The Afghans of Fremont
- November 5, 2010
The site of the Altamont Speedway, where four died and scores were injured in an infamous 1969 rock concert, isn’t far from Fremont, the largest city in Alameda County, California. But the area has changed dramatically in 40 years. The raceway itself is long gone; so are the hippies, most of the farms, and the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll culture. In their place, the first thing that a tourist might notice is that Fremont—along with other cities in this county just south of San Francisco Bay—now hosts enormous Indian, Pakistani, Vietnamese, and Chinese populations, as well as smaller clusters of a dozen other nationalities. In fact, this city of 217,000 is among the nation’s most ethnically and culturally diverse. Some 136 languages are spoken at home by children who attend Fremont schools, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, and white, native-born Americans constitute only 38 percent of the city’s residents.
One of Fremont’s most surprising and least accessible ethnic enclaves is its Afghan population, probably the largest in the Western world. To outsiders, the Afghans of Fremont seem to be a tight-knit community, faring relatively well in a new and very different place. But those who know them well see a more troubling picture. Though some Bay Area Afghans are enormously successful and have integrated fully into American life, many are not assimilating. Far too many exist in a state of suspended animation between Afghanistan and America—anxious, uprooted, belonging totally to neither culture, intensely competitive with one another but even more suspicious of outsiders. Among those concerned: local police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which have quietly intensified their scrutiny of the area’s Afghan community, worried about possible ties with Islamic terrorism.
For people whose native country routinely makes front-page news, the Afghans of Fremont exist in relative obscurity. With a handful of exceptions, they hold no prominent posts in American political and cultural institutions and have no influential groups to lobby Washington or even city hall. There are no Afghan state senators, members of Congress, mayors, or even school board members. Many of the community’s “spokesmen” speak mainly among themselves; the organizations that they represent have few members and are little more than good intentions on a business card. “In many ways, the community is still politically invisible,” says Abdul Naseer Yasiri, a recent immigrant who heads the Afghan Cultural Association.
As a community, these Afghans are also enormously understudied, except by law enforcement. After 9/11, journalists descended on Fremont, writing stories about “Little Kabul”—a short strip along Fremont Boulevard, really little more than a grocery store, jewelry shop, bookstore, and a couple of clothing shops that sold such items as long-sleeved tunics and head scarves for women and native hats called pakol for men. In 2003, Fremont got another jolt of publicity when the young Afghan author Khaled Hosseini set part of his best-selling novel, The Kite Runner, in the Fremont area.
But media interest in the community soon waned. Basic facts about it remain murky—its size, for example. The census conducted a decade ago found only 3,400 Afghans in Fremont and 12,000 in the nine-county Bay Area. But Afghans and experts alike complain that this is a severe underestimate. Valerie J. Smith, a communications instructor at nearby California State University–East Bay, puts the number of Afghan refugees in northern California at 30,000, not counting their native-born children.
For refugees they are—from a country ravaged by a decade-long war against the Soviets in the 1980s, another decade of internecine warfare in the 1990s among rival Afghan ethnic groups, the oppression of the militant Taliban, and now an American war. In fact, since 1981, Afghans have been the world’s single largest refugee population each year, accounting for at least a quarter of all refugees. “At the height of the Rwanda crisis in 1994, there were 2.3 million Rwandan refugees and 2.7 million Afghans,” says Jeremy Hein, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. “When the Bosnia refugee crisis erupted in 1996, there were 893,000 Bosnian refugees but 2.7 million Afghans. In 2009, 1.9 million Iraqis were forced to leave their country, but there were still 2.8 million new Afghan refugees.”
The refugees arrived in the U.S. in two main waves, Smith says: a post-Soviet-invasion influx from 1989 to 1993 of more highly educated Afghans, many of whom held senior government posts and professional jobs in Kabul; and a second, smaller wave from the late 1990s until now, which has included large numbers of Afghans from rural areas with little or no formal education, particularly widows and others classified by American immigration authorities as “women at risk.” While the Afghans have assimilated into America faster than immigrants from, say, Mexico and El Salvador, says Jacob Vigdor, an economics and public policy professor at Duke University, their assimilation rates lag far behind those of immigrants from such Asian countries as South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
One reason for the Afghans’ relatively slow assimilation is the fact that they are refugees. Typical immigrants “come largely for economic reasons and have stronger social and family networks,” Hein points out. Refugees, by contrast, flee violence and emigrate because of a crisis, not because they yearn to come to the United States. “They’re more concerned with Kabul than Fremont,” he says. “The Afghan view of the world is a very small dot called California and another called New York, and large dots for Pakistan, Iran, and their relatives in any part of the world.”
