Poetry in the Dark: The Story of Wazhma Sadat
Wazhma Sadat is the first Afghan woman to have graduated from both Yale College and Yale Law School. But when her journey of finding a home and an education began, she was reading smuggled books and eating watermelon skins to survive.
Blanketed windows. Smuggled books. Huddled with parents and six older siblings around a lamp, listening to Persian poetry. For five-year-old Wazhma Sadat, this was what education looked like when the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1996. The city had barely recovered from the Soviet-Afghan War and Afghan civil wars, but the streets were already finding themselves vulnerable again to torture, poverty and kidnappings. Neighbors disappeared overnight. Residents were left “dismembered” and slaughtered.
In Kabul, Sadat and her family lived in constant fear of repercussions for their “secret education” system: the Taliban had made it illegal for girls and women to receive an education of any form, let alone go to school. There was also incredible “outside pressure” on her father to join their movement, as he was from the same Pashtun tribe as the Taliban. Combined with food scarcity, these reasons eventually prompted the family to flee their homeland and move to Pakistan. Making their new home in the city of Peshawar, Sadat and her siblings attended school in the mornings and helped earn some income sewing carpets at night. The situation had not improved by much.
“There were so many days that I didn’t have anything to eat,” she said. “We would eat … the shells of watermelons, scraping [them] off until there was very little to it.” Even today, Sadat feels hunger as a “visceral pain” that comes to mind whenever she hears about a country suffering from poverty. It is a particularly haunting feeling of “home,” she explained.
Little did she know that the relocation to Peshawar would be the first of many more to come. Always following her around is this feeling of “starting from scratch.” After two years of living in Peshawar, her family moved to Mansehra, Pakistan, where her mother started the first-ever school for Afghan refugees. It was also around this time that 9/11 happened — the collapsing Twin Towers an image that Sadat “vividly remember[s]” watching on television as a nine-year-old. Thousands of miles away, the attack nonetheless had a tremendous emotional impact on her parents, who led a family prayer for the lives lost to violence — the violence that looked and felt too similar to what they had seen back home.
Shortly following the attack, the United States invaded Afghanistan. Sadat’s family, along with many other Afghan refugees, started relocating back to their hometown of Kabul, albeit cautiously in waves. Her return home did not grant her what she dreamed of when she was five, however. Going to a “conventional” classroom and wearing a “little backpack” would have to wait until the ninth or tenth grade. Instead, for the first two years following her family’s return, Sadat attended school in a UNICEF tent while her school building — which had been the former headquarters of the Taliban — was renovated to remove the marks of war and atrocity. Sadat remembers walking through classrooms covered in bloodstains. “Ropes tied to faucets,” she recalled, among other torture devices, were left scattered on the floor.
Everything changed in 2006. A few years into high school, she received news that she was among the 37 of 4000 student applicants selected to study abroad through an exchange program for Central Asian students. Sadat came alone to the United States, living with a host family while studying in Florida. A year later, she moved back to Kabul, where she finished high school and started working for various non-profit organizations that specialized in economic and educational development.
“The last project I worked with in Kabul was funded by USAID. My job was to represent Afghan woman-led small businesses in global wholesale markets,” she said. “I would travel internationally to represent Afghan-made products and enter into contracts with wholesale buyers on behalf of Afghan businesses.” Sadat was eighteen years old.
During one of those trips, which brought her to the New York International Gift Fair for an exhibition, a mentor recommended that she consider researching and applying to U.S. colleges. At that point in time, Sadat knew little about Ivy League universities, except that their need-based admissions policies made them the most financially feasible. That same trip, a colleague drove her to New Haven to tour Yale, where she happened to learn that the admissions office was in the process of conducting interviews for international students.
“This was my only opportunity to interview with colleges because it was very difficult to get a visa to come to the U.S. just for an interview,” Sadat explained, remembering waiting outside 38 Hillhouse in jeans as she watched other students “suited up.” “I was very, very underdressed and nervous and did not know what was going on.”
Flash forward several months. A hand-mailed application with “I cannot pay the application fee” written on the top and a TOEFL test later, Sadat described what was the “most emotional” moment of her life. She had been accepted early action to Yale University, where she would then pursue a study in global affairs.
Sadat attributes a big part of her Yale career to her friends and the many mentors and professors who helped her navigate challenging courses. But it was also her determination behind the scenes and the learned habit of “fetching for herself” that helped get her through what she described as a “steep learning curve” and a “socially, culturally, [and] emotionally” demanding environment. She never took an “office hour for granted” and put in effort to build connections with her professors. And every night, she studied five new vocabulary terms, self-learning concepts that she mentioned her peers had already covered in “elementary school.”
