My mother was left a widow and I an only child. She raised me on her own after making the decision not to remarry. She supported me by working tirelessly, farming and sewing.
During this time in rural Afghanistan, most people did not realize school was important. Most people remained focused on survival. Since my mother was a widow living in poverty, her decision to put me in school was unexpected. Although my mother was never educated herself, she was wise, and she knew that an education would create opportunities for me. She sacrificed so much by working twice as hard so that I could go to school instead of work.
Her sacrifices encouraged me to work hard in school, and, by the time I got to high school, I was first in my class. After getting the highest score in my district in the national qualifying exam, I was selected to be a foreign exchange student in America, a place I had only allowed myself to dream about. My only hurdle was getting my family’s approval. Although most of my family was against me going, my mother gave me her unwavering support.
My trip to America was astonishing in all aspects. Coming from a village with no electricity, no roads, no cars, no stores, and little sustenance, traveling on an airplane alone was a major shock. Arriving in New York City was extraordinary, and I was excited to see all that America had to offer. I took a bus to Sedalia, Missouri, where I stayed with an American host family, the DeMondts. I was pleasantly surprised by the generosity of my host family, my teachers, and the entire community. I honestly felt like a celebrity in my high school, and I greatly appreciated the warm welcome.
I remember learning something very important in my first week from our neighbor, Susie. In Afghanistan, it is very common to ask people detailed questions about their lives, including about things such as age and salary. After I asked Susie how old she was, she taught me never to ask a woman about her age. This was one of many things I learned about the new culture in which I had immersed myself. As the year came to an end, I was sad to leave my new family behind, but it was time to return home.
Returning to Afghanistan was another difficult transition, as I was coming back to a place with severe poverty and a drastically different culture. I remember people observing me to see how westernized I had become. I became very conscious of my speech and body language because if someone found me doing something that was out of the ordinary, they would start talking about my family and me.
By the time I got back to Afghanistan it was too late for me to take the college entrance exam, so my education was delayed by a year. I took advantage of my free time by finding a job as a typist for the World Health Organization Office in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. It was another great opportunity, and I was able to save money so that I could be financially independent throughout medical school.
I eventually took the entrance exam and was accepted into the medical program, which, in Afghanistan, is a total of seven years, including pre-medical studies. In my sixth year of medical school, I experienced another major hurdle. The Afghan Communist Party, with the help of the Soviet Union, took over the country through a violent coup. The Communists saw anyone who was not part of the party as a danger to their authority. From the first day, they began taking people to prison, where the captives were interrogated and abused. In other cases, people were taken to be directly killed. Many of my Communist classmates knew I was not only not a member of the party, but also against its ideology, so I was in constant fear of being taken to prison.
One afternoon during my surgical rotation, one of my classmates told me to go downstairs, but I could tell that something was going on. I had seen this happen to many of my classmates, so I was not surprised. When I went downstairs, my classmate, who was a Communist, without any explanation, told me to get in the car and took me to jail.
I was interrogated for several days. In my responses to their questions I told them that Communists claimed they are going to provide food, clothes, and shelter for the poor. I was the poorest of the poor, and I had not committed any crime.
I was there for a month before one of the interrogators told me that someone recommended that he let me go. I still do not know who that person was.
Even after I was released it was clear I had to join the party or leave the country. I did not reject their offers to join, nor did I accept them. I did not do anything. I stalled until I could make a plan to leave.
The Soviets invaded at the end of 1979. I graduated in early 1980. Right after graduation, I traveled through the mountains to escape the area the Communists controlled. In the mountains, the Mujahideen, or the freedom fighters, provided me with shelter. I worked as a medical doctor for them for ten months and traveled with them as necessary. The Soviets tried to attack us several times, and I was often in danger.
In 1981, after my time there had ended, I made my way to a refugee camp in Pakistan. There, I worked for about a year providing medical assistance to other refugees.
The refugee camp is also where I became engaged to my wife, Bibi Bahrami. Even during difficult times, happiness can be found.
I contacted my American family from my year as a foreign exchange student, and they applied for me to come to the U.S. as a refugee. I came to the U.S. alone and decided to find a residency before getting my fiancé to join me. I worked as a respiratory therapist for a few years in Dallas, Texas, before finding a residency in Muncie. Then I applied for my fiancé to come to the America also, and we were married here in Indiana with the help of some friends.
Fast forward to today. I remain happily married to my wife, Bibi, and we have six beautiful children together. The hardships through which I went in my life made me so much more grateful for the life I have today.
I am truly blessed.
Bibi Bahrami came to the United States as an Afghan refugee in 1986. Since then, she has married her husband, learned to speak English, earned her GED and college degree, raised six children, and started a nonprofit organization, AWAKEN (Afghan Women’s and Kids’ Education and Necessities), which focuses on improving education, healthcare, and vocational training for villages in Afghanistan.