“Afghanistan doesn’t deserve to be in the U.N.,” he said on the third day of class. “It’s too primitive.” All the heads in the room turned to look at the girl in the hijab. She had her head down, scribbling notes, but she felt their eyes watching her, waiting for her to blow up or burst into tears. Wazhma Sadat said nothing.
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Though her classmates didn’t know it, a battle was unfolding inside her head. Should she say something, or remain silent? She knew she couldn’t stop herself from getting upset: “When somebody says something about Afghanistan not knowing enough about it, I know that by not saying anything, I’m not doing it justice,” she said later. Sadat is the only Afghan student at Yale. “But,” she added, “I can’t say things without hiding my emotions.”
During class that day, as she struggled to control her anger, Sadat remembered her childhood in Kabul. While her classmates argued about nuclear warfare, she remembers thinking to herself, “Do people know what they mean when they talk about people dying? Or is it just numbers for them, is it just video games?” When Sadat first saw video games where the goal was to “Kill Talibs,” she was horrified. “Maybe they haven’t seen people dying,” Sadat thought.
The struggle to hide her emotions, Sadat says, evoked powerful memories. Sadat spent much of her childhood hiding: in basements during rocket blasts, in an unfamiliar country to escape the Taliban, in a U.S. high school where she was ashamed of being from Afghanistan.
Sadat is one of a tiny group of Yale students — the admissions office will not release exact figures, citing student confidentiality — for whom war and genocide is not just the stuff of political science classes or video games. It is the stuff of their lives.
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When she came to Yale in 2010, Sadat joined an even smaller group: students who, after living through war and genocide, have decided to study it.
Research on genocide survivors in the classroom is scarce, and most models of healing from the last 50 years focus on psychological treatment. But the more recent research stresses the need to move beyond the “limitations of western constructs,” as the Chicago School of Professional Psychology asserts in a study of Rwandan trauma survivors. The School’s March 2011 article advises professionals working with genocide survivors to look for other ways of promoting healing: through education, community discussion, art, and literature.
The ways in which genocide survivors at Yale have chosen to approach their past experiences are drastically different from one another. One student has elected an intellectual pursuit of policy. Another prefers an emotional approach through literature. For Sadat, a “continuous process” of struggling to learn about her country has enabled her to begin to understand the conflict in which she grew up and make sense of her own identity.
Five years ago, she didn’t even want to admit she was from Afghanistan.
Sadat, a sophomore, was five years old when the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan. Like many others in the war-torn country, her bewildered family had no idea what was happening, or why. The same was true throughout the six years of the Islamic fundamentalist regime for many Afghan citizens, most of whom didn’t have television or Internet and paid little attention to newspapers and politics. There is such a lack of awareness, Sadat says, that even today “people don’t know how old they are.”
For Sadat, being able to learn about the Taliban from a safe distance allows her to finally confront a regime that thrived on misinformation and fear. “Now when I study the Taliban at Yale I understand that the entire world knew what was going on except the Afghan civilians,” she says. “All we knew was that every night we had to wake up at three in the morning and go into the basement because there were rockets.”
The first time Sadat heard the word “Taliban” was in a cartoon. The image showed a Pakistani leader, Benazir Bhutto, feeding a little baby with a long beard. A caption identified the infant as the Taliban. Five-year-old Sadat, entranced with the picture of the bearded baby, asked her father what the cartoon meant, but he wouldn’t tell her.
To escape the conflict and the Taliban, her family moved temporarily to Pakistan in 1998, where she lived in a two-room apartment with her parents and six siblings. The family wove and sold carpets to make a living; in Kabul, her father had been an architect. When they returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban’s fall in 2001, she attended high school in the brutal regime’s former headquarters. “I could see blood stains on [the walls of] our classroom,” she recalls.
When Sadat came to Florida for her senior year of high school, as a part of the U.S. State Department’s Youth Exchange and Studies (YES) program, she avoided courses that might touch on her country’s complicated history. For the first six months she rarely talked about home, and for a school project on the Middle East, she did what all the other students did — she read about it on Wikipedia. “I was really ashamed of who I was,” Sadat says. “I was embarrassed to tell people that I had to weave carpets to make money for my family.” It didn’t help that her fellow high school students in Florida were unwelcoming and even racist. “They would block my way, call me names,” she says.
