In the first twenty years of her life, she never lived in one place for long. The family alternated between Afghanistan and Pakistan depending on the political situation in her home country. After arriving in the Netherlands in 2006 they were shuttled, like so many others, from one refugee centre to the next. Wherever they went Shahidi tried to integrate as quickly as possible, to learn the language, “to belong”. Her last move was from Amsterdam to Limburg, having secured a place in the Physician–Clinical Investigator programme in Maastricht following her bachelor’s in biomedical sciences at VU University Amsterdam. Yet again, she said goodbye to her friends; yet again had to get used to a new place. “One time I got on the bus here but didn’t understand the driver, he was speaking dialect. He started going on about ‘Hollanders’, and I didn’t get it – aren’t we all Hollanders?, I said. I mean, at the football it’s Hup Holland, right?”
That the relationship between Limburgers and ‘Hollanders’ was a touchy one was news to her. In any event, the incident with the bus driver made her feel – yet again – that she didn’t belong. “So I thought, I have to learn Limburgish. I really tried, but it didn’t work. It just made my Dutch worse, so I gave up.”
She may be an Afghan national, but when Shahidi came into the world it was not in her own country. Her parents had fled to Pakistan a year before, in 1985.
“The Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and gradually it became a real war with the resistance movements. My parents studied at the University of Kabul. My father did chemistry – he wanted to do medicine but just missed out on meeting the entry requirements – and my mother did biology. That’s where they met. Both were against the Soviet occupation; my mother was active in the demonstrations. When my father was drafted into the army to help the Russians fight the rebels, they decided to flee. Of course, they had to get married first. They left the very next day, trekking on foot with donkeys and horses through the mountains from Kabul to Peshawar in about eight days. Later they went on to Islamabad. Today I see that as kind of an exciting adventure, but my mother doesn’t like it when I say that. It was all very frightening. She was only 20, my father just 23. They found their way to a refugee camp, and a year later I was born.”
Shahidi spent the first seven years of her life in Pakistan. First in the camp, in conditions she describes as “poor”, and later with acquaintances. Education was a problem. “As a refugee you weren’t allowed to go to school. My father tried everything he could, eventually convincing the head of a private school to accept me and my little brother, who was also born there. So I learnt fluent Urdu. I speak it like a native, something I worked hard to achieve. You want to be part of things, to belong somewhere. But that was always difficult there. Pakistanis are not overly nice to Afghans, so we were often told we didn’t belong.”
She gets emotional when she talks about her father. “I’m a bit of a daddy’s girl. It’s thanks to him that I’m here now.” He held things together in Pakistan by learning the language and English, and by taking computer lessons as well. He also did hard labour in a flour mill which, Shahidi says, left him with a bad back.
The Russians left Afghanistan in 1989, but civil war broke out soon afterwards. So it was not until eight years after they had first left, when the situation in Kabul at last seemed to have calmed down, that the family returned – but not for long. It marked the beginning of a constant to-ing and fro-ing between the two countries. “We moved here there and everywhere; apart from that first period, I never lived anywhere for more than a year or two. So I was never able to build up long-term friendships.”
She also lived for some time under the Taliban regime. “In those days it was relatively calm, so my father was keen to go back to Kabul again. As a girl I wasn’t allowed to go to school, I had to wear a burqa. I was 13, 14, and stuck at home all day. It really wasn’t nice. I’m eager to learn, so I cried often. My mother was active in the movement for women’s rights, organising underground schools and teaching us at home. She never got the chance to complete her degree and ended up becoming a poet, and later also a painter. Her living room is now full of her paintings; it’s a way of processing all those traumatic experiences. She comes from a very liberal family where it was normal for women to study. I have photos of my grandmother in the sixties, cycling to work in short skirts. Women had many more rights before the Russians came, especially in the capital.”
Shahidi finished high school in Pakistan. On completing her final exams, she went back to Kabul one last time. “There was something going on in my father’s family; my grandfather was ill I think. Meanwhile September 11 had happened and the Americans had started bombing. It got worse and worse. It wasn’t clear when Kabul’s turn would come, but the decision was made that we would leave: my mother and, by that time, the four children. My father stayed behind with my grandfather. And this time we wouldn’t go to Pakistan, but really leave, because for the time being things weren’t going to get any better in Afghanistan.”
And so they made their way to the Netherlands, where her maternal grandparents and an aunt had been living since the nineties, together with an aunt. They had ended up here by accident. Trying to reunite with an uncle in the USA, they had smuggled themselves out via Iran, Turkey and Greece (“thankfully the boats were decent in those days”) but were pulled out of the line at Schiphol carrying fake passports. Their asylum application was granted: her grandfather, an atheist and a communist, risked persecution in Afghanistan. As for Shahidi, her mother and siblings, they too were smuggled to Turkey, from which they were fortunate enough to reach the Netherlands by plane.
