After Terrorist Attack, Afghans in U.S. Challenge Cultural Stereotype

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"We all left our homeland with nothing but maybe a few belongings, and I think we all have family members and friends we lost during the Soviet war," said a woman named Alina.

"Bittersweet" Life in U.S.

Like other groups of people around the world, Afghans are devoted to keeping their culture alive, and find their religion a source of comfort.

Yet for some of those who were interviewed by National Geographic Today, living the "American dream" is bittersweet.

"It's a relief to be here, but at the same time I think about family members and others back home who are suffering in Afghanistan and Pakistan," said Zia Makhdoom, imam of the Afghan Community Mosque in northern Virginia. "The majority are suffering, so it is sad to see the huge contrast between the living standards here and there."

He condemns the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan as a "cult" that has little regard for the human condition and a perverted view of Islam.

"They do nothing to help the poor," said Makhdoom. "Of course, what they are doing is basically to enforce their own version of Islam, which is alien to how Afghans perceive Islam and practice Islam."

The determination of Afghans to keep their culture alive is heightened by the Taliban's destruction of many of the country's cultural treasures and the austere way of life it imposes.

"No art, no radio, no television, painting, drawing—nothing is allowed," said Naweed. "Education for women is not allowed. Music is not allowed, they call music satanic. That's why we are strongly working to keep our culture alive here."

Members of the Afghan community in Washington say they are proud to be part of the rich American tapestry of cultures. "We too have added into that quilt, so called America. We are contributing to the society, we are becoming part of the society," said Zalmi Niayz.

But they remain conscious of their differences. And the September 11 tragedy has left many feeling alienated, and even fearful.

"I'm raising my kids here and I don't want to feel like I don't belong here. But that's what I feel here as an Afghan and a Muslim," said Alina, adding: "I don't want to lose another home."

Yet hope remains—that Afghanistan will one day be in the hands of responsible and peace-loving Afghans.

"God has told us that always during the worst time of your life you have to become hopeful because behind all the mess is a light," said the poet Naweed. "You have to find where that light is—it's within you. And when you find that light, you find hope."

This article was excerpted from a one-hour special, "The Geography of Crisis," aired by the TV news show National Geographic Today on September 25 at 8 p.m. EST.

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