In May of 2014, Sadat graduated Yale College, becoming the first Afghan woman to have done so. Having secured a job at home, she was excited to return to Afghanistan to “do something meaningful for [her] country,” to make “organic” change for her people. “I wanted to go back — that was the only goal I worked toward while in college” she said.
But her plans were suddenly interrupted by “some level of real threat and attack on [her] family [that remained] in Afghanistan.” She described the Taliban’s targeting of her family as “deeply traumatizing and unsettling.” The Taliban had noticed not only that she worked closely with Ashraf Ghani, the most recent former president of Afghanistan, but also that she went to school in the United States and was part of the USAID. The shocking news prompted Sadat’s entire family to disperse, with her parents and several siblings ultimately emigrating to Canada. Unfortunately, one of her brothers — whom she considers to be her “best friend” — could not leave Kabul.
“For a long time, I felt a tremendous amount of guilt for the price my family had to pay for my education,” Sadat said. Having family still remaining in Kabul — and thinking about the challenges confronting them — dramatically shifted how she carried herself even thousands of miles away from the Taliban’s threats. Past conversations with peers about her private and family life were no longer ones that she felt comfortable with. “As someone who had always been vocal about my journey and the ongoing political and legal issues both in Afghanistan and globally, I felt that the only way to ensure my family’s safety was to stay silent and remain invisible,” she said.
Unable to return to Afghanistan, Sadat applied to and enrolled in Yale Law School — a decision that she had intended to make much later on. Her first week of legal education began with the sad news of losing a close friend, a fellow prospective Afghan lawyer, in a Taliban-led attack on the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. The threats to her family, along with the friends and extended family members who were murdered by the Taliban, never escaped her mind for one moment during the grueling years of her years in the Law School. She explained that law school was among the most intellectually and emotionally challenging years in her life, as she balanced rigorous coursework and exams with the constant feeling that the safety of her family was in jeopardy.
Trump’s election to office in 2016 only exacerbated the situation, highlighting the existing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments, according to Sadat. “[My] optimism shifted significantly,” she said, presented with new visa and green card applications on top of her existing hurdles.
In law school, Sadat devoted a significant amount of her time to fighting against the Trump administration’s travel ban on several Muslim majority countries as part of a legal clinic that filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the president’s executive order. “My initial years of legal education coincided with my immigration to the United States,” she said. “Although I had lost my own homeland, a place I still don’t know if I will ever be able to return to, it was not hard to see that this country, my new home, was aching too.” In the face of such uncertainty and emotional grapples, Sadat nonetheless became the first Afghan woman to graduate from the Law School. The year was 2019.
Two years later on Aug. 15, 2021, the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan yet again. Her brother, sister-in-law and their two children were still there.
Thousands of miles away in America, Sadat could not “sleep or eat or do anything besides help them evacuate.” Sadat knew that with stampede after stampede breaking out, it was not only impractical for her brother to wait for departure at the United States.-controlled Kabul airport. His life was on the line.
She described what she did next as “literally out of the movies.” Following at least four separate missions to evacuate them — which consisted of advocating, coordinating and code-communicating with evacuation ambassadors, human rights organizations and strangers — her brother was escorted into the Kabul airport, successfully boarding a United States-bound flight.
“Several individuals did not sleep those nights and worked with me as I evacuated my brother’s family,” Sadat said. “I can never thank them for their heroic selflessness.”
He and his family are now reunited with the rest of Sadat’s family in Canada.
Today, Sadat lives in Silver Spring, Maryland with her husband Usama Qadri — a fellow Yale College graduate and former resident at the Yale Emergency Medicine department — and their two year old son, Idris.
As she reflects on her journey, she cannot help but feel “emotional.” She was forced to travel continents and oceans for an education. The word “home” was complicated to “this idea that [she] was never actually going to return home, whatever that was.” She has had sleepless nights thinking about her family, the same family that huddled with her in the dark reading poetry and the same family that wove carpets with her to make ends meet.
But through it all, she has — and continues to — remain optimistic. “I’m one of the luckiest immigrants in the U.S.,” she said, emphasizing her incredible education, the new family she has built here and the prospects of helping even more people as an attorney. Sadat just joined a law firm in D.C. after her clerkship at the Connecticut State Supreme Court, working to represent new Afghan arrivals who came to the United States following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“It [took] a lot of hard work … inspiration and encouragement from others,” Sadat said. “That got me … from the beginning until the very end.”