New York City: No City of Refugees

In an interview with the We Refugees Team, Dr. Abdul S. discusses his current situation in New York City and his visions for the future in the US and in Afghanistan.

We Refugees: Would you say that New York city is a city of refugees?

Abdul S.: No. We have almost 90 people that left the country [Afghanistan] together from the John Hopkins. I made other friends in the refugee camps. When I told them, I selected New York City, they answered me: “Are you crazy? Why? It’s so expensive, it’s too cold. Why are you going there? You have to go to the Virginia, that is the most historical refugee area. Or you should go to the California.”  I said, no, I have priority for me. I have received employment in New York, so I have to go there.

WR: But it wasn’t your choice? It was just a coincidence, that your employment was in Columbia?

A.S.: My classmate lives in Rochester city, he is a medical doctor. He said, if my position is not secured at Columbia University, then I should come to Rochester, which is also a city of New York state. So, my second choice was also New York.

WR: Have you made experiences of being discriminated as a foreigner as a refugee in New York City, or has it been fine so far?

A.S.: To be honest no.

WR: Is there a big Afghan community, that organizes gathering? Are you planning to join them, be part of that? Or do you want rather to land into the American culture?

A.S.: This weekend I have attended a gathering. It was a Graduation Ceremony, so mostly medical health professionals.  But I have also met here a lot of teachers, businessmen from New York City. The Afghan community here is not as huge as in Virginia, Texas, or California… At the moment I am very focused on my own (applications, assignments, permanent residency, driving lessons, heath appointments). This is very new for me, so I definitely plan to be a part of the community. Otherwise, we will struggle here. The lifestyle of New York City is completely different from the lifestyle in Kabul. But I have adapted myself to this lifestyle.

WR: Do you feel, you live in exile? Is there a sense of wanting to go back at some point to Afghanistan, if you can? Do you live in the diaspora?

A.S.: Currently I feel like in exile…. because I can’t leave United States and go somewhere else. Even if I will receive my permanent residency, I may not go to my home country…It’s depending on the future of the Afghan government. If it will stay there as it is, I definitely won’t go back. Because there is a threat for me. I am opposing their ideas. They are radicals, they don’t accept others. For example, they banned girls from schools. Why are you doing that? They also force women to wear hijab. This is a woman’s choice…. I am afraid to go there. While I am in exile, I hope, that in the next years or in a couple of years it’s going to change.

Dr. Abdul S., a former associate professor of Epidemiology at Kabul University of Medical Science, is the first Afghan scholar to accept a position at Columbia through the initiative of “Scholarship for Displaced Students program at the Columbia University, New York.” He is medical physician and graduated 1990 from a Kabul University of medical science. Since the 1990’s he has been working in a hospital where he experienced war first hand on an everyday basis: by performing surgeries, amongst other things. When the situation in Afghanistan was getting worse due to civil war among the different Mujahidin groups in Kabul, he was shifted to one of the provinces, where he joined a provincial hospital that was supported by international committee of red cross (ICRC) and worked in a local hospital as general surgeon. In 2001 when the Taliban collapsed, he returned to Kabul city. In 2003, Abdul was a co-founder of “National Aids Control program.” At this time, he switched from a medical practitioner to the public health sector. After completing a master program in Public Health in Ireland, Abdul joined the Johns Hopkins University as project manager in 2010. When, in 2013, the project was discontinued, he re-joined the Kabul university of medical sciences as professor at the faculty of public health. 2016-2018 he was the dean of the faculty of public health. He contributed to US organizations through fellowship programs and attended at California University of San Francisco mentorship programs until 2022.

The interview was conducted by the We Refugees Team in the spring of 2022.