World Refugee Day is an opportunity to celebrate the strength and courage of refugees around the world and highlight their stories, and today we are highlighting someone really special to us that wanted to share her story- one of our amazing StreetLeaders! Because her family is still in danger, we have changed her name and aren't showing her face, but if you've been around UPN at all in the last year and a half, you know who she is and have most likely been impacted by her as we all have been. We know everyone's story is sacred, and we are honored that she is willing to share her story of heartache, courage, and hope with us and all of you.
"It was 6PM when the news about our country started on TV. I turned on the TV with enthusiasm and hope, I was waiting for good news. I was staring at the clear and bright image of the TV. I didn't even dare to look the other way. I was a little excited and a lot of scared, but I had hope. The saddest moment was that with all the hope I had and thinking that everything would be fine, but there was nothing but blackness. I have never been sadder than that day in my life. Before, there was always a reason that calmed my heart even when I was sad. But this day, I didn't know what happened to me. As if someone punched me inside, I was sob in my throat. I could not cry, I could not scream. I turned off the TV and took my Biology book. I tried to study, but as soon as I remembered the situation of my country where the possibility of living there became less and less day by day, my hope and motivation to study was completely destroyed. Only the name and the memory of Taliban occupied my mind. But I was saying to myself that I must do something. I just wanted freedom so I went to the highest part of our house where I could see the sundown and I sat watching the sunset with silence on my lips. The sound and ugliness of the wind broke the silence of the space. The sun was slowly starting to go down and the darkness of the night prevailed over the light of the day. The stars and the moon were rising but that night I was sad about the stars and annoyed about the moon, I just wanted to be alone.
The morning of August 15th when I was preparing to go to school my mom said, "Do not go to school because it is dangerous outside" and I felt like a failure despite all my love for school. But I decided to never give up, and I said to myself, "I can do it." My mother knew that she could not prevent me from going to school because she knew how much I love to learn. She didn't stop me, but she told me to take care of myself so I left the house. I was a little scared when I went out, but I saw people who were walking with passion and laughter on their faces without fear. I felt strong and said to myself "Why should I always be afraid?" and continued on my way with all my strength.
When I got to school, I saw all my friends crying at the front door of the school. I went and asked one of them, "Why is the school door closed?". She said, "Because maybe a group of terrorists will attack our city and we have to go back to our houses." I told her that everything is fine, and people are all working [as normal]. She said, "No- they take giris from their homes and marry them." For a moment my body got cold, and I thought that everything was over. I felt the fear with all of my being and ran towards my house. I went and hugged my mother and said, "Please, hide me. I don't want to go with them!" My mother said, "Calm down, no one will take you from me." My body trembled with fear. After a few moments, I calmed down, but not like before. Whenever I heard knocking at the door, I felt afraid that they might come and I looked at the news every moment. I felt bad, as if my life was hell; I just cried every moment and didn't know what to do.
But despite all the problems the fire of hope was bright in my heart because I knew that I have a God who makes the sky cry because of His flowers smile and that is definitely something He does for me too.
My sister told us that the American soldiers had come to save people who are in danger and take them to America, and we all must prepare to leave this place if we can. So we all got ready. I didn't take anything with me- all my books, my pens that were always in my hand, my notebook of good and bitter memories that I always wrote in, certificates of appreciation that showed my hard work, our house we lived in all our life- we left everything behind to live in the hope that we could survive. At that moment I thought it was all just a nightmare and that I was only dreaming, and I was thinking why is there no one to wake me up. But nothing was a dream. I didn't want the sun to rise anymore, I didn't want everything to be fine anymore, I just wanted to live. I left our house and I got into the car in despair. When I was looking out of the car from window, each side of the city people were acting crazy running out of the country, as if our county is hell and America heaven. But why? What should cause us to leave our country? Are we not from this country? Why should we always be oppressed? These were the questions that have been bothering my mind until now.
When we arrived at the airport there were a lot of people. It seemed that all the people of the world had come here. I was afraid but because my mother and my father were with me, I was not afraid because I knew they would never let anyone harm us. We could not enter the airport because there were so many people. People pushed each other to enter the airport. My father told me and my sister that we should go in by ourselves, because there was no other way. Then he tried so hard to get me and my sister into the airport, but our father, mother and our bothers couldn't come. They said that we should go, and that they would come later.