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It was only after returning to Afghanistan to recruit other young women for the YES program that Sadat realized that her experiences under the Taliban had not been isolated — before that, she thought “they had just happened to me.” Visiting villages in the remote parts of the country, she met others forced to leave their homes when the Taliban came to power, and she saw people living in far worse poverty than her own. She recalls one tiny town with “no clocks or watches” that subsisted on a single sheep killed every week. For once, she says, “I felt lucky.” She was stunned to learn things about Afghan history and culture that she’d never been taught as a child: “It was as if I was visiting a foreign country.”
Driven by her growing desire to learn more about her country and the rest of the world, Sadat took a bold step: while on a high school trip with an American aid organization to sell handmade gifts in New York, she called Yale on a whim. When she arrived at the admissions office and saw the other applicants with their cell phones and computers, she recalls, she almost chickened out. Sadat didn’t own a cell phone. “I’m in the wrong place,” she told her admissions interviewer. The interviewer assured her that was not the case, she recalls. He offered her some water, and, six months later, a spot in the class of 2014.
Last semester, Sadat was a student in Trumbull Dean Jasmina Besirevic’s class “Genocide and Ethnic Conflict,” a small seminar that tracks conflicts from the Holocaust to present-day Afghanistan. Besirevic uses videos, presentations, and testimonies of survivors alongside academic texts to weave together a powerful account of genocide. Instead of being trapped on the inside looking out, Sadat says, the class gave her the ability “to look at [conflicts like the one she grew up in] from the outside.”
Besirevic, who left Bosnia on a student visa in 1992 — five months after conflict broke out there — describes watching students like Wazhma learn about other genocides and realize the parallels to their own life experiences: “You can see the light bulb go on,” she says. After learning about post-traumatic stress disorder in class, Sadat began to recognize PTSD symptoms among those she knew back home. “It’s why they are pessimistic, why they’re not doing anything … They’re extremely tired of war. But they don’t realize it. Nobody realizes it.” Now she suspects that the silence that affects so many from her country is another sign of PTSD, a collective reaction to so many years of violence. To this day, she says, members of her family “haven’t had a single conversation about anything that has happened.”
Conversations about Afghanistan can be challenging, as Sadat learned in her political science section. Until that third class, she had kept quiet when they talked about her home country, striving to appear objective and not wanting to get upset. But the more her classmate talked about how “primitive” the country was, the more Sadat began to feel she had to speak up. And when another classmate said, “Palestine should just keep bombing Israel, because they have higher birthrates, so eventually they’ll take over all the Jews,” Sadat had had enough. Though the rest of the class was stunned to silence, Sadat raised her hand. Glancing down at her notebook, she rattled off a list of objections to his statement, trying to stay calm but feeling herself getting angrier as she spoke. When she finished, she couldn’t help scolding him for his ignorance: “I’ve always wanted to meet someone like you,” she said, shaking her head.
Such comments no longer silence Sadat — they make her more determined to speak out. But occasionally, rather than deal with ignorant and insensitive classmates, she chooses simply to avoid them. On the day that they were discussing terrorism, she emailed her T.A. and told him she was sick. “I knew that I was going to get really mad,” she explains. “My semester was already really stressful. I didn’t want to deal with that.”
Going home can also be difficult. Sadat is amazed by her American classmates’ knowledge of U.S. politics and respect for their country. “That sense has vanished from Afghanistan,” she says. “Everyone who can leaves,” she explains, “and you’re only left with people who are less capable, less educated, and hopeless.” During Sadat’s trip back home over winter break, she recalls being struck by hearing her six-year-old niece ask, “You know how guys should always sit in front, and women in the back?”
Still, Sadat plans to go back. She hopes that what she has learned about international relations at Yale, along with her growing understanding of Afghanistan’s history, will help her work toward making it a better place for others growing up there. She wants to increase awareness of what is happening in the country, and to improve educational and economic opportunities for young people and for women. She has already begun to do this with Kamyab Afghanistan, an organization she founded to help small businesses owned by women in rural parts of the country. And for the first time, after she told her parents about Besirevic’s class and the genocides she was studying, Sadat’s family acknowledged the hardships they themselves had endured during the war.
