An Afghan family 'adopts' an American aid worker

Patricia Omidian, an American who, until Sept. 14, lived in Pakistan, says that two events crystallized her love for the Muhajers, her "adopted" Afghan family, a family that the medical anthropologist has lived with for the past three years.

One was the time 3-year-old Ayesha climbed up on Ms. Omidian's lap and hardly left for three days, sleeping and sobbing after her grandmother passed on.

The other was when Omidian received a job offer in Tajikistan, and Yousef Muhajer, Ayesha's father, decided he'd be willing to move the family there to be with Omidian. He even went as far as selling his taxi.

While that job fell through and they never went, it shows how close Omidian came to the Muhajers (not their real name) despite the conflict between their homelands.

As a result, Omidian has seen the graciousness and hospitality of an Afghan family - one that escaped war - firsthand.

The Muhajers call her khala (aunt) Pat and consider her a true family member.

That showed in the days following the Sept. 11 attacks. Unlike other Americans who were rushing to flee the country, Omidian, who works for an Afghan aid agency, had little desire to leave. (She traveled to the US as much for the family's safety as her own.)

She met the Muhajers through an interpreter she had worked with while doing research for her PhD in Pakistan in 1990. When she returned to the country three years ago and moved in with them, they instantly and deeply connected.

When Omidian met them, all nine family members were living in a one-room apartment. Gulcheen, the mother, sewed dresses at night and sold them for 80 cents apiece. Yousef found work where he could.

Soon after Omidian arrived, she started supporting them financially. The Muhajers' relatives in the US requested her help to reduce the financial burden on them.

"Most foreigners in Pakistan, they hire a cook, they hire a housekeeper, they hire a driver, they hire guards. I realized it was much cheaper and much more comfortable to be part of the family than to hire a bunch of strangers in my house," she said in a phone interview from Texas, where she is temporarily staying.

The result has been a peaceful blending of cultures. Omidian did everything from ironing to comforting kids to helping with homework. She was continually amazed at the graciousness of her Afghan friends, as well as the Afghan people as a whole.

"[People in] Afghanistan and the NWFP [North West Frontier Province] of Pakistan are the masters of taking care of people as guests," she says. "If you drop in on an Afghan family - and it doesn't matter if they are rich or poor - you will be instantly served tea; they'll bring you sweets. I have had the poorest people go into debt in order to do that," she says, adding that people have borrowed from neighbors to feed her. "If you came to our house for dinner, you would be served their favorite guest food, which is Kabuli Palau. It takes all day or more to make." It's a chicken and rice dish that is so elaborate, "they slice up carrots very thin and clean the raisins one at a time...," she says, noting that she's never met anyone who doesn't like it.

Omidian was so close to the Muhajer family that she even disciplined the children. She remembers once when the 10-year-old son played cricket with his older brother without doing his homework first. When he got back and saw Omidian, "He knew he'd been had," she says, "and he burst out crying."

Perhaps the most touching gesture of the friendship between Omidian and the Muhajers came when Yousef moved the entire family, as he earlier had considered, to be with Omidian in Islamabad while she was working there.

She e-mails them daily now, and was even chatting with them when the bombing of Afghanistan started. She's concerned about how their life has changed. Living in such a volatile region, they have stocked up on rice, flour, and kerosene and are ready for an emergency, but they still try to maintain a normal daily life even though the children's school is closed. Gulcheen got up a few nights ago and woke the kids up. She was convinced planes were flying overhead, ready to attack.

It's nothing new for the Muhajers. They lived in Kabul until the early 1990s.

"The oldest three kids remember rockets landing around them, and friends of theirs being killed," Omidian says. "And they're scared. They wrote me [an e-mail] and said every time a plane flies over, they grab their hearts and get nervous. They just don't know what's going to happen."

But for Omidian, this behind-the-curtain look at Afghan family life was spliced together with a more difficult task: working with Afghan refugees and dealing with the Taliban. She has worked with Taliban members whose focus is on working and supporting their families. "I would say actually a very tiny percentage of Taliban [members] really believe Taliban [teachings]," she says. "Most are just trying to survive."

Before Sept. 11, Omidian felt that the anti-American sentiment in Pakistan was small, and she never felt threatened. Now, however, her colleagues tell her nongovernmental organizations have been ransacked and anti-American sentiment has grown.

Riots are also more common. "The mobs are angry at being disenfranchised, and they see this as another example, so it's not safe now for many of my Pakistani and Afghan friends," Omidian says.

Misinterpretation of American culture was widespread even before the war.

"I can't tell you how many people watch 'Baywatch,' and they think that's America," says Omidian, who notes that she and the Muhajers have become closer since the war.

"I feel like I have been ripped out of my home and sent away from them, and they're in danger and I'm not. And I'm worried about that."

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