From Afghanistan to My Hand

Afghan embroidery called Khamak.

A new friend is a refugee from Afghanistan, warm and gracious despite all she and her young family have been through. On my most recent visit, Maryam shows me a rare package she received from back home. She takes out each thing slowly and with care — beautiful embroidered cloth, herbs and spices, plus packets of henna to create celebratory mehndi designs on women’s hands.

The language barrier between us is considerable. For example, I know her mother is still in Afghanistan and they talk on the phone, but I don’t know if her father is alive. When I ask, she pulls her hands over her eyes and makes an explosion sound. My eyes fill with tears in response, but I don’t know if she meant to convey he had been blinded or killed. She’s lost so much in her 29 years.

Maryam offers to paint my hand with her new henna. I want to acknowledge her kindness, but don’t want her to waste any of it on me. So with a smile I say, no, no thank you, along with the head shake and palms up signals indicating no across many cultures.

Our language barrier isn’t the problem now, she is simply determined to share what she has with me. In moments she mixes henna with water in a tea cup and takes my hand. It is too late, I realize, the potion is mixed for me. I’m not much for personal adornment but this is a meaningful juncture between us. Hospitality is ingrained in Afghan culture. Although a guest’s refusal is a sign of politeness, repeatedly insisting a guest take what is offered is what a good host does. Even if it leaves the host with nothing, generosity is paramount. I have a horror of accepting a favor when I think it might cause anyone a moment’s extra work or take something they might use, so Maryam is also teaching me an important lesson about receiving.

She carefully pulls each of my fingertips through a hole she bites into plastic, uses her finger to coat my fingertips with henna, then wraps and ties the plastic around each finger. Next she coats part of my palm with henna. Finally she gets out a toothpick to draw designs. Unfortunately the mixture is very wet and her designs keep blurring, making them blocky. She wraps my hand in plastic and tells me not to wash it until later that afternoon.

Other than ceremonially serving tea, often pouring it from one cup to another to cool it so it doesn’t burn her guest’s lips, she hasn’t found many opportunities to share her traditions with me. Henna gives her that. The whole time we sat close together on the rug as she held my hand in hers and coated my fingers. Her one-year-old and three-year-old, who normally wheel around like galaxies, stood watching quietly. The natural henna filled the room with an exquisite sweet aroma that smelled exotic to me and surely familiar to her,  likely reminding her of her mother, aunts, and friends back home. As the dark design on my hand fades, I hope our friendship deepens.

Additional notes:

Maryam’s husband speaks multiple languages and in Afghanistan was a bank manager in charge of five branches. As the war’s devastation worsened, however, he began working for the U.S. Army both as interpreter and language teacher. This was a necessary but dangerous way to support his family, as interpreters were being killed daily by the Taliban.  Eventually he and he family had to flee.

They spent several years in a refugee camp before qualifying through the  Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for translators to come to the U.S.  (Now much harder to obtain under the current administration.) Refugees, who have endured horrifying violence and the loss of a homeland, bravely face settling into a new country. Everything is different: language, clothing, food, customs. They are expected to master the nuances of transportation, rent, taxes, employment, and language. And they owe the U.S. government for the airline tickets from the refugee camp to their new homes.

They also face prejudice, stoked by cruel falsehoods. In actuality, compared to native-born Americans, immigrants commit far fewer crimes, reach higher educational levels, are more than twice as likely to start new businesses and improve the economy.

I can’t imagine what Maryam and her family have been through, or how they are adjusting with such grace and dignity to their new lives here. Maryam’s husband works two jobs and tirelessly helps out others in their neighborhood. I’m glad to have people of their courage and character join us in this country.