Although she is a Global Affairs major, Sadat doesn’t see herself working to improve the situation in Afghanistan by becoming a minister or a political figure. Instead, she says, “it will be through interacting with the actual people.” Just like her own journey to learn and understand her country’s history, it will be “a continuous process,” she says. However, she adds, “being at Yale helps.”
Sadat can’t see herself becoming a diplomat or a policy analyst, but Ajla Porca ‘14 can. Long before she understood what had happened in Bosnia, Porca felt guilty about it. She was only four when her family left the war-torn former Yugoslavia, but she remembers promising herself and her family that one day she would “repay them and do my part” in the world.
On trips to the library with her mother in Dallas, where her family eventually settled, four-year-old Porca buried herself in books, teaching herself how to read and speak English. “I wanted to be a part of something good,” she says. “I didn’t want to be associated with something so dark and depressing.”
The Bosnia she remembers is not all dark and depressing, though. She can vaguely recall the sounds of sniper fire, but far more powerful are her recollections of her mom serving dinner to their hungry Serbian neighbors, a mother and her two small children. “It wasn’t all blood, guts, and gore,” she insists.
The Bosnian Serb army was laying brutal siege to civilians in Sarajevo just 54 miles away, but in Zenica, an industrial town surrounded by mountains in central Bosnia, it didn’t matter whether your neighbor was Bosnian, Croatian, or Serbian, Porca says. The kids in her neighborhood played together, their parents got along, and mixed marriages were as common as Turkish coffee.
Zenica was lucky during the war. Elsewhere in Bosnia, entire communities were forced out of their homes. Thousands were killed in the “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnian Muslims — now an internationally recognized genocide — carried out by the Bosnian Serb army. But Zenica saw very little fighting (in part because it was so diverse, Porca believes) and Porca’s family stayed there during the war.
But not long after the war ended in 1995, Porca’s older sister came home from school and reported that her teacher had brought up religion in class. The very next day Porca’s father got their passports ready to move to the United States. “He didn’t want us indoctrinated,” she says.
When her family arrived in Dallas in 1996, the neighborhood they lived in was filled with other immigrants from all over the Balkans, and, united by their homesickness, Porca says, they all “clung together.” To some, the idea of Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats living together and getting along may seem remarkable considering the atrocities their armies committed against each other during the war. Throughout much of the former Yugoslavia, bitter rivalries exist between the groups: in many parts of Bosnia today, schoolchildren are separated by their religion (Muslim children on one floor, Catholic or Orthodox on another) and taught entirely different versions of history. But Zenica was never like this, and, upon moving to Dallas, Porca’s parents refused to segregate themselves based on their ethnicity. They taught their daughters to do the same. As she thinks about her future as a diplomat, Porca says, she envisions a world in which tensions between ethnic groups are resolved through communication and connection. “I never liked group associations,” Porca says.
Growing up, Porca remembers her parents talking freely about the war and encouraging their three daughters to read newspaper articles and books for other perspectives. But it wasn’t until taking a class on the Balkans with Robert Greenberg, “Language, Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in the Balkans,” that she had a chance to “test” her understanding of the war. Porca, a Global Affairs and Political Science double major who speaks five languages, says she dreams of being a diplomat one day but worries that her own intense experiences might taint her ability to make the tough calls that the job requires. Greenberg’s class forced her to “take a cold approach to policy on genocide after seeing genocide,” she says, and was a way to to “harden” herself. She needed to affirm the dream she had settled on since childhood by asking herself, “Am I cut out for this kind of career? Can I be really cold and detached from situations that tug at your heartstrings?”
She thinks she can, but it’s tough. As a student in Besirevic’s genocide seminar last semester, Porca’s guilt struck again.
Besirevic says that when planning the seminar, she tries to strike a balance between theoretical texts on genocide and personal testimonies from survivors. While others in the seminar saw Porca as one of those survivors, Porca says she felt like a “fraud.” A petite blonde with a wide smile, Porca wears no hijab. Unlike her classmate Sadat, Porca had no stories of blood on the walls of her classroom. Her suffering, she felt, didn’t compare to what others had endured.