“It was the summer of 2006 and we found ourselves in the refugee centre in Ter Apel, which was really more a sort of jail. You weren’t allowed to just wander in and out. Still, I thought to myself, ‘This country will be my home. Now I won’t have to move anymore.’ I could wear what I wanted – trousers, no headscarf. I could even just shake hands with men, like a strong woman because that’s how I felt then. My mother was a real example for me, doing all these things that weren’t allowed. In Afghanistan she had clandestinely published and disseminated three volumes of poetry.”
Shahidi wanted to be active, to do something, to learn Dutch as quickly as possible. But it didn’t happen without a fight. Only the under-18s were allowed to go to school. “I worked in the nursery and the kitchen of the refugee centre. I also did a lot of interpreting, because I’d learnt English in Pakistan. But I wasn’t allowed to study Dutch. I went and spoke to the people at the COA office [the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers –Ed.], but the answer was still no. So I figured, I’ll do it myself then. I watched English TV series with Dutch subtitles, picked some things up that way. I’d go to my little sister’s school, a vocational training centre, and I followed a few classes through Vluchtelingenwerk Nederland. And that’s how I was able to learn the language.”
But she wanted more. She wanted to study. In high school she had always had good marks, and she yearned to become a doctor rather than wasting away in the kitchen of a refugee centre. She decided to reach out to the Foundation for Refugee Students (UAF). “There came this moment when I was sitting in the kitchen crying, full of despair about my future, and the phone rang. It was one of their student counsellors. An amazing woman. She told me I could take a test the following week at the VU and, if I passed, I could join the preparatory course for foreign students. She had it all figured out for me. Do you see now why I believe in miracles? It was divine, the UAF is divine – can you write that please?”
But hadn’t she signed up herself? “Yes, but not everyone gets a call like that!” she crows jubilantly.
When the maths turned out to be different to what she was used to, her tutor was convinced she wouldn’t make it through the bridging year. “Well, if you tell me that, it only makes me more determined”, Shahidi says. “Then I’ll show you.” She ended up getting a 9. After missing out on a place in the lottery procedure for medicine, she was admitted to the bachelor’s in biomedical sciences.
The family, having received official refugee status, wound up in Haastrecht, near Gouda. That’s when the next shock came: Shahidi’s father would not be joining them. Her mother had the divorce papers ready, Shahidi explains hesitantly. “In Afghan circles that sort of thing is taboo. For me it came as a huge shock. I was so mad at her – now the family would be torn apart forever. But I was also proud that she dared to do such a thing. It was partly due to their background; my mother was liberal and an atheist, my father religious and conservative. My world fell apart. I grew very depressed and had to go into therapy.”
This too she says with some hesitation. Therapy is as unthinkable to Afghans as it is ordinary to the Dutch. “They’re very proud. Therapy? Impossible.”
Shahidi is, unlike her mother, religious. “She thinks it’s stupid to believe in something people just made up, but it gives me something to hold onto. Particularly when we get bad news. Don’t forget, the war in Afghanistan is still going on. Not long ago two cousins of mine, 16 and 17 years old, were killed in a bomb attack. That gives you an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness. It hit my younger brother especially hard.”
Then there are cultural customs to deal with. When it became clear her father would not be joining them, her brother became the ‘man’ of the house. He was unhappy with the idea of his older sister moving, after three years in Amsterdam, all the way to Maastricht. It was much too far from his home in The Hague – how would he be able to keep an eye on her? But trying to control the rest of the family was, in the Netherlands, a lost cause.
Shahidi is now glad she is here. That, too, she calls a “miracle”. “Someone up there must have made it happen. If I had stayed in Afghanistan my life would have been very different. I’m an outspoken creature, always keen to wade into the debate, but there talking back to a man is enough to get you hit. And take my cousins – they’re being married off against their will. My father’s family wanted that for me too. They find it scandalous that at my age I don’t have a husband and children. Thankfully, my father never pressured me. Although finding a partner here is not all that easy either. Dutch guys find me too much of a feminist.”
Which is not to say she is always brimming with confidence. Now part-way through the four-year Physician–Clinical Investigator programme, she is already 18 months behind. “I’m ashamed, what have I really achieved? It’s because I had to go back to Haastrecht whenever there were problems in the family; I’m the eldest after all. And those things don’t do much for my concentration even when I am here. On the other hand, my medical internship is now going really well, and I’m doing research on colorectal cancer.”
She is also active outside UM, working with the Refugee Project Maastricht in the local refugee centre. Proficient in Arabic and the Afghan variant of Farsi addition to Dutch and English, she is a versatile interpreter.
“It’s different there than in my time”, she says. “They’ve got six people in rooms meant for two. And the mood has changed in the Netherlands. The word refugee has this negative connotation, and yet these are people with perseverance, people who are really keen to contribute to society. You can also see one group of people being pitted against the next. Syrians and other Arabs get out faster, whereas Afghans often find themselves stuck there for more than a year. That leads to tension. And they can be sent back, despite there being bombings every day that you hear nothing about here.”
She worries about her father, back in Kabul. “I miss him. Skype doesn’t really work and calling is very expensive. If I could, I’d go and earn lots of money and bring him over here.”
Is that what he wants?
“No, I’m afraid not – he has a new wife. But still.”