It might be hard to believe that Dilruba Sakhizada is 18.
As a student in Kabul, Afghanistan, she sometimes wondered if she would make it home from school alive.
The war launched by the U.S. as “Operation Enduring Freedom” in 2001 began with an initial air campaign that almost immediately prompted concerns over the number of Afghan civilians being killed.
At the height of the war in Afghanistan, Dilruba’s family of four brothers and one sister were displaced to Pakistan. Returning to Kabul, Dilruba entered a competitive scholarship program as one of 300 students vying for an opportunity to study abroad in the U.S. on full scholarship. Two were selected by the Afghan Scholars Initiative Foundation as the most gifted and talented students with a global aptitude. The program screens and tests students to narrow the group down to a few each year that come to the states for both high school and college.
When she came to America, The White Mountain School, in Bethlehem, N.H., became her new home. The private, select school provided the $50,000 scholarship for Dilruba. The high school has 115 students from about 10 countries.
“Which helps teach everyone about diversity and acceptance for their individuality,” writes Meglyn Lavoie, Office Manager at the New Hampshire school in an email.
When Lavoie heard that Dilruba had nowhere to go for the holidays, she invited her to Page County. Lavoie’s parents – Dave and Jane Bull – welcomed the Afghan teenager into their home near Ida.
Ask Dilruba about America’s Thanksgiving, and words like “peace,” “thankful,” “abundance” and “prosperity” arise. It is in those moments when her eyes close, that you wonder what she has seen or heard.
“My first impression of Dilruba…was that she was shy, quiet, and respectful, but she quickly opened up to us,” said Lavoie. “She is a very emotional person; she can turn happy or sad in a split second, yet has kept her wits about her to earn a scholarship in competition with hundreds of other Afghan students.”
On their way to Page County, they toured Gettysburg National Park, the White House and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
By first impression, Dilruba’s sensitivity oscillates toward the pride of an Afghan student, more than the vicltim of a war-torn nation.
“I’m the first member of my family to visit the United States,” she said.
For a language scholar who’s learned English and Hindi/Urdu, as well as her native tongue, Pashto, communication comes easy to Dilruba
“The people [in America] are so kind to everyone, and gentle. I feel safe here, so peaceful and calm,” Dilruba said. “You have freedom. No one is judging you.”
She begins to open up, and touches on how life at home comes with explosions.
“I live in Kabul – it is not safe,” she said. “You don’t know what is going to happen to you.”
From television and news reports, Dilruba feels that Americans do not understand Afghanistan, war, or terrorism.
“I’m still processing – the more you talk about it, the more it’s not going to end,” she said.
Impressions of America prior to her visit: “America is the land of opportunity. Once I’m there I can do whatever, because back home you cannot. You are not allowed because I am female, once I’m in America I’m going to live my life,” she says.
She describes watching American movies on television, thinking she would never be able to come here.
According to Dilruba, people reacted strongly when they heard that she was coming to America.
“She is a girl, traveling to the United States, how can you trust her – alone?” she recalls her uncle saying.
Her immediate family encouraged her.
“You are living in peace,” Dilruba quotes her father saying to her.
Traditional Afghanistan is a male-centric society. Her uncles and grandparents fear that in the U.S. with all the freedom that Dilruba experiences, she will forget where she came from – forget the values, and not respect the family.
The fear of shame is a big deal in Afghanistan.
“Don’t forget who you are, that you are female,” Dilruba recalls her elders telling her. “If you do anything in America [to bring shame] and come back here, then your future is done.”
Asked about her religion, Dilruba’s depths flicker in her eyes as she answers, “I am actually studying [Christianity], but I was born and raised as a Muslim.”
Dilruba goes to the New Hampshire school’s chapel and does Yoga.
Asked about the difference in life as a girl in the two juxtaposed nations, Dilruba says that in America, decision-making begins at 16.
“In my country, you can’t do that – you can never live the life according to yourself.”
In Afghanistan, Dilruba would be expected to obey her parents, society, the religious norms, and her husband.
“They are making decisions for you, the way THEY want you to live.”
As the U.S.-Afghan war winds down without a clear conclusion, Dilruba has options. She recently was awarded a brief scholarship to Paris, France with the stipulation that she learn some French.
“Thanksgiving is a very good way to say thanks for all that you have,” Dilruba said, “…thankful for the guardians who support me, the school for the scholarship, my friends give me this welcoming…I’m feeling loved, safe.”
“I’m thankful for everything.”