Naheed was only 11 when her mother died in a 1991 bomb explosion, prompting most of the family to flee Kabul for Peshawar, Pakistan. Attending refugee schools—“My father could read and write, and wanted all his children to be educated,” Bahram explains—she mastered English and standard computer skills and began studying medicine, expecting to become a doctor. To earn money,she taught conversational English at a private school for girls.
Further upheaval in her native country sent shock waves across the border. “When the Taliban took over, they closed girls’ schools in Afghanistan as well as the schools for refugees in Peshawar,” Bahram says. “I cried all week. Pakistani public schools were not open to Afghan women.” Her own education interrupted, she led English classes for a variety of institutions, took the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), and applied to Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and Marymount Manhattan College, winning admission to both without appreciating the distinctions between them. “I didn’t know that the states are like different countries,” Bahram notes. She also got engaged: Her father arranged a match with an Afghan man living in the United States.
In 2006, the bride-to-be flew to New York and married her fiancé. Then she matriculated at Waldorf—and suffered acute culture shock, despite the school’s efforts to welcome her. “I was badly homesick,” she comments. Furthermore, she didn’t eat enough. To avoid consuming food that violated Muslim rules, she spent two weeks subsisting on muffins, chips, pizza, tuna, and tea, a regimen that landed her in the school nurse’s office.
Concluding that New York would be a better fit, she transferred to Marymount, but still struggled with loneliness. “One professor asked me why I was so quiet,” Bahram says. “When I told her, she suggested that I find volunteer activities.” Women for Afghan Women, a grassroots human rights organization with operations in Fresh Meadows, Queens, and eight Afghan provinces, proved the ideal outlet. Starting as a volunteer in January 2007, Bahram climbed up the staff ladder, advancing from intern to caseworker to program manager, winning the confidence of men as well as women with her fluency in multiple Afghan languages and respect for traditional values. “Naheed is respectful of her culture and is therefore trustworthy,” observes Suzanne Strickland (Sociology), who met Bahram while conducting a study of the Afghan community in Queens.
Meanwhile, Bahram advanced academically. Transferring to CUNY to save money, she earned an associate degree from Queensborough Community College en route to completing a bachelor’s in economics and finance at QC. “I loved Queens College the most of all my schools,” Bahram reports. “The international student office was very helpful and I loved the college’s diversity—I wasn’t the only one who was different.”
Her long-term goals include earning a PhD and going back to Afghanistan for a few years. Right now, she serves expatriates. [Numbering about 20,000, New York’s Afghan community is the third largest in the United States, behind its counterparts in California and Virginia.] The toughest cases involve domestic violence. “We refer victims to shelters and attorneys, and follow up to assure cultural sensitivity,” says Bahram. Other clients request assistance with immigration or medical issues. To disseminate information about unfamiliar topics, from women’s legal rights to mental health, she leads monthly discussion circles at WAW’s office.
Among the beneficiaries of her knowledge are her two sisters, who recently emigrated to live with Bahram and her husband in Queens. One wants to be a dentist; the other, a social worker. In the summer, the siblings enjoy standing on the balcony of their home, a location that, for reasons of modesty, would have been off-limits to them in Peshawar. “My sisters said, ‘Why couldn’t we do this in Pakistan?’” Bahram recalls. “That’s one of my favorite things about New York: Nobody cares what you do.”
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