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Renowned Afghan women's rights activist Maryam Durani on relocating to Milwaukee, centering refugees

Maryam Durani
Maayan Silver
Maryam Durani survived two assassination attempts by the Taliban in Afghanistan for her work building up women, she's now acclimating to Milwaukee with the help of volunteers.

Many Afghans fled their homeland when the Taliban surged back into power after the U.S. withdrew from its 20-year war there. Maryam Durani was among them.

In 2012, she was one of TIMEmagazine’s 100 most influential people and received an International Women of Courage award for her work building up Afghan women and fighting oppression. She continued that work until last year when she and her family fled.

An extended conversation with Maryam Durani.

After spending several months at Wisconsin's Fort McCoy, Durani is now resettling in Milwaukee. She hasn’t been in Milwaukee for long, but already she’s staked out a special spot. “I like beach,” says Durani. “Because I saw the beach, I’m feeling peaceful.”

Durani says she and other Afghan refugees have appreciated visits to the lakefront, on the shoreline of Lake Michigan. “Because they have a more stress, and they all lose everything,” she says. “And they all lose past life. And now they are needed to find peace. And I think I'm saw beach. I'm feeling peaceful, and I other things I love in the Milwaukee, the people. They all have a friendly communication with the new people is coming, with the refugees. And I like these two things.”

While Durani knows some English, her native tongue is Dari. It’s the Afghan dialect of Farsi, spoken in Iran.

So we got help from local interpreter Kourosh Hassani, who’s an English as a second language teacher leader with the Department of Bilingual Multicultural Education at Milwaukee Public Schools. Durani answers in Dari, and Hassani translates to English.

“After that explosion, I experienced death and I wasn't afraid of it anymore. Because I said, ‘If I'm supposed to die, then let me leave behind a legacy, something behind for the next generation.'"

Life has been good in Milwaukee, Durani says. “Because I found new friends here. And I feel like the work that I was doing in my country, I can continue doing it here.”

Durani was born in Iran to Afghan refugees and moved back to Afghanistan at 18. She lived in Kandahar until she fled last year. Kandahar is about eight hours south of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capitol, and is much closer to the border with Pakistan. Durani says there were a lot of changes there from the time she arrived until she left.

“In the beginning, when we came [to Afghanistan], the security was very good,” she says. “There was no name, name or mention of the Taliban, they didn't even exist. One of the bad things I had is that women did not really work outside, there was only one principal that was a woman that was a principal of that school. And in the universities, women were not present, or the girls were not present.”

Durani saw these problems and realized that women themselves needed to get active and resolve them. She became a provincial council member in the Kandahar Council. She graduated from university.

Durani founded the Kandahar Women's Advocacy Network, made up of two dozen advocacy groups led by women. She started a women’s internet cafe, a woman's library, a school for higher learning, a fitness center and the first women’s radio station in the south of Afghanistan.

As for where she found the energy to do all these things, Durani says, “What really inspired me was the presence of the other young women who are besides me. And so, when I would see the girls and women come when I had done something, and they would laugh, and they'd be very happy about it, that would encourage me to go ahead and do another, take another step or another move.”

When TIME magazine wrote about Durani in 2012, it said Kandahar Province is often called the spiritual home of the Taliban. And it's a place where it pays to stay quiet. But that's not Maryam Durani’s way. How did she deal with the threats and the worries about being involved in these issues?

“The first two years was very peaceful, was very good. And so, I thought it's better that I worked for the women. It was after the second or third year that the problem started coming up. But the good thing, the good thing I had was my family and they were beside me, and they would support me to this," she says.

The first explosion at her workplace really gave her the courage to continue, Durani says. “After that explosion, I experienced death and I wasn't afraid of it anymore. Because I said, ‘If I'm supposed to die, then let me leave behind a legacy, something behind for the next generation.'"

She says she's experienced a lot of bad things in her life and during these travels as a refugee. “And so I said, 'If I can bring about some change so that the next generation does not experience the same thing after me, why wouldn't I? Why shouldn't I do something about it?'”