Explanations vary as to why Fremont became an Afghan hub. Mild weather was clearly a draw; several Afghans also told me that Fremont’s tree-lined streets, two-story houses, and surrounding hills reminded them of their native land. Jonathan Curiel, a writer who covered the community for the San Francisco Chronicle, credits word of mouth among Afghans. “It felt safe in this calm suburb,” adds Rona Popal, who left Afghanistan in 1977 and now heads the Afghan Coalition, one of the area’s most effective Afghan social welfare groups. “And housing was cheap, particularly compared to New York City,” she continues, referring to the Afghan community in Flushing, Queens, which some scholars say rivals Fremont’s in size.
Afghans say that California’s generous welfare benefits also played a role, along with the advice and support of several city and county officials, such as Suzanne Shenfil, director of Fremont’s Human Services Department, whom they credit with having helped refugees form their own support groups. Though many first-wave immigrants held prestigious jobs in Afghanistan—doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers—their inability to speak English often disqualified them from comparable jobs in America. Several Afghans said that many men in the first wave preferred to keep their families on welfare rather than accept work they deemed degrading or unsuitable to their education and social status.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the Afghans of Fremont are a highly traumatized community. For many of them, America’s recent surge of forces in its protracted Afghanistan war has rekindled harrowing memories of their own flight. It has also generated fears that friends and loved ones back home may be killed—or, alternatively, that America may abandon them to corruption and extremism, as it did after the Soviets were expelled from Afghanistan in 1989. “Many Afghans are reliving the trauma of war for a second or even third time,” says Popal.
Given their discomfort with the foreign policy of the country that has sheltered them but is still fighting in their former home and sometimes killing their friends and relatives left behind, many Fremont Afghans are reluctant to discuss politics with outsiders. The Afghanistan war is unpopular in much of this community, several Afghans told me. So, too, is President Hamid Karzai, despite the fact that he, like an overwhelming majority of the refugees in Fremont, is a Pashtun, Afghanistan’s majority ethnic group.
David Haines, an anthropologist at George Mason University, argues that much of the chaos of Afghan society in America is due to the refugees’ forced flight from their homeland, often under brutal circumstances. “Their relationship both to the U.S. and to the past has never really been resolved,” he says. “So the past is not past, and when events shift on the ground in Afghanistan, all the memories and questions suddenly reemerge: ‘Should I have left? Stayed? Done more?’ ”
In a study of the mental health status of 257 Afghan refugees (the most extensive psychological survey of this population to date), Carl Stempel, a sociologist at Cal State–East Bay, found an unusually high—45 percent—rate of post-traumatic stress disorder. And no wonder: 87 percent of those surveyed said that they had experienced “life-threatening situations” in Afghanistan or while fleeing; 78 percent said that a family member or close friend had been killed or badly injured; and 71 percent of men said that they had been held hostage and tortured.
Problems in the community are often hard to pinpoint because of what Mizgon Zahir Darby calls Afghans’ culture of “silence and secrecy.” Darby was just 18 when she founded a journal in which she hoped to discuss not only the strengths of Afghan culture—its enormous hospitality, care for elders, and loyalty to family—but also subjects considered taboo among Afghans, such as suicide, mental illness, rape, wife-beating, child abuse, gangs, and drug abuse among the young. Members of the community and even some relatives were shocked when she began writing about such woes. She had tarnished their nang—their honor—by exposing problems that Afghans believe are best dealt with privately, within the family (which has often meant not at all). Some called her an Amreecayee—an American—a term, she writes, “used to describe sell-outs in Afghan culture.” Many Afghans here also use that term to describe those—traitors, as they see it—who have gone to Afghanistan to serve as translators for the American military.
Fremont’s Afghans are far from unified. A while back, Darby helped a group comprising five Afghan groups, led by Popal’s Afghan Coalition, secure a small state grant to address the community’s mental health problems. But infighting among the coalition members proved so intense that it took almost three years to sort out each group’s role and share of the funds. Much of the time, lamented one observer, the groups were “at each other’s throats.”
The local police tread carefully with this secretive, suspicious community, whose experiences back in Afghanistan have made it understandably anxious about law enforcement. Most police clashes with Afghans involve what Craig Steckler, Fremont’s police chief, calls “cultural” issues. Soon after he became chief, he remembers, a gang of young Afghans tried to oust officers on patrol from what they called their “tribal lands.” “We had to spend some time reeducating them that no, actually, this was our territory and they had to respect our laws,” he says.
Domestic abuse of women is rising by the day, says Najia Hamid, founder and executive director of the Afghan Elderly Association, a community group, but Afghans resist reporting such incidents. Ditto child abuse, Steckler adds: Afghans are often surprised to learn that what they consider ordinary discipline can be a crime in America. Afghan gangs keep the police busy as well. Members of one gang, which called itself SAG, for “Save Afghan Girls,” took it upon themselves to protect the honor of young Afghan women by beating and harassing non-Afghans who tried to date them.