When we entered the airfield, there were many planes all going to different countries and we didn't know where to go. Finally, we got into a plane and that was the first time I felt lonely in my life, because when I was little I wanted to fly by plane, but not with this kind of experience. I will never dream of traveling by plane again. As I flew into the sky of my dreams feeling all the difficulties, fear, and loneliness. We didn't even know where we were going. Our only goal was to live freely. We gambled our lives with our dreams, we either win or lose.
Finally, after all the disappointment, we arrived in America. The problem was not over by reaching this point, but this was the beginning of a new and difficult life. When we got here, American soldiers took us to a refugee camp in Texas. The staff who worked there took us to a room and brought for us clothes and some food. We just sat on the floor and thought about what to do and where to go. There was silence everywhere, there was no sound. I came from a place full of noises to a place of silence. But still my body was not at peace. I wondered if I had done something wrong. I didn't want to stay like this at all; I wanted something to happen- a light to come, a voice to come, or someone to tell me that I'm not wrong and that it's okay to choose your dreams or tell me everything will be fine. But there was nothing; no light and no voice. There was just me, my thoughts and a cold night. I felt alone and helpless with all my heart. With all the pain in my body, I went to bed and I knew that this body would not endure until tomorrow. In the same way, this dark night of my life turned into a darker day. The next night, we were able to find the internet and tell our parents that we were fine. My mother is a very strong woman. As I spoke with her there were tears in her eyes, but she was smiling so that we would not be disappointed. I remember that her eyes were red like fireballs, but she was still smiling. It is truly a sacrifice that my mom made for my freedom, and it was exactly then that I knew the true meaning of a mother. After we hung up the phone, that moment was the worst and most disappointing moment of my life that I will never forget. Days passed and I began to be more and more homesick. Everyone around me was enjoying every moment and I told myself that my homesickness would pass. Two and a half months of my life passed until we came to start a new life in Nashville.
It was 18 October 2021 when we left the refugee camp and came to Tennessee. I very much remember the time when we came here, everything was new: the roads, the houses, the culture, the behavior, the different faces. The world was different for me; it's like I was born again. I said to myself I should start from zero, but when I looked inside I saw weakness in myself. I thought to myself that I couldn't do anything anymore. Nothing was pleasant, the only thing that could calm me down was to just sleep so that I wouldn't feel anything. As days passed, I became more and more upset. I always thought about the negative points. What if something happens to my family? What if Taliban kill my family? What if I can’t see my mother and father again? What if I can't achieve my dreams? What if I couldn’t learn English? What if no one listens to me? These were the questions always in my mind. I had lost myself, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not find myself. Until one day I stood in front of the mirror and said to myself, "You can get out of this vortex." And it was then that I decided to let go of everything that was hurting me. In my life, I always thought that being strong meant to endure, but now I think that sometimes being strong means letting go; being strong means getting up; being strong means finding yourself.
From that moment on I didn't try to fix anything but instead left the things
I couldn't fix to God.
I no longer tried to keep others satisfied with myself. I didn't force others to understand what I said, but instead I tried to understand myself better. I left the unimportant battles to other people and instead I decided to focus on achieving my dreams. The dreams for which I left everything and everyone behind."
It was not easy to have a dream again and stand up with a broken heart, or to build motivation that was lost. I tried and tried a lot to build myself again from zero. It was in these days that Mrs. Shawna and Mr. Jonathan came to our house to bring food aid packages. They were really kind, and when I saw them at first I felt really good inside. I don’t know why, but I think it was because I felt like they understood me really well. We invited them to come to our home and ate a little snack and talked together. It was difficult when they wanted to know about us because they were talking in English. I was full of words but could not express myself. Mrs. Shawna helped us with everything. She took us to the store to buy clothes and everything we needed. Then they invited us to their home, and that's how we became friends. Days passed without anything interesting happening. I always tried to keep myself in a good mood and tried to learn English.