While watching videos of Bosnian rape survivors from Prijedor, the site of a massacre, a few girls in the class started crying. Porca’s aunt is from that same region. “Every morning she would roll around in mud so she’d smell disgusting,” Porca recalls, in order to protect herself from being raped. But watching that movie, Porca felt such a terrible urge to laugh that “my hands started shaking.” It is how she reacts to extreme emotions like sadness, joy, and pain, she says.
And in Professor Greenberg’s class, when classmates decided that the situation in Bosnia was hopeless, she took it personally. “It’s not that anything they said was a surprise,” she recalls, “or that they were particularly harsh. I know the situation is hopeless, but having it reaffirmed by 20 people weekly doesn’t make it any easier.” Because the class knew she was from Bosnia, Porca was “very cognizant of not appearing emotionally involved,” she says. “I wanted to be taken seriously.”
But there were some things Porca couldn’t be neutral on. When they discussed the problems with the Bosnian education system, she couldn’t believe her classmates’ negativity. Porca raised her hand and mentioned Zenica as an example of a town where education is not ethnically segregated and never has been. Throughout the semester, Porca continued to bring “a positive perspective” to the class while trying to stay objective. She also tried to get her fellow students to come up with solutions to problems before deciding they were “hopeless.” Sometimes, this ended in frustration: “The difficulty of engaging in academic conversation[s] is that they focus on what is wrong and not necessarily on, how do we fix it?”
Porca says her education at Yale is only making her more convinced that she can accomplish her childhood dream of being a diplomat or a policy expert. Preventing genocide, she says, starts with bridging the gaps between people, and working toward a world in which we can all relate. “I want to connect with people,” she says. “If people can relate to the suffering war causes at a basic human level, they’ll be more likely to try to stop it.”
Clemantine Wamariya ‘13 has never taken Besirevic’s genocide class, nor does she plan to do so. “I can’t watch the videos,” she says. “I can’t really be a part of that whole pain.” Though seventeen years have passed since the Rwandan genocide, she remembers everything as if she were still there.
Wamariya was six years old when the genocide started in Rwanda in 1994. After years of violence and civil war between rival ethnic groups, the mass killing of minority Tutsi by the Hutu majority wiped out 20 percent of the country’s population.
Wamariya and her 16-year-old sister, Claire, escaped the slaughter by crossing the border to Burundi, but in the process they were separated from their parents and the rest of the family. For the next six years, the two girls fled from one dusty refugee camp to another. By the time the U.S. finally granted them asylum in 2000, Wamariya had lived in eight different countries in Africa.
Sometimes, in the camps, she imagined that she could take all the old junk and furniture people had in their tents and pile them up into a staircase that would reach heaven, she says. She missed her parents and the family she had left in Rwanda. The other refugees kept telling her, “they’re in heaven, they’re in heaven,” but six-year-old Wamariya didn’t understand. “Heaven was so far, for me. Heaven was beyond the clouds,” she says.
Memories of her six years as a refugee haunt her still, especially at night, when her busy life at Yale pauses. Then two very different worlds come together in an unsettling way. “The war might be 17 years away,” she explains, “but the experiences [are just] one dose of sleep away. Sometimes I dream about Yale campus being a refugee camp.”
After coming to the U.S. as a refugee in 2000, Wamariya lived in Chicago, alternating between her sister’s house in the city and that of her “American family” in the suburbs where she attended school. In eighth grade, her class studied genocide, and she decided it was time to try to understand what had happened in Rwanda. She picked up Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” the chilling account of the author’s time in Nazi concentration camps. It made an immediate impact. “It’s when I realized, I’m absolutely not the only one,” she recalls.
Reading “Night” was the first time Wamariya had learned about other genocides, and she was deeply affected by it. “I wanted to walk in the concentration camp with Elie Wiesel, from the first page to the last page,” she recalls. “I wanted to feel what it must feel to be freezing.” Wamariya savored the intense experience of finally being able to relate to what she was learning, and she remembers crying while she read a section where Wiesel wrote about how his feet were numb. She says she remembered walking for days with her sister as they fled from refugee camp to refugee camp, and could identify with “the sensation that your whole foot is actually blisters.”
