“I love everything about my Afghan culture and background that makes me different”

Halah Touryalai is an Afghan journalist based in the U.S. She is currently the Knight-Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University, New York City.
 
Q. When did you leave the country and what are your earliest memories of growing up in Afghanistan?
A. My parents came to the United States when I was barely a few months old. But while I do not have any memories of Afghanistan, my parents and grandparents have always shared their wonderfully vivid memories.
 
Q. A large majority of Afghans are now based abroad, mostly in Europe and U.S. How difficult is the cultural adjustment, especially for someone coming from a third world country?
A. I was lucky that I did not have to face those adjustments myself. The difficult thing for me was when I was younger my life at home was dramatically different than my friends in every aspect. For the most part, my friends at school did whatever they wanted and whenever they wanted to. I did not have that luxury.
 
Even small things made me feel different from my classmates. When their parents ordered them pizza on Friday nights, my parents had prepared rice, kabab and ashak. When they had birthday parties all the guests were kids. My birthday party guests included 15 aunts and uncles, a dozen cousins whose ages ranged from 20 years to 20 months – oh, and rice, kabab and ashak.
 
Today I love everything about my culture and background that makes me different. And I appreciate every effort my parents put in to give me the life I now have.
 
Q. As an Afghan living and working abroad, have you faced any stereotype, prejudice or racism?
A. Interestingly I have not faced any stereotype. When people learn that I am from Afghanistan they are surprised because their image of an Afghan woman is based on news headlines which are often focused on oppression and abuse. I always use those opportunities to answer their questions and adjust their misperceptions.
 
Q. When you come across the news reports about suicide attacks, violence against women and children in your home country, how do you react?
A. It is heart wrenching and infuriating at the same time. I cannot imagine what it is like living in that kind of fear everyday where the possibility of such violence is common. I lived in downtown Manhattan on September 11, 2001, just a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center. I will never forget that day for the rest of my life.
 
I am lucky enough to live in a country where an event like that is uncommon. That is not true for most of those living in Afghanistan. There is no justification for suicide attacks or mindless killings, and those who think there is a heavenly reward for harming others are only fooling themselves.
 
Q. Do you believe the Afghans who are settled abroad should return home and help in rebuilding their country especially with the political and security transition now?
A. I think about this question often, and my gut tells me, yes. If you can afford it – not just in a monetary sense – and still feel a connection to Afghanistan, then it is almost natural to want to help in the rebuilding effort in some capacity. The hesitation for many of us is about not knowing how to do it effectively. Donating money is easy, but making sure it gets to the right place is not.
 
Q. Tell us a bit about the work you do?
A. I have been a business journalist for the last eight years. Mostly recently, I worked for Forbes magazine where I reported on financial markets, banks, hedge funds and private equity firms. I am currently on leave from Forbes and am attending Columbia University in New York City as Knight-Bagehot Fellow, which is a prestigious fellowship program for business journalists.
 
Q. As they say, you can take the person out of country, but you cannot take country out of the person. What is the one thing that makes you proud as an Afghan?
A. There are so many things that make me proud as an Afghan, but something that I have always admired about Afghans is our sense of resilience. I hope to carry that with me and pass it on to my children one day.