Thursday, June 02, 2005 | Arian Dyanat has seen firsthand more hardship in her 17 years of life than most Americans can even imagine. Yet her spirit and sense of hope are boundless, now that she has immigrated to America from her homeland of Afghanistan.

Her story is eloquently told in an essay she wrote for the 2005 Family Histories Essay Competition, sponsored by the New Americans Immigration Museum and Learning Center.

On June 2, the 11th-grade, straight-A student at San Diego’s Herbert Hoover High School was awarded the first-place prize for this essay, which recounts her and her family’s harrowing ordeals during the course of their journey from Kabul to Pakistan, and eventually to America where faith and vision in a bright future were restored.

Arian’s essay (reprinted below) was selected by the judges unanimously. “Arian has written about reaching out across ethnicity and religion, embracing the character and quality of what it means to be a New American,” said judge and professor Jorge Riquelme. Arian will receive a $2,000 scholarship and a laptop computer.

Second-place winners Sadek Ibrahim and Mustafa Abdille, both in 10th grade at Crawford High School Educational Complex, will receive $1,000 scholarships. The judges selected 30 other finalists, ranging in age from 12 to 64, who will also receive scholarships and prizes.

The annual competition, designed to chronicle personal family histories of new American immigrants, drew 186 essays representing 42 different countries from students in 26 schools and community colleges throughout San Diego. Other award-winning essays and information on the museum, which was founded by Deborah Szekely, can be found at the museum’s Web site.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

From the day I arrived in America, individuals have opened their hearts to me, and opportunities – like open arms – have embraced me. It is only natural that I, in turn, reach out to others in my path to make a difference in their lives.

My life has been a path of obstacles and opportunities, of tragedies and blessings, beginning 16 years ago in the chilly mountains of Kabul, Afghanistan. As a small child, life was simple and good in my little world. But that world shattered when, at the age of 7, I woke up to the chaos and terror of the Russian takeover. The community I had known before going to bed that night was no more; my new reality was war and the loss of women’s rights. How I cherished every spare moment with my father, in the military, and my mother, a nurse, until tragedy struck.

One evening my father and brother went to the store for fruit and, like always, my father promised to return with vanilla ice cream for me. I remember them driving away, but never imagined they would not drive back. We searched for them throughout that dark, endless night. At daybreak, instead of my father and brother at the door, neighbors appeared and told us that a group of Russians had shot them, vandalized the car and dropped their bodies off near our house. I ran into the street, shaking with anger, eyes filling with tears, determined to prove that my father and brother were alive. I rushed to my father’s side, removed the white blanket, knelt and whispered in his ear, “Papa, wake up, you can’t leave us! You promised me my vanilla ice cream. You can’t break your promise; you can’t break my heart. Open your eyes and take me to school like always; you know I don’t like to be late for school.” But that moment was the end of my family forever, and of my education for a long time.

We fled Afghanistan, leaving everything behind as we made our way to Pakistan. The 12-hour trip in the back of a truck took two days and nights as we walked every hour to avoid Russian checkpoints. We climbed mountains, crawled through dirt caves and hid from the Russians, and from certain torture and death. With no food and little water, my mother, brother and I reached Pakistan and wandered the streets for weeks. After many desperate months, my mother got a job that barely paid for our room. She searched for work from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m., for three months, until she found a job. Her job was one hour from our house and her salary was enough only for the house rent. So, we passed many nights without eating. I used to study at night, but some nights it was very hard for me to study, because without eating anything I wasn’t able to focus and do my homework.

My mother tried her best to take care of my brother and me while she was working. I also had to help support the family. So instead of playing with other children, I started selling water near the stores, parks and buses in order to help my mother and buy medicine for my brother, who was sick because he was malnourished. Although we went many nights without food, I had no time to focus on how bad my situation was because my priority was to do well in school and learn Urdu, a Pakistani language. Education had become my refuge, at least for a short period of those seven long years.

In order to support my family, I stopped going to school because it got too hard to keep my grades up and to pay attention in my classes. After stopping school, I, started selling water from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. I remember when most people were passing by and started making fun of me on the streets or near the buses. That hurt me a lot, but I accepted it because with that money I could buy food for my family. Sometimes I used to see students coming from school. Tears fell from my eyes because it reminded me that I used to go to school, too. I would recall how great it feels to go to school and learn new things every day.

One year later, the rent went too high for us to pay that month, and the owner of the house told us to leave in 24 hours. My mother asked him to give us at least two days, but he didn’t. So we packed our things, not knowing where we should go. Then, a conversation came to my mind from a couple of days earlier. A Pakistani woman told me that, if I would clean her house, she would pay me a little and give me one room to live in. I still had her address. So we began living in a room that she gave us, and I started working for her as a maid. I continued working as a full-time maid and never returned to school in Pakistan.

For seven years, we continued to struggle to survive in Pakistan, and knew that we would never return to our homeland under the Taliban. Before going to sleep at night, I would gaze at the stars and recall the night sky in the Afghan mountains where I used to promise my father, “I want to be one of the stars. I will face every challenge and one day I will be as bright as a star.” But, while in Pakistan, I did not feel the same. My goals were gone, as were my father, my brother and my self-esteem. I felt I would never shine as bright as those stars above me. That is, until an amazing event changed my life.

