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Photo by Raquel Natalicchio for L.A. TACO.

‘I Have Survivor’s Guilt:’ Dozens of Afghan Americans in L.A. Gather to Grieve at Vigil in Westwood

“It’s very difficult to be living and paying taxes in the same country that has perpetuated the death of your people.” 

Madina Wardak is one of the organizers alongside a group of Los Angeles-based Afghan-American activists who gathered at a vigil on Tuesday night held in front of the Federal Building in Westwood. 

With Afghanistan’s Independence Day being days away, dozens of community members, families, and activists turned out for the vigil to express how deeply emotional and personal the situation is in the embattled country and here at home. They all stood in solidarity with the people of Afghanistan who are threatened and have been killed as the Taliban retakes control of the country while U.S. forces withdraw.

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Photo by Raquel Natalicchio for L.A. TACO. 
The Afghani American community gathering at vigil held in West Los Angeles.
Photo by Raquel Natalicchio for L.A. TACO.

We’re here today to be in community, grieve together, heal together. The images we all saw of the plane and people falling from the airplane were very triggering and traumatic. As a daughter of Afghan refugees, Wardak explains how confusing and nuanced the experience of being Afghan-American is for her. When the Afghan people speak about our country, we are told that there are people that know better, and that’s the first problem: No one listens to the Afghan people. It’s tough living in a post-September 11 world where the entire country is telling you your people are trash.” 

She continues, “They say, ‘we had to go over there and civilize your people,’ and then you leave 20 years later in a very barbaric manner. It’s a very confusing identity.”

The stories Wardak heard growing up of what her parents and family have endured have inspired her to take action and begin community building here in Los Angeles to uplift her community and country. 

The Afghani American community gathering at vigil held in West Los Angeles.
Photo by Raquel Natalicchio for L.A. TACO.
The Afghani American community gathering at vigil held in West Los Angeles.
Photo by Raquel Natalicchio for L.A. TACO.

“The Afghan diaspora is very new, many of us came in the late ’80s, the ’90s, so it’s my generation, those who are in their late 20s and 30s who are really starting to community build and form coalitions for representation. We have so many different ethnicities, religious sects, and languages. We are an extremely diverse nation, many of us have different political views, but at the end of the day, it’s a foreign intervention that has really pitted us against each other. This would have never happened if the USSR and the US would have never come into our country.” 

Shabnam Nasseri, a first-generation Afghan-American and mother of two who was also present at the vigil, explains how devastating this is for her entire family here in the United States and Afghanistan. 

The Afghani American community gathering at vigil held in West Los Angeles.
Photo by Raquel Natalicchio for L.A. TACO.
The Afghani American community gathering at vigil held in West Los Angeles.
Photo by Raquel Natalicchio for L.A. TACO.
The Afghani American community gathering at vigil held in West Los Angeles.
Photo by Raquel Natalicchio for L.A. TACO.
The Afghani American community gathering at vigil held in West Los Angeles.
Photo by Raquel Natalicchio for L.A. TACO.

I haven’t been able to speak to my family over there because the phone lines are down, and people are deleting their social media for fear the Taliban will find them or their family through it.” 

“My kids didn’t know about the Taliban until now. I had to explain it to them because we see so much happening on the news. My nine-year-old daughter asks me for justice and peace of life. Mentally I am not doing OK. I’ve never been to Afghanistan. I’ve never seen it. So imagine hearing these stories from your parents, how they fled their country to give us a better opportunity. I have survivor’s guilt. I feel guilty for having the life I have, knowing people in Afghanistan don’t have the privilege to have that life.” 

“We didn’t forget you. Just because we’re in America or some of us don’t speak the language perfectly or dress how you do, we’re never going to forget you. We will scream for you wherever we are, forever.”

Emotions were high as several people spoke to the crowd and each other, often in tears and rage. Community and activists held space for those grieving as was intended by those who organized the vigil. 

Many people, including Wardak, expressed frustration about the United States’ role in destabilizing and ultimately abandoning the nation. 

The Afghani American community gathering at vigil held in West Los Angeles.
Photo by Raquel Natalicchio for L.A. TACO.
The Afghani American community gathering at vigil held in West Los Angeles.
Photo by Raquel Natalicchio for L.A. TACO.
The Afghani American community gathering at vigil held in West Los Angeles.
Photo by Raquel Natalicchio for L.A. TACO.
The Afghani American community gathering at vigil held in West Los Angeles.
Photo by Raquel Natalicchio for L.A. TACO.

Remember how scary the insurrection was for everyone here in the United States. Imagine that happening in every one of your states. This country had a taste of what people everywhere in Afghanistan are experiencing. 9/11 was 3,000 lives. The official count for Afghan casualties is 241,000. When you drone a family, you can’t count how many bodies are killed because it’s just piles of flesh.”

“A message to Western imperialist powers: Instead of asking questions like, “what can we do to fix Afghanistan?” You need to ask yourself why you feel the entitlement to go into other countries and tell them how to run their countries. Fix your own country, take responsibility for the messes you have made, and put your money where your mouth is. Fund the people. Support the people.” 

Although much of the focus is being directed at the uncertainty of the Taliban rule and the fleeing US military, Wardak wants to ensure that the people of Afghanistan know that they will not be forgotten as she shares a statement for the Afghan people.

“We didn’t forget you. Just because we’re in America or some of us don’t speak the language perfectly or dress how you do, we’re never going to forget you. We will scream for you wherever we are, forever.”