‘Pause, learn, and respect each other’: One Afghan man, formerly a U.S. military interpreter, reflects on 9/11 and living as a Muslim in Georgia 

Before coming to the U.S. 12 years ago, Rohid Paiman was an interpreter for the U.S military for nearly a decade. He left behind his family believing that Afghanistan was in good hands having transitioned to a fledgling democracy after decades of war stretching back to 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded and stayed for a decade.

Paiman currently works with Afghan refugees and as a community organizer in Atlanta, but in recent weeks the few family members he has left in Afghanistan have been forced to flee the brutal Taliban regime. They are now refugees in a neighboring country, unsure of their future. 

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and two decades of war in Afghanistan, Paiman reflects on his experience as a Muslim in the U.S. and offers a glimpse into life under the Taliban’s new regime.

You have been here for 12 years. In that time, the United States and its relationship with Islam has changed drastically, especially during the Trump years. How has your experience been over those years that you’ve been here and how have you been treated in that time? 

The U.S. relationship with the Islamic world has always been controversial, even before Trump’s presidency. Of course, his anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant inflammatory speeches and policies exacerbated the hatred and bigotry that was out there before him. Part of the overall misunderstanding is because there has never been an institutional attempt to understand differences, facilitate dialogue and ease the elitist tensions between the U.S. and the Islamic world. I have been directly and indirectly engaged with U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the U.S. I have American friends who value and respect my identity, and we openly talk about our views, which are not always the same. That should be the nature of any conversation about the U.S. relationship with its diverse community of citizens, including Muslim Americans. 

Hate crimes against Muslims have increased steadily in recent years. Have you experienced discrimination or hate – and if so – when did it happen? 

I don’t remember the details. But I have had difficulty dealing with situations where I felt discriminated against because of my identity or simply because I speak accented English. Unfortunately, this is frequently happening to immigrants who move to the States. Some people get used to it because they don’t have the means to educate people or explain themselves to so many arrogant individuals so often.

How can communities change that? 

Patience. People often forget that understanding any human culture and society takes time and being different is normal. I hope we all have the opportunity to pause, learn, and respect each other. The way to confront hatred and bigotry isn’t to incite more hate. We should have the compassion to listen and understand the other side of any argument.

Obviously 9/11 had nothing to do with 99% of Muslims around the world, who believe in peace. How does that date make you feel when it comes up?

It is disturbing and tragic to think about thousands of innocent lives that were lost on 9/11. The tragedies of the first two decades of the 21st century should force us to think about the immense possibilities we all have for spreading hope and kindness in the world. Today, we know more civil and more effective ways to counter radical narratives across the political spectrum. The U.S. should maintain a friendship with moderates, democrats, and progressive leaders in the Islamic world, not dictators and radicals. It pains me to see that twenty years after the government of the United States is making romance with the Taliban who harbored Al-Qaida in 2001.   

The group is still a bedfellow of Al-Qaida and all terrorist organizations in the region. 

How is your family doing in Afghanistan?

My family fled Kabul two weeks before the fall of the city to the hands of the Taliban. In broad daylight, criminals associated with the Taliban entered our house and beat my mom, sister, and sister-in-law. They are now in Tajikistan. I am struggling to get them here because I can’t support them there.

The United States has now left Afghanistan and we have already started to see an influx of refugees. What do you think the future holds for these people in the United States – are you hopeful that attitudes can change?

I think people have a better understanding of the Afghan refugees. Afghanistan has been on the news. I have seen images showing tremendous compassion and care for the Afghan refugees. That is promising. But it requires more organization and leadership to ease the integration of refugees into the host communities. To make them part of our communities, we have to work with them, empower them, hire them, and make sure they have the support to stand on their feet.

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