by Humera Afridi
At the age of ten, my biggest fear was a dread of heights. Childhood weekends were sun-drenched (chlorine-filled) idylls during which I worked myself up to fling my body off the high board at the Sind Club into the gleaming swimming pool below. I lived in Karachi, and, yes, in a bubble.
We were surrounded by inequity, yet my ‘innocence’ or, rather, naivete remained intact. I was certainly aware of the sudden, politically motivated strikes and pained by the striking poverty—lame beggars who hopped over to car windows at traffic stops; gangs of wily, threadbare children left to roam the danger-filled streets. Nevertheless, within the highly-selective, members-only club, the harsh world outside with its mayhem of cars, motorcycles, trucks and water lorries threatening to run over the cripples weaving their way through the honking maze, seized to exist for me. The water shimmered, spangled with sunlight; I can still recall the sensation of my toes curling on the edge of the cement precipice, and a frisson of nervous excitement overcoming me in those excruciating moments before leaping towards the joyous shouts that rose to greet me as I plummeted. The beleaguered world of the city at large disappeared.
That life seems unthinkable, unconscionable, today, especially after having lived away for many years, first as an expatriate and then an (accidental) immigrant. But that was how things were: the disparity was deep-rooted and historical. Even as a child I learned to build invisible walls.
Fast-forward to the next generation and a change of setting: my son who is nine and a half, born and raised in America, possesses an awareness around issues of social justice and race, and nuanced identity politics—LQBTQIA is the more current, more inclusive term I learned from him two weeks ago—that simultaneously awes and alarms me. Even as I am grateful for his attunement and ability to perceive and articulate feelings arising from instances of injustice that he witnesses, hears about, or personally experiences, a part of me wonders: isn’t he too young to know all this? Isn’t it too soon to have to create the space in his mind to sort through a myriad possibilities of how to be? And what about facing the facts—far too many— of a cruel and unjust world?
But the age of innocence has vanished. And children aren’t exempt. Last week, over an ice-cream after school, he casually slipped in, “Mom, today I pulled my teacher aside because I was feeling really depressed.”
Words to make a mother’s heart sink.
“Depressed is a big word, sweetheart! What exactly were you feeling?”
“Really, really sad, mama. About the Muslim ban.
As a child, I worried about high diving. My son, just shy of ten, on the other hand, is anguished that I will not be allowed back home to New York next week when I return from my trip to France. He worries that he will never get to visit his ancestral village in Northwestern Pakistan, something he’s been hankering for in recent months. “If we go to Pakistan, will they let us back in? How will I learn Urdu? How will I ever learn Pashto if I can’t go to Pakistan?”
At his school, they hold community meetings during which they raise concerns and break down the damaging effect of words like “hate” which have been tossed around liberally since the election campaign. Teachers and students have been sharing their feelings of vulnerability in the face of the new America unfolding before us, seeing how as a community they can support each other to feel safe and secure. To enable these conversations, the students are empowered with facts and the vocabulary to engage in sincere, heartfelt exchanges.
When I think back to my childhood, my most prominent memories are the feel of the hot sun on my face, the confusing thrum of water swallowing me as I rocket into the depths, the cool, green ice-cream soda bottle, slippery with condensation, after my swim. Politics formed, at best, a background murmur in the domain of the grownups, which I didn't tune into, and which wasn't shared in a meaningful or serious way with the children. I was an apolitical child; illiterate in the ways of how society actually worked—a cringe-worthy realization—especially in contrast to my son, who speaks about the effects of the policies being revealed each day by the new government, who feels the discriminatory gaze of the new president on him and experiences it viscerally, sees that gaze eviscerating the hopes of bereft Syrian refugee children and their families, and feels it so deeply that he has actually lain on the ground and heaved sobs, or then exploded with anger and promised to personally “tackle” the leadership.
My gentle, guitar-loving nine-year old: it's heart-wrenching to witness his sadness and worry. How does a mother protect her child from all the noise and ugliness while at the same time provide him with the tools to feel empowered? These are urgent times and innocence, it seems, has become collateral damage, a ‘war-time’ casualty. Three weekends in row, he has attended marches, protests and demonstrations demanding justice and equality, and freedom of the press, and protested the Muslim ban. I celebrate his participation. Will this be the stuff of his childhood memories?
It is ironic that the demonization of select groups of people by the new American President is precisely what is awakening and alerting my son and his young generation to the American values of dignity, justice, equality, diversity, unity and individual freedom, inspiring them to stand and uphold these ideals. What joy to witness him chanting: This is what democracy looks like!
For those who have been directly labeled and targeted by the leadership, how much more onerous their challenge is right now. To be perceived as an embodied threat. How does a young child take that in? What does it do to a developing psyche? And how dare we, in this late age, let the lessons of so many devastating wars and genocides go unheeded?
There is a photo that haunts me to this day.
It is of a young boy looking through the metal bars of a barrier dividing Afghanistan from Pakistan at Torkham. I took the photo in January 2002 when I tried to enter Afghanistan across that border. (In the end I didn’t go. I was notified that if I did, I would be breaking Pakistani law and would most likely be imprisoned upon my return). In the wake of the recent travel ban in the Unites States that has devastated so many families, I’m reminded of the time when America lunged at Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and the heartbreaking scenes of chaos at the Pak-Afghan borders, the dismal refugee camps. Today, as a mother, I wonder if that boy was an orphan. Perhaps, that’s why he was standing there alone. What became of him, what ‘choices’ were left for him in his war-devastated country? Did sadness and disappointment in time turn to anger and a desire for vengeance?
As families are torn apart and terrorized by the draconian laws of the new government and the bullying of border patrol officers, we must remember that the economic, emotional and social aftershocks will shape the new generation of warriors— perceived through one lens as knights and knightesses and through another as potential ‘terrorists.’ Much healthier then, surely, to let children play ball in the park and splash in swimming pools? Why is it so difficult to cast off divisiveness in favor of a path that seeks, instead, peace, harmony, unity, and dignity for all?