A Conversation with Senzela Atmar

By: Alyssa Curran

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In the mid-1990s, following a chaotic end to the nine year Soviet-Afghan War, Afghanistan was ravaged by civil unrest.  After years of war and no clear leadership, competing fundamentalist groups fought to rule the country. A newly formed militia, the Taliban, began their rise to power, and by 1996 they had conquered the capital city of Kabul, establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. It was an era of violence and persecution for the Afghan people. According to the Pakistani government, by 1996, the number of registered refugees who fled Afghanistan to Pakistani and Iranian camps reached 3.2 million. One of these refugees was Senzela Atmar. She shared her firsthand account of displacement in one of the world’s most protracted refugee crises in history.

The Atmar family lived well before the Soviet-Afghan War. Senzela’s mother was a biology professor and her father a university dean. In the ‘80s, her parents thrived as intellectuals with influence, resources and connections. But born into a different Afghanistan than her parents had experienced just a decade prior, Senzela started life with a target on her back.

“In Kabul, in the mid-90s, if you were educated and had land or resources, the Taliban threatened to kill you or kidnap members of your family to hold for ransom,” she said. “If you had lived comfortably before, you lived in constant fear under the new extremist stronghold.”

Members of armed political groups routinely entered civilian houses in Kabul and other parts of the country, killing members of the family who resisted their entry, confiscating property, and kidnapping children. Reports of torture, mass executions and unlawful imprisonment in private detention centers were widespread.

“For our family, and many others, living in Kabul can be best described as survival. We hid in our home most of the time, and left the house only in short spurts to buy food,” she described. “The windows in our home were shattered more than once, and by early 1995, the Taliban forces were shelling Kabul with ferocity.”

It wasn’t until later that year that the government issued a 72-hour cease fire, and the Atmar family jumped at the opportunity to flee the country. Within weeks of their departure, the home they had left behind was left in rubble after their neighborhood was bombed.

“Fleeing the country was not easy,” Senzela said. “First of all, you could only flee if you had some money. Without money, you had to stay put, and many did. We paid a man who was smuggling people over the border to drive us as far as he could, but in rural Afghanistan, infrastructure, like drivable roads, was lacking, and we were forced to walk for many miles. We were six children and our parents, at that time, hoping to find safety and livable conditions, but that’s not what we experienced when we arrived to Pakistan.”

The Atmar family registered at the United Nations Refugee Camp in Peshawar, Pakistan in the winter of 1995. The camp consisted of large tent communities and mud-brick box “apartments”, available at an additional cost. They passed their days waiting in lines for food rations and water, in a compound where resources were limited.

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"Everyone thought it was temporary,” she said. “That the extremists would be pushed out and we could go home.” But the news of a stable Kabul never came.

While rumors of a better life spread among the newcomers, many of the same fears that plagued citizens in Kabul were alive and well for Afghan refugees in the camps. Extremist groups had members living in the camps to enlist young men and enforce their laws, and their influence was strong. Inside the camps there were murders and kidnappings, just like there were on the outside.

“It was, once again, dangerous to look like you were from the middle class. So, people made themselves look poor. Mom wouldn’t bathe us often so we’d look dirty and wouldn’t get as much attention from potential threats. We were pale skinned Afghans and we were getting harassed for this, too -- my brother, Iqbal, especially. Light brown hair and hazel eyes, Iqbal had features that stood out in any crowd. Toward the end of our time in the camps, my brother was pushed in front of a car and killed by, what my mother described as, young Taliban recruits. Iqbal was 11 years old.”

“In a desperate time for our family, we did receive one blessing that year. In his ‘school’ (really a haphazard gathering of kids and sometimes a teacher), my oldest brother, Atal, had submitted paperwork to the U.S. Government to enter the visa lottery on behalf of our family, without our knowing. The chances of being selected were slim to none. Miraculously, our family received word that we had been approved to move to the United States.”

“I used to avoid telling my story. It’s triggering and difficult to relive, but it’s important for people to understand what it was like then and how it affected us.”

The Immigration Act of 1990 increased the total, overall immigration to allow 700,000 immigrants to come to the U.S. per year from '92–'94, and 675,000 per year after that. It provided a family-based immigration visa, created employment based visas, and instituted a diversity visa program that created a lottery to admit immigrants from "low admittance" countries or countries where their citizenry was underrepresented in the U.S. The Atmar family fell into the diversity visa program category.

“When we received the letter from the U.S. Embassy, we first thought it was too good to be true. Then, we spoke with relatives in the United States, and they told us more about the visa process. We learned that upon receipt of the letter, we could leave the country at any time. Thanks to the help of our family, we were able to pay the $13,000+ to purchase flights from Pakistan to the United States. I have a fond memory of landing in the Nashville Airport and seeing all of the bright lights.”

The Atmars moved to Nashville in 1997 and would find themselves facing a new set of challenges: starting fresh as a Middle Eastern family in the American South, where anti-refugee rhetoric was both rampant and deep-rooted. They spent the first six months in Nashville living in Senzela’s aunt’s garage. Senzela’s father, once the dean of a large university, now walked to the local McDonalds each day to work and her mother worked at Kroger. Senzela’s mother spoke English, but the other members of the family began ESL programs to learn the language, and the Atmars lived without a car for a several years until one was donated to their family.

“We were the only Middle Eastern kids at our school,” said Senzela. “Once again, we stood out in the crowd as different. But we are resilient and our parents were able to build a safe and happy home for us to grow up in Tennessee, in spite of all we’d been through.”

Today, there are 2.5 million registered Afghan refugees across the globe, according to the U.N.’s Refugee Agency, many with similar stories to the Atmar family’s. Afghans make up the world’s second largest refugee population, and violence continues to drive people from their homes.

Senzela pays tribute to her past by serving displaced persons through her Nashville-based nonprofit, Relief Without Borders. She and her team help restore post-disaster countries through strategic campaigns. One of the organization’s main initiatives this year is the Afghan School Project where they’re building and developing a sustainable, co-ed school to educate 300+ children. The organization has already purchased the land and is campaigning to move to the next phase, alongside a team of local, Afghan educators.

Senzela believes in the importance of sharing refugees’ stories, like her own, in order to communicate the shared human experience. Hear stories from some of the men, women and children aided by Relief Without Borders and learn ways you can help.

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