Cultural ambassadors share differences to bring us closer

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copyright the Chronicle February 14, 2018

LYNDONVILLE — A banner hanging on the wall of the function room at The Riverside School here offers a quote from American jurist and statesman Charles Evans Hughes: “When we lose the right to be different, we lose the privilege to be free.”

The school’s guest speaker on Friday, Benafsha Sohail, gave substance to that idea as she addressed students as a representative of the Cultural Ambassador Society — a student-run organization at Lyndon State College (LSC). Ms. Sohail is a junior pursuing a business degree and a native of Afghanistan. Following a path blazed by two of her older siblings, she left her native country to attend high school at Lyndon Institute and has stayed in the U.S. to continue her education.

Organized four years ago at Lyndon Institute, the Cultural Ambassador Society now operates out of LSC as an organization dedicated to what faculty adviser Benjamin Clarke calls increasing cultural intelligence and promoting intercultural friendship. Mr. Clarke teaches language studies and social science part-time at the college. His expertise is in teaching English as a foreign language, in China and elsewhere, and his background includes work for the U.S. State Department.

Soft spoken but self-assured, Ms. Sohail described her upbringing and the circumstances that brought her here in a matter-of-fact way that belies what for most Americans would be a life of unthinkable insecurity.

She came from a poor family in the central Afghan province of Bamyan. Her parents were determined to make a better life for their children, and so Benafsha and her six brothers and sisters were all sent to school.

Ms. Sohail said that most young children in Afghanistan — about 95 percent — do get some education. Like her, most learn to read by studying the Koran in a madrasa. Schools in Afghanistan, she said, are quite simple. Many lack even classrooms. Sometimes, she said, classrooms built by aid agencies are destroyed by the Taliban and the community has no money to replace them. Instead, students will meet under a tree, or in the shade of a wall. Books and writing implements are a luxury. She said she was fortunate enough to have a classroom. At first they sat on a floor, which was carpeted. Eventually a nonprofit agency was able to provide furniture and school supplies.

At an early age, she said, conservative forces in the community began to pressure her parents to remove the girls from school.

“They said it was time to start preparing us to be good wives,” she said. “My parents already knew what was good for us and they ignored them.”

Her oldest brother and sister finished high school in Afghanistan but opted not to go to college so they could work and help support the family.

Another older brother and sister did choose to continue their education. Like Benafsha, they learned English. An exchange program brought her siblings to Lyndon Institute (LI). Benafsha was not part of a program, but LI did grant her a full scholarship to attend. In the summers she stayed with a host family who had taught her older brother at Green Mountain College.

“We wanted to support our parents, but we also want to learn how to support Afghan society and bring positive change for our people,” said Ms. Sohail. “The first way to do that is to share the story of how difficult it is in Afghanistan, particularly for women, to have the right to choose their own course in life.”

Her brother who graduated from LI went on to get a college degree and now works in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her sister also earned her degree and works in New Jersey. She said they all talk on the phone or Facetime on weekends. Sometimes she is able to visit, which, she admitted, gives her a nice break from the frigid weather here.

They are all, she said, essentially exiled from Afghanistan, because her family has been warned that if they return, their lives could be in danger.

“I cannot go back to Afghanistan today, but I’m sure some day it will be possible,” she said.

She said she still talks with her family in Afghanistan every couple of weeks, but they have no Internet access.

Ms. Sohail attended the talk at Riverside in a red dress that was made by her mother, and a green headscarf, or hijab, adorned with gold brocade. The dress she wore as a demonstration of one aspect of Afghan culture, but she does, every day, wear a hijab to conform with the modesty prescribed by her Muslim faith.

The dress and the fact that most Afghan women are able to create such beautiful clothing was a point of pride for Ms. Sohail.

“There has been war going on for almost three decades,” she explained. “The people are not very developed in education, but culture-wise, and from the heart, we are very rich.”

She opened her remarks by asking the students in attendance what they already knew about Afghanistan. A fair amount it turned out: its capital, that it was mountainous, and its location in the world. Though Ms. Sohail was careful to point out that while Americans use the term middle eastern to refer to any predominantly Muslim country from Egypt to Pakistan, she placed her own country as being in southwestern Asia.

