A long way from home, Afghan journalist Nazira Karimi remains undeterred in her effort to tell the story of her country.
As part of this effort, Karimi has joined a panel of 50 refugees participating in the first Refugee Congress in Washington, D.C.
The event, held Wednesday and Thursday on Capitol Hill, was hosted by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — a two-time Nobel Peace Prize-winning agency.
The goal of the event is to raise public awareness of refugees living in the U.S. as well as to discuss issues facing this population, spokeswoman Charity Tooze said.
“The Refugee Congress stemmed from the idea that people affected most by refugee policies should be involved [in the discussion of policies],” she said. “A lot of times, politicians speak for refugees. We want to put refugees at the table with people who make decisions.”
During this week’s gathering, refugee delegates drafted a proclamation with some recommended changes to U.S. policy regarding refugee resettlement efforts. The proclamation will go to the U.S. Congress first, then on to the annual meeting of the United Nations Secretariat in Geneva, Tooze said.
“Delegates meet in the day to discuss refugee policy and their experiences in resettlement,” she said. “There’s a lot of energy, a lot of dynamics. … We have people who are 80 years old and people in their 20s. … What they have in common is their shared [refugee] experiences.”
For Karimi, telling her story is a way to help the next generation of refugees from Afghanistan.
A political refugee, Karimi was born and raised in Kabul, but now lives in Fairfax with her family, including three children. She said she left Afghanistan under threat from the Taliban.
“I’d been working with the [Afghanistan National TV] as a journalist. … And when a different majority came in, people told me it would be too dangerous for me,” she said. “I continued as a journalist in Afghanistan until 1993.”
Afghanistan National TV was headquartered in Kabul and was shut down by the Taliban government in 1996 when officials banned TV. The station was later destroyed, but reopened in 2002 when the Taliban lost power.
Karimi said her news coverage included issues facing women under the Taliban regime. At one point, she interviewed a Taliban leader about women’s issues under the Taliban rule. The leader became angry at her, and she felt her safety and that of her family was threatened.
“A friend came up to me and said, ‘You said something negative about the new majority and it’s not safe here for you anymore,’” Karimi said.
Karimi and her family fled Afghanistan to Pakistan and began living in Islamabad in 1999. For six months, the family tried to gain political asylum in the U.S.
Her husband was beaten nearly to death during their time in Pakistan, Karimi said. Although she is unsure of the attackers’ identities, she thinks they were members of the Taliban.
“They tried to kill him because they said ‘Your wife talks against us,’” Karimi said. “He suffered a lot for me.”
The stress of being under constant threat caused Karimi and her husband to separate after relocating to the U.S. with their family in 2000.
Like many refugees, Karimi said she had to start over, which included taking a job outside of her career field.
“It was very difficult for me — the language, culture and customs; but language was the priority,” she said.
Karimi worked as a waitress before a local connection resulted in a job returning her to journalism. Today, she works as the Washington correspondent for the Ariana Television Network, a leading news provider in Afghanistan. And in 2005, she remarried to an American. She is the parent of a 20-year-old daughter, an 18-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter.
Karimi, 45, is a well-known and prestigious journalist in Afghanistan, Tooze said, adding that this reputation was one reason the Fairfax resident was chosen as a delegate to the Refugee Congress.
Because of the longtime conflicts in Afghanistan, “Afghanis represent some of the longest-standing refugees [some of who came to the U.S. in 1979]… Very few Afghan refugees get resettled to the U.S.,” Tooze said. The reason is because resettlement programs aim to establish refugees in countries near their nation of birth, she said.
According to the agency, there were 1,364 Afghan refugees or people in refugee-like situations who came to the U.S. in 2010.
“Nazira was under serious danger, which is why she is here,” Tooze said.
Karimi is the lone Afghan refugee among the congress delegates. Other refugees in the congress include a Holocaust survivor, a Rwandan genocide survivor, a Cuban exile and a former Burmese soldier who was imprisoned for 15 years.
Delegates were nominated by nongovernmental refugee organizations. About 200 people were nominated, Tooze said, and then 50 were chosen based on their experiences and community involvement.
“This is not a one-time thing,” Tooze said of the Refugee Congress. “We’re hoping this is an annual event. We see this as the beginning of a movement to give refugees more of a voice … and power.”
Remembering how difficult her resettlement to the U.S. was, Karimi said she hopes that she and other delegates can help make future resettlements easier.
“For someone who left their country — a poor country like Afghanistan — to go to the U.S., that’s wealthy, and everything is new — it’s very different,” she said.
Karimi would like to see resettlement programs offer more emotional help to refugees.
“I miss my country every single day,” she said. “I have good memories and bad memories. Good experiences and bad experiences. … I want to go back to my beloved country, but this is not a choice.”