On 7 January 2022, it was time for my big dreams to start. This was my first day of school. I was really excited and nervous. I clearly remember the time when I entered the school for the first time. At first I thought I had come to the wrong place, but I quickly realized that school here is very different from school in Afghanistan. When I entered the school, a teacher asked me something in English but I didn’t understand what she said. I felt so bad in that moment. But she understood that I couldn't speak English so she took me to office. She asked my name so she could find my schedule, then she give me a paper and she took me to my class. What she had given me was my schedule but I did not know that at that time. I thought it was an exam, and thought to myself, "I can do this!" I tried so hard to read the paper, but I could not read it. Not even a word. I didn't know what to do. I was thinking about how hard it had been to get to this point; I had left everything behind- but I couldn't do this one thing. I pushed myself so that I almost started to cry and said to myself, 'How foolish am I? With all this knowledge, I can't pass the exam.' The teacher looked at me and said “Are you okay?”. I didn’t want to say what was going in my mind so I told her “yes.” She said something but I didn’t understand. Then she used her phone to translate. She told that I needed to write in the blanks with what showed on the projector. After that I realized that this was not an exam and I laughed at myself. If the Taliban did not come to our country, maybe everything would be different. Maybe I would be with my family or my friends- not where I don't understand others, and others don't understand me. It was so painful for me. That first day ended with many misunderstandings and mistakes.
But that day taught me that I may face many failures in life, but I am not a failure! In fact, we may need to face failures in order to find out who we are.
Usually in Afghanistan, when I came home from school, my mother would prepare food for me, but that day there was no one at home. My sister was out of the house at work and I sat alone near the window and looked outside. I didn't understand what happened, but I felt that I had lost something. I said to myself that I wished God would show me a day when everything will be fine so that I can continue to have hope. Days passed, and we met again with Mrs. Shawna. It was at that time that she told me about the UrbanPromise after school program. She told me that the program helps high school students to be good leaders and the kids to have fun, get an education, and learn about God. At first, I was looking for a way to learn English, so I decided to come to UrbanPromise. But when I arrived at UrbanPromise, the first thing that was interesting was that the kids came with their small face hugging me and greeted me with their cute smiles. From that moment I knew that UrbanPromise was more than a place that I could learn English. I tried to come to UrbanPromise any day I could and I think that was the way I was able to go from home to a friendly atmosphere. Then after a few months when I started to work at UrbanPromise, the kids and everyone called me a StreetLeader, but all I could think about was that I was not a leader. How I can be a leader? I never can be a leader. So I always felt embarrassed because of this. But everyone there helped me to find myself. Ms. Mary is the StreetLeader Director and helps me a lot with everything. At UrbanPromise, I noticed that I am not alone. I am with a community of people who work together for themselves and each other. Day by day I felt more comfortable and started leading in front of kids, believing that I can do this. UrbanPromise has helped me learn how to be a leader, to know that I am not alone, to have positive thoughts, to learn about God, to love others and have others love you. Since then, I've gone from a lost girl to a girl who can help others. From a quiet girl to a funny girl. From the girl who doesn't understand anything, to the girl that understands everything, And finally, from a timid girl to a girl that no one can defeat. I changed. I learned how to fight the worst situations in my life.
Thank you for reading my story.
Thank you Ms Shawna for sharing my story.
Note from Shawna:
*Hayat is a rising junior at Glencliff High School and has been a UPN StreetLeader since February 2022. She barely spoke any English when we first met her, but has picked it up incredibly quickly. It has been an absolute privilege to walk with her, become her family away from home, and watch her grow into a remarkable young woman. We could tell that she was special from the day we met her, but even so the growth and transformation that we have seen in her in the year that she's been a StreetLeader has been beautiful to witness. She is eager, she is confident, she is leading with love. She has become such a dear part of the UPN family and we are so incredibly grateful that the Lord led us to her, her sister, and her young nieces (who are 6 and 8). They have all become so dear to not just our UPN family, but to our own family personally.
There is a lot that I could say about Hayat, but what I want you to know about her is (although I'm sure you can already tell) that I don't know any other 17 year old that has shown so much courage, perseverance, determination, and integrity as she has. And despite all of the pain that she has been through in the last 22 months, she carries such joy and always wants to share that joy with others. She is sometimes hesitant to share anything hard that she is feeling with me- not because she doesn't want to share, but because she doesn't want what she shares to ever make me sad. But I have told her it's my honor to have her share with me and to weep with her when she is weeping and rejoice with her when she is rejoicing. That's what we do for each other as a community that is walking towards the Kingdom together. And that brings me to the most beautiful part of her story that is still being written. I believe with all my heart that God is answering the prayer that she prayed after that really hard first day of school that she had. ("I said to myself that I wished God would show me a day when everything will be fine so that I can continue to have hope.") He has invited her into a community that is pointing her to the One that will one day make everything right again so that she can continue to have hope.
*Hayat means "life" in Farsi. This is the name she chose to use in her story.