Someone suggested that my mother apply to come to America as a refugee. Although moving to America had never crossed our minds, after everything we had endured in Afghanistan and Pakistan, what could we lose? We waited with anticipation and hope, until the arms of opportunity opened to us. After an extensive interview and a home visit from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees officials, my mother, my brother and I were given our date to fly to America. A journey of two nights and three days placed us on American soil, in the city of Boise, Idaho.

The next morning was a true awakening. As I covered my head with my traditional scarf, I was told that I no longer had to wear a scarf in America. For me that moment became a sign of many future bright awakenings. Slowly, the darkness that had stretched from the night of my father’s and brother’s deaths began to lighten and I faced each new challenge eagerly, head on. As an immigrant student, my biggest obstacle was learning English. So, I worked hard in English classes, read more than my friends, listened to the news every night and spoke English every chance I could. In addition, I got help from teachers and friends, who became my mentors and role models. My service to school began early as I worked alongside my school librarian every day; I gained language skills in return for service. Now, I communicate with everyone around me with a gift of three languages, and a fourth, Spanish, on the way!

When the opportunity presented itself to do volunteer work for the Immigration Agency in Boise, I embraced the chance to become a translator for newcomers, to be the voice that would welcome, guide and reassure others. I took new arrivals to their apartments, to doctor’s appointments and to the Department of Motor Vehicles. I helped them with legal paperwork, and taught them survival skills. While in Boise, I also worked one day a week at a Christian church to dispense food and other essentials to the poor in our new community. I remembered standing in these lines myself and was grateful to return the generosity that had once reached out to my family. As a Muslim girl volunteering for a Christian church, I realized that the spirit of America, my new home, encircles all cultures and backgrounds, and that I would do the same.

Since moving to San Diego, California 18 months ago, I have found a new family in the people who opened their hearts to me. I feel like a seed that has been planted in strong, dark, rich soil! In my 10th and 11th grade years at Hoover High School, I have branched out in many areas of service and leadership that seem to grow from one activity to the next. Because of my good grades, I joined the National Honor Society and have been a math and English tutor both before and after school. I enjoy helping students with their assignments and any other problems we can discuss. I feel comfortable reaching beyond the role of tutor because of the training I have gotten in Youth Force, another school service organization. I am the president of Youth Force and lead meetings and discussions with others on how to solve problems in school and in relationships.

I also enjoy volunteering in the school-wide student committee for Sustained Silent Reading at Hoover. We select hundreds of books for our daily 20 minutes of classroom leisure reading. I have also given book talks in a number of classrooms and at monthly teacher staff development meetings. I like to sit with teachers and talk about what students like to read; I believe I am helping teachers learn more about their students and build better communication with them. In my junior year I joined the Academy of Information Technology and was also elected secretary. Holding this office gives me another chance to improve my language skills but, more important, to be a voice for the students I represent. I value this voice that many students take for granted because I know that in many other countries, like my homeland, young people cannot speak up for themselves, especially young women. Leadership also takes me to places I would never get to go, like to Chargers games where I have worked in food booths to earn money for our clubs and organizations. Go Chargers! Also, last summer I volunteered to help a group of teachers organize a school-wide academic vocabulary program, and now the entire school learns five new “Words Of The Week.” Strong vocabulary is a powerful tool when we want to speak up for ourselves and others; this is something I will always do.

City Heights has so many ways to assist the community that I have learned what a real community is; we all help each other. As a member of Teen Talk, I have worked with young people in our community as we discuss healthy life choices. As a voice for our multicultural neighborhood, I have shared my personal journey and my future goals with many community and business groups and leaders. I have also addressed a hotel banquet room of 500 teachers, kindergarten through university, with the message of how important their work is to us. I am getting comfortable speaking to large audiences, but my absolute favorite service to my community is my work in a children’s bookstore. I volunteer every day and on weekends at a nonprofit community bookstore that raises funds to provide schools in City Heights with books for their classrooms. Each day I read and talk with young children and help teachers who bring in their students.

My service and leadership opportunities are gifts to me because they have changed the small and safe world of my childhood into one so large and inviting. I have learned that when someone goes through bad times, it is not the end of the world. I am alive and breathing today because of hope. Living in America has given my family and me many opportunities we would never have had in our homeland. It has opened up the doors for me, a woman. The expectation for a woman in Afghanistan is to grow up to be a respectful daughter, a loyal wife and a good mother; to clean the house, cook the meals and raise the children. In America I have opportunities to live the way I want to live, to breathe the way I want to breathe. I can attain a high education to achieve my dreams. With faith and determination, I can reach the goals I promised my father; I will attend a university and major in a field of medicine. This will lead me to meet new people, gain more knowledge, and begin to serve a larger community than my school and neighborhood.

I see my life’s path as a circle that I began to walk the day I arrived in America, when individuals opened their hearts to me, and opportunities – like open arms – embraced me. I will widen this circle as I reach out to others to make a difference in their lives.

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