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Yasmin Aguilar

Community organizing in and out of Afghanistan


Yasmin Aguilar began working with the Agency for New Americans soon after her arrival here in 2000, as a new American and a refugee from Afghanistan. Aguilar and her family had fled Kabul for Pakistan, but her public health work in refugee camps there put her life at risk. Now she continues similar outreach for newly arrived refugees, providing cash assistance grants and raising money from the community in Boise, to assist with resettlement.

Aguilar recently sponsored her parents who just moved to the United States after a three-year immigration process. We spoke with her about their life in Kabul, her work in the camps and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's wedding, which she attended.

What do your parents say about Afghanistan today?

They said there is a lot of corruption of course. Everybody tries to benefit themselves, not the public. Suicide bombings are getting more. They were in Pakistan, but they moved back. From 1992 to 2002 they were in Pakistan. And then they went back to Kabul. My mom was working with the secretary of education, my dad is a retired Air Force pilot.

How has the last eight years been for your parents?

Miserable. No water proper, they had water for a couple hours a day, and the power, the same thing. But now they say the power is good, they have it. It's more expensive but at least people have power, but water is not 24 hours, it just comes in the morning and the afternoon.

The money that is paid to workers is not enough because the market is based on American salaries and people who work for NGOs, so they make more money than people who work for the government. A doctor makes $100 (a month) and the rent for a simple three-bedroom is $300-$400.

Have you been back to Afghanistan?

Yes, I went in 2007. It was 100 percent different, for the worse. I left in 1992. The [Northern] Alliance attacked our house because my dad was in the Air Force. We all fled, with nothing, to Pakistan. As a kid, I was going to school, we could afford to go to tuition centers [after-school programs]. We went on picnics, visiting family, everything was green, no distractions. For us, life was good, no scare of bombings or rapes, but when I returned back, everything was so different, in 1991. There was curfew at night, after 9 or 10 you could not go out, and you couldn't go alone because everywhere was explosions. It wasn't organized. Muslim groups were fighting with the government. Girls were kidnapped. If you weren't covered, they would attack you.

You studied medicine in the Czech Republic?

I was 16 when I went to the Czech Republic and I was 21 when I came back. I did my residency there [in Afghanistan and Pakistan], two years in the hospital, in gynecology and orthopedics because those were the only two available. The Western system was different from the system there, the equipment, the diagnoses, the medications, the names are generic names, and also the quality. You have to study the system.

Did you work at a clinic?

I worked at the International Islamic Relief Organization, it was a hospital for refugee women and children, for four years, and then I got a job with Mercy Corps, in 1996 as a community development specialist in public health, an American-based organization. Basically my job was to train doctors, nurses and clinic staff in basic health units in refugee camps on the new topics in reproductive health. That was so hard, to talk about reproductive health in the Afghan community. We hired community-based organizers, so I trained them to train the community.

How did you address reproductive health?

I had to talk to the men first to get permission to talk to the women. I just used the facts, not to try to manipulate them or lie to them or mislead them. And they were listening and it was good. The goal was birth control, prenatal, post natal care, sexually transmitted disease care. For example, there was a man who had three wives and only one wife saw the symptoms and she kept coming to the hospital. The reason she never cured was because the other two wives and the man thought they were healthy. Safe delivery, immunizations for the kids, sanitation, proper use of water ... the most challenging was reproductive health, that nobody wanted to implement. They were scared that the Taliban would attack and stuff like that. But with me, I was yeah, kidnapped twice in Pakistan, but I survived.

You were kidnapped because of the work you were doing?

I was also monitoring the 13 basic health units. For example, how much antibiotics came and how much is used and how much is left. I found a couple of times Pakistani doctors who were supposed to serve the refugees but they were in their private clinics. So I had to report them, so that's why they don't like a woman being in power. World Food Program gave us edible [cooking] oil to encourage women to come for their immunizations, prenatal and postnatal checkups. Those oils were disappearing, with fake immunization cards. I was acting like a detective, so they didn't like me.

So who kidnapped you?

Their people, Pakistani people. Some people said they were Taliban, because it's hard to tell Pashtuns from Afghanistan, Pakistan; they look the same. They just told me that I have to leave this work. Because I was Pashtun it helped me to release myself. It was just a couple of hours.

So I went to London in 1998 for three weeks, then I went to Finland in 2000, the month of July and August and then came to America in September 2000. Finally I came here because my life was at risk.

Did you want to work in medicine here?

I wanted to at the start. But it was hard. When I asked people, you needed recertification. I was lazy to search for it and also, of course, I had to support my family financially back in Pakistan. So I just ignored it and said, "OK, there are many hospitals with intelligent doctors." I thought to be a social worker, in this field, and help refugees. I am still missing it, especially the preventive part.

What do you think of health-care reform in the United States?

First of all it should be free and second, doctors should spend more time with patients than just 5 minutes. I spent more time with my patients. If somebody said they had a headache, I wouldn't just say take aspirin. I would check; does she read books, does she watch a lot of TV, does she have a problem with her family, does she eat proper food? Here there is no connection between patient and doctor.

Did you get involved with the Muslim community here?

Yeah, I am Muslim but I don't go to the mosque unless there is a funeral or some celebration because Afghan women never go to the mosque in Afghanistan. The women practice at home. We have a couple hundred Afghans here. We do Eid celebrations and sometimes weddings, we have funerals ... they are mostly Tajiks and Hazaras, only a few Pashtun families. There are tensions, you won't see it, but you will feel it.

How did you feel when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan?

Everything has a positive and negative aspect. The positive is that people are feeling safe there; the American army takes care of the borders and stuff. But then the negative is the way they shot the missiles in the villages and killed the innocents. We are so worried here, oh my god, two soldiers died. But with those two soldiers, maybe 200 other civilians died, but nobody cares about them because they were just civilians.

Can you tell me about Hamid Karzai's wedding?

It was a huge wedding in Pakistan, in 1999 ... It was traditional and also general. First we have the traditional dress and then after food, the wife came with a white gown and he came with a suit. It was fun. We are Mohamadzai and he is Karzai, but all from Kandahar. I remember his mom was sick at the wedding and when she died, we went to the funeral. I went a couple of times to his house to visit his wife, but I don't see him, he was always with the men in the jirga, the meetings. My parents went a few months ago to the palace, because my dad's cousin married his wife's cousin, so after the wedding, they made a party. He has one son now, Karzai, and they said there is a big playground.