But Steckler’s most pressing concern must be the one that neither he nor the Oakland-based Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) would discuss: their efforts to monitor the Afghan community for signs of radicalization. At least two sources said that the FBI-led task force is investigating several Afghan and Pakistani residents of Alameda County—specifically, young men believed to have been friendly with or related to Najibullah Zazi. Earlier this year, Zazi—a 25-year-old Afghan-born Pashtun and naturalized U.S. citizen—pleaded guilty to plotting with al-Qaida to carry out multiple bombings in the New York City subway system. Zazi grew up in Queens, not California. But one of the Afghans said to be under JTTF surveillance is one of Zazi’s many cousins, a Bay Area resident said to have been in touch with him when he was traveling to New York to carry out the attack.
More broadly, the JTTF has been trying to assess how many young Afghans may be vulnerable to militant Islamism’s seductive appeal. Complicating the task is the difficulty of distinguishing potentially dangerous militants from those attracted by the broader, nonviolent wave of interest in Islam that is now filling the mosques and Islamic centers on Fridays, especially with younger Afghans. A recent debate on the role of Islam in modern American life sponsored by the Afghan Cultural Society, for instance, attracted an audience of 300, many of them young.
When he is not managing his university’s $300 million budget or flying to Afghanistan during college breaks to advise the Karzai government, Mohammad Qayoumi, president of Cal State East Bay, is worrying about young Afghans. Qayoumi, one of the Afghan community’s most prominent members, divides the community’s second generation into three groups. The “unilingual,” as he calls them, speak English but only pidgin Dari or Pashto. The “bilingual” thrive in both the Afghan and the American worlds. The third group, however, speaks only “half a language”: having never really learned their parents’ native tongue, they haven’t learned to function well in American society either. Like so many other émigrés who are linguistically and culturally stranded, they often drift into the area’s criminal underground—its drugs, gangs, and crime.
A widespread sense of alienation means that “there is potential for radicalization” in this third group, Qayoumi says. Curious about their own ethnic background, hungry for roots in a society and religion that they know little about, they are susceptible to recruitment by militants seeking to inculcate them into their own autocratic, intolerant brand of Islam. Portraying this interpretation as authentically Afghan, militants offer recruits the sense of belonging that they seek.
Fazl Ghani Mogaddedi, who publishes a quarterly newsletter in Fremont, shares Qayoumi’s concern, though his analysis is slightly different: he identifies a clash between first-generation refugees and their far better assimilated sons and daughters, many of whom have never even visited Afghanistan. Curiosity about their religious and cultural heritage often prompts a search for identity, says Mogaddedi. As a result, some embrace what he calls the “superficial trappings of Islam” and, worse, violent interpretations of his faith. “I’m very worried about the radicalization of the young, and not just in this community.”
Where, exactly, would this radicalization take place? Qayoumi says that the community’s ten or so mosques, mostly Sunni, haven’t helped the area’s Afghans acquire a political voice and identity. Farid Younos, a professor of human-development studies and sociology at Cal State East Bay, agrees that while local mosques “play a very important spiritual role,” most “tend to stick to religious rather than political issues, despite the fact that politics and religion are not separate in Islam.” In the 1990s, said several Afghans, the Zaytuna Institute, located in nearby Hayward, had a reputation for fostering radicalism, a charge that its representatives have denied. But most of its leadership is not Afghan, and its energies of late have been devoted to opening a Muslim college to train imams in Berkeley. In any case, law enforcement officials here and in New York say that most mosques are no longer prime centers of Islamist radicalization. Equally powerful, concluded a groundbreaking New York Police Department study by Mitchell Silber and Arvin Bhatt in 2007, is material on the Internet and pressure from peer groups.
The problem of “homegrown” terrorism resulting from radicalization in the U.S. is one that law enforcement officials are increasingly worried about. According to a new study by New York University’s Center on Law and Security, 81 percent of the nearly 1,000 defendants in the 50 most high-profile terrorist plots prosecuted since 9/11 are homegrown Islamic militants. Of those prosecuted this year, more than half are U.S. citizens.
A community in deep distress, torn between its allegiances here and in Afghanistan; a young generation estranged from its parents—these are the “building blocks” of radicalization, one expert says. Most Afghan-Americans are just seeking safer, richer lives, as have generations of immigrants before them. But police fear that pockets of extremism may take hold undetected in this cocoon of a community. For as the Zazi case shows, the same expert says, “you only need two or three radicalized people to foment terror.”