Seeing “Night”’s impact on her and her fellow eighth-graders helped Wamariya realize the potential impact her story could have on others, too. “[Studying the Holocaust and other genocides] made me realize, Oh my goodness. I cannot be afraid to talk about it. I cannot be afraid to view it,” she says. Before then, she hadn’t told anyone in the U.S. what she had lived through in Rwanda. She did not want to cheapen it or trivialize it. “There’s a fear that when you talk about it, you’re [no longer] afraid of it,” she explains. “There’s also this other fear that, if you talk about it, people feel sad for you.”
But as she got older, Wamariya began to speak openly about Rwanda. She also began to write about it. In 2006, Wamariya appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” after winning Winfrey’s National High School Essay Contest with an essay in which she incorporated her memories from Rwanda to respond to the question, “Why is Elie Wiesel’s book ‘Night’ relevant today?” Wamariya was reunited with her parents on the show, an experience she says she has “no words to describe.” She urges people who ask her about it to watch the video: the three-minute clip captures Wamariya in a moment of shock and pure joy, one arm embracing her mother, the other following her tearful gaze — raised to the sky.
At Yale, although Wamariya has resisted taking classes about genocide, she has had other opportunities to bring her personal experiences into the classroom. The first class she remembers speaking up in was an anthropology class she took her freshman year called “The State in Africa.” “I was that dumb girl who raises her hand and just says whatever she thinks,” she says, laughing. One time, they discussed foreign food donations, a topic she was familiar with from her six years as a refugee. “Let me tell you about the food aid,” she remembers shouting, “This stuff, they give you all this corn, but this corn is impossible to eat!”
Wamariya says she prefers classes in which she can relate personally to the subject matter and to her fellow classmates. She says she loves being a Literature major because it allows her to take these kinds of courses. “Having experienced such an intense life as a child,” she explains, “education that captures true emotions on a personal level is more valuable for me.” Even in classes where discussion is intended to focus only on the reading, Wamariya says she has not been able to refrain from sharing her experiences. “I want to bring it back home,” she says. “If I don’t … I’m lost.”
Wamariya admits that sometimes she gets frustrated at her inability to keep her emotions out of her learning. Some professors have scolded her for making her assignments too personal, she says, and she has been trying, unsuccessfully, to write a “purely academic” paper since she first came to Yale. For the most part, though, Wamariya sees her emotions not as a handicap but as her greatest strength. “I learn best from my emotions. It’s a tool that I had to create in order to understand the reality of my past and I cannot put it down.”
Wamariya says she has nothing against “purely academic” classes, and she admires people who have what she calls “buckets of knowledge” about theory or math or ancient history. Wamariya has her emotions and her own experiences — she wonders, “What’s the point of our humanity, in terms of trying not to repeat the mistakes and the wrongdoing of others, if we only study numbers?”
When Wamariya talks about what happened to her in Rwanda, she uses images and metaphors to bridge the gap between the world of her childhood and the ivory tower she finds herself in at Yale: the furniture pile reaching from the refugee camp all the way up to heaven; the bucket of knowledge, one for each person, nobody’s bucket better than the rest. She is a translator of sorts. “I try to be very poetic about things,” she says.
“During the war in Congo in 1996, there was so much shooting, and there were so many bombs, that now, if I remember it, it sounds like — “ Wamariya leans forward, tucking a small braid that has fallen out of her thick ponytail behind her ear. She clasps her hands.
“Have you ever been in an orchestra?”
Imagine you are in Woolsey Hall, she says. The YSO Halloween Concert. But when Wamariya hears the orchestra playing, she doesn’t hear the sounds of music.
She hears the sounds of war.
“You have no idea when it’s gonna be over,” she says, “and the past two days it has been like that. And you’re hiding in a space under the bed, where the mattress springs are poking you constantly.”
All around the world, she says, there are other children hiding and other orchestras of war playing: Wamariya and her sister, huddled under a bed frame, too scared to make a sound; Porca, hunched over library books filled with battle scenes, hungry to learn and understand; five-year-old Sadat, crouched in her basement as rockets erupt overhead.
“But our focus is to be students,” Wamariya says, “to not even know that the orchestra’s happening.” She is trying to change that.
“I can’t tell you everything, but if I relate something you already know, you might see yourself,” she explains. “Now when you go back to a concert at Woolsey, it will never be the same. It’s not to rob you of your experience, but to help you understand what it must have been like for me.”