By way of background, she explained that Afghanistan is a country of about 35 million people, consisting of 34 provinces. It is 98 percent Muslim, and 2 percent Sikh. She said ethnic Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks each have their own culture, appearance, and style of dress that is recognizable to other Afghans.

The two official languages of the country are Pashtu and Dari, also called Persian or Farsi. Ms. Sohail speaks both, but is a native Dari speaker.

Teacher Nelia Rath asked which part of American culture was the hardest to get used to. Ms. Sohail said going to school with boys, and American food.

She misses Afghan food terribly, and she urged the Riverside students to try it if they ever had the opportunity. She later said her favorite dish was Palau — an Afghan delicacy made with rice, lamb, carrots, and raisins.

She concluded the presentation by calling volunteers forward to demonstrate six ways of fashioning a headscarf. Though the differences were subtle to the uninitiated, they represented varying levels of formality or practicality depending on the needs of the day.

Though she chooses to wear a hijab, she did point out that dress, like education, is another thing some people in Afghanistan use to restrict the freedom of women. For men, she said, there are few restrictions. While even educated women from forward-thinking families must dress modestly, conservative families often require that adult women wear the loose-fitting head-to-toe covering garment known as a burqa.

The Cultural Ambassador Society gives Ms. Sohail a chance to answer questions for those who might be afraid to ask. When the elephant in the room is something as simple as a headscarf, she appears to enjoy the opportunity to open up and tell her story.

“Especially in high school,” she said, “I was the only person from my country, I was dressing differently, I was a little shy, so I was not talking a lot.

“But then I gave a speech at a general assembly that helped me because I talked about myself — who I was, where I was from, and why I dressed the way I dressed. Why I was here in the U.S. After that it became easier for me to adjust to the community and make friends with people.”

Asked if she ever misses the opportunity to blend in, perhaps in a larger American city with a more diverse population, Ms. Sohail said, “To be honest, I think the opposite.”

She has visited other states and said that despite Vermont’s lack of diversity, she has found the people to be “tolerant and accepting.”

“I feel very safe here,” she said, “and I can just focus on my studies because there is not a lot of discrimination, and there is not so much risk of being attacked as it happens in cities for Muslim girls living here.”

So far, she said, she has not seen any changes in Vermont that reflect the nativist sentiments that appear to have risen nationally in the last couple of years.

In her free time, Ms. Sohail likes hanging out with her friends, practicing yoga, going to the gym, and outdoor activities like kayaking, hiking, and snowshoeing.

Looking ahead, she said she wants to start a business, here in the U.S. if she still cannot return home.

What type of business she can’t say for sure, but she said she wants to “create a company that can be women-based, that can help women financially and help them to empower themselves and work in my company without fear or family barriers.”

At 21 years old, Ms. Sohail probably has few memories of a time before U.S. forces were fighting in Afghanistan. She said when she was young she always saw Afghan national forces heading to the mountains to train. She said she heard gunfire and assumed the war was right at the edge of her hometown, though now she knows they were just “practicing.”

“That fear started inside of me from a young age,” she said. “I think it affected me negatively to be more shy and fearful when I hear shooting. But at the same time, it kind of helped me to become more strong and hard-working, and value the peace and opportunities here.”

She said the single most important thing she wants to convey to Americans is that the people of Afghanistan are really desperate to have peace.

“It is very important to stay hopeful,” she said. “The people of Afghanistan are very hospitable and open and excited to have visitors from other countries. The people are very into having an education, and improving themselves, and developing, and having a brighter future.”

After decades of war and the oppression of women by conservative forces within Afghan society, how does Ms. Sohail remain hopeful that a free and stable Afghanistan can be realized in her lifetime?

“My hope,” she said, “comes from a young generation. A lot of young people like me have been through a lot of struggle. We rely on education and empowering ourselves and gaining control of the country in the future. And fighting against insecurity with our education, and fighting against weapons with our pen.”

To learn more about the Cultural Ambassador Society, look for them on Facebook, or go to

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