Durani survived two assassination attempts. “Two times I was a subject of, you know, personal detonations against me, where they would blow themselves up.” She says one of her colleagues was assassinated. “We were campaigning on a work that we were working on together. And I was forced to go live six months hidden in Kabul. Besides that, there was a lot of calls made, there's a lot of threats made by Taliban against me.”

Durani admits that not everybody has the sort of selflessness and courage to help the next generation. She says her selflessness goes back to her childhood.

“From my mom and dad, I always learned to help others. My mom would always try to help other refugees who would come to Iran to try to help them out. And my parents would do that. So, I saw that in them. And as a child, I would read a lot of books. And in the books, I would read about a lot of people who did sacrifices for their society. And for that reason, I wanted to be somebody who's able to put a smile and put happiness as a gift to others.”

“It's very hard for me to express ‘What do you miss from home?’ because your country makes your identity. I am like a person that I've lost my identity."

Durani doesn’t feel like she is at risk by being in the United States and speaking to the media. “No, not right now because right now I'm here. I feel safe, but if I decide to go back, then yes.”

Durani calls her journey to the U.S. scary and dreadful. When Kabul fell, she had to hide in a house for two to three weeks. Even the children couldn’t go outside. Her family tried to get to the airport three or four times during that period, and each time they were afraid of being stopped by the Taliban. Every time they were turned away, they lost hope. They finally made it! But, Durani says that comes with the sorrow of leaving everything behind.

“For you to be to have to leave everything that you have, you've had to let it go and to go on a path that you don't know what the end of it will be. And when you start on this path of journey, you see, there's lots of scary things until you reach safety.”

Obviously, there were hardships in Afghanistan, but Durani says she really misses her work, her friends, her colleagues and employees.It's very hard for me to express ‘What do you miss from home?’ because your country makes your identity. I am like a person that I've lost my identity,” she describes.

In fact, Durani has a metaphor for that loss of identity. “Immigrants from Afghanistan who have come here, they're almost like newborn babies right now. Because right now, they don't have anyone. They don't know anything. And they can't speak. And this newborn needs to, little by little, to grow and develop — like learning a new language, learning how to communicate and with one another with others, and learning about some of the goods and the bads of the society.”

In the U.S., women have the rights to work, to go to school, to be in the government. Durani says she’s been able to ease up on some of the worries she had in Afghanistan. “I can't say like everything that I was actually fighting for over there they have it over here right now. Not everything, but a great amount of the things that I was fighting for is already available here.”

Durani says the new environment, with its new rights, gives her an opportunity to become a better person. “Somebody to have a positive impact on themselves and their surrounding environment." She wants to be a role model for the children and encourage them to learn and grow.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban is trying many efforts to restrict women, like banning long distance road trips for women who are by themselves, requiring hijabs and chaperons to ride taxis, telling female workers to stay home, restricting secondary schools to only boys and male teachers.

Durani is most concerned with the closing of schools. “Because all of my advocacy in the past was always that women should be able to be educated because I believe in this. It’s a society that is advanced and has independence, for the society that its women are illiterate. It is like a society that has no spirit and no brain, and anybody can use and abuse that society.”

Now, Durani says she can help Afghan refugees push through the culture shock and move forward. “For example, I've seen some people from the villages or the outskirts of the cities in Afghanistan, and they have come to the city. That was a very closed society when they were, for example in those villages. And so, girls always had this picture in their mind that they can't do anything except for marry and bear children. I want to teach them that now that you're over here, you have this opportunity. So, I want to plant the seed and give them the idea that hey, now I can do something here. So let me do it.”

Durani says people can help Afghans right now in Milwaukee and around the country. "I see various groups, organizations that are supporting. They can offer their support or their help or donations to those organizations that are helping the refugees. For example, two women that have been working with me they're helping me to understand the American society and how to function in it."

She says she was very happy that she met these women. “So, it's important for individuals, like that I had the opportunity to meet, for them to meet the individuals and persons that can guide them and help them in the new society.”

Durani says it’s also important to help young Afghans get to college. She says they’ll need financial support or assistance, or help with scholarships or grants.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
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