When I first moved here at age 9, I had a major hate relationship with St. Louis. Coming from Moscow into the heat and humidity of August was a huge shock. I had a very bad attitude too. I missed my family and friends.
You see, back then I was already a two-time refugee. I was born in Afghanistan in 1990, but I went to Russia at age 3 and stayed there for five years before coming to the United States. I really fought to hate St. Louis for a very long time, and I made good on my vow to leave as soon as I could. But I always found my way back.
The pattern ended for good after I moved to Memphis in 2020. I was so homesick for St. Louis. I realized it’s the closest thing I know to a home. It’s the city I’ve lived in the longest, for 23 years. Most importantly, I realized that the things I thought I didn’t like about St. Louis were things that needed healing within me. All the trauma from having lived in a war zone, being a two-time refugee—those were the things bothering me. It was never the city.
I know there are others who have similar experiences of not feeling at home anywhere because of the trauma they’re holding in their body. And I decided I want to be part of making the St. Louis region awesome for people like me.
In Farsi, we have a quote that says, “Drop by drop, you get the ocean.” That’s how I view the work of building a better, healthier, thriving region. All of us need to reflect on what we see as St. Louis’ greatest challenge and then take the initiative to resolve it, step by step. For my part, I think segregation is a big issue. I would like to see St. Louis united, without any gaps or bridges between communities. I would like to see the diversity of the Festival of Nations be the everyday norm—all the foods, the scents, the sounds, the languages, the music. Hundreds of thousands of happy, joyous people in a multicultural, cooperative, inclusive region filled with opportunities.
My whole job at the International Institute is to sell people on why they should move to St. Louis. I have all the metrics. Low cost of living, women-owned businesses, entrepreneurial opportunities, affordable housing, post-secondary education—those top the list. And we’re working on the things we’re missing, things like a culture of inclusivity. We have a rich history of philanthropy that even the country’s most successful cities can’t match.
Before I accepted this job, I was an activist for 11 years. I was active in supporting Black Lives Matter, but if there was another cause that needed highlighting, I was excited to be there as a humanitarian, whatever part of the world was involved—Palestine, China, Syria, Egypt, Myanmar. Little did I know that my birth nation would fall to the Taliban (again!) like it did in August 2021. I felt pulled to volunteer for the Afghan Support Program, but I ended up becoming much more involved when I accepted this job at the International Institute in 2022.
The Afghan Support Program has already made an impact. We have a newly opened community center. We’re publishing a newspaper. We’ve had 24 weeks of soccer programming. Our Chamber of Commerce is coming together. We have a team of leaders working to build the community. And we’ve offered scholarships and grants.
My personal impact is being an Afghan woman who’s outspoken and brave and not caught up in the ideologies that brought us to this situation. I have a real focus on the women from my culture. I pay special attention to the girls who are about the same age I was when I came to St. Louis. They’re so observant about both cultures. I talk with them—truly entertaining their dialogue and asking them questions.
I love and adore them because I see myself in those girls. When I arrived, I didn’t have any role models other than my mother. And she’s a bold, courageous, heroic person—for example, she went to Afghanistan after it fell to the Taliban, and not only did she get out again in one piece, she brought both her parents with her. It was a miracle of God. But I didn’t have anyone else besides my mother to look up to. I want to empower more women like me so we can grow as a community.
My message to my fellow St. Louisans is to activate yourself and those around you. Don’t be complacent. Don’t be a bystander or a complainer. Reach for unrealistic goals.
It’s inspiring to see all the intentional work being done in St. Louis to create safe, healthy spaces where women of color can heal. But there’s still so much more that needs to be done. In the Afghan refugee community alone, thousands of people need us now. That’s my focus. I’m doing what feeds my soul.
Program Manager – Afghan Community Development Program