Each May, the State Department joins the rest of the nation in celebrating Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. During this month, we celebrate the accomplishments of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) and the diverse perspectives they bring to the Department’s work and mission. Foreign Service Officer Mustafa Popal shares his family’s experience as Afghan refugees and how this inspired a career in diplomacy and public service.
As an Asian-American refugee, the month of May holds special meaning because my family immigrated to America on May 25, 1987. I was born in Kabul, a few years before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, into a middle-class Afghan family. It was a time of relative peace, but one that was increasingly fragile following the demise of the Afghan king who had been forced into exile by his own cousin — a common occurrence in Afghanistan’s turbulent political history. I recall seeing my first Russian soldier as a child peering down from my parent’s apartment balcony in Kabul — catching sight of a Russian armored personnel carrier parked conspicuously below on the deserted street. The soldier looked up and waved. I quickly hid myself from view, uncertain about his intentions. I can only imagine what Ukrainian children are experiencing today in the face of renewed Russian government brutality and aggression.
I escaped Kabul with my mother and two younger siblings in the fall of 1980 on a nearly empty flight to New Delhi. Escaping Kabul was never an easy undertaking in the midst of war. One of my fondest memories of this otherwise jarring episode was having a Coca Cola on the flight — I was ecstatic and conveniently distracted for the time being from the uncertainty that lay ahead. My father had escaped Kabul months before to avoid persecution at the hands of the Communist regime in Kabul. The Soviet war in Afghanistan reportedly killed over a million Afghans during the decade-long brutal conflict that unleashed almost four decades of instability in my ancestral homeland. My family and I were among the lucky ones to escape physically unharmed. But like many Afghans and refugees who have fled their homes, you always carry the scars with you. My parents have endured most of those emotional scars because war tears apart your sense of belonging and stability. It uproots violently and without compassion or remorse — leaving its victims to fend for their own survival in distant lands.
Like many refugees before and after us from Asia and across the world, we found a new home and life in America. After living for nearly a decade in the Middle East, my father was finally able to realize his dream of moving his family to America in 1987. We arrived at New York’s JFK airport on a sunny afternoon 35 years ago this month. I was about 11 years old and eager to finally lay eyes on the country that had intrigued me through TIME magazine covers throughout my childhood. I had fantasies of playing baseball in some side street in New York against a tenement backdrop or meeting the famous American President Ronald Reagan, who was a hero to many Afghans for his steadfast support of the Afghan people in their struggle against Communism. The America I encountered in Virginia, where we settled down alongside many other Afghan refugees, was an unfamiliar reality of well-manicured lawns, large yellow school buses, and rowdy kids of different backgrounds testing my sixth grade teacher’s patience as he read us passages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I became a book junkie and proudly led the Weyanoke Elementary Book Club to its district championship in a storied Jeopardy-like showdown of “The Battle of the Books.” I found out years later that my co-team captain, a young Ethiopian refugee, graduated from Harvard and became a White House Fellow — only in America!
I can only look back in deep appreciation for the good fortune that blessed my family. My enthusiasm for books and history led me to a career in diplomacy. This year marks my 20th anniversary in the federal government. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, I worked at the Pentagon, where I was on 9/11. Afghanistan has always been a part of my American narrative. Over the years, I traveled extensively to Afghanistan for work on behalf of the U.S. Government — most recently in August of last year where I helped evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghans from the very same airport in Kabul that my mother and I used to escape another war in 1980. There’s a great line in the opening scene of The Godfather where the Italian undertaker declares, “I believe in America…” It’s hard not to believe in America, the truly indispensable nation, as Secretary Albright once rightly declared.
About the Author: Mustafa Popal currently serves as Chief of Staff to Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman. He joined the Foreign Service in 2003 and has served in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, and Washington, D.C.
This blog is part of the State Department’s Asian American Foreign Affairs Association (AAFAA) AANHPI Heritage Month outreach efforts. Established in 1981, AAFAA is an association of more than 900 Civil Service and Foreign Service employees, fellows, contractors, interns, and retirees at the U.S. Department of State with the mission to improve recruitment, outreach, and professional development of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) officers. AAFAA welcomes all employees across the Department. Please reach out to aafaa.state.gov to join and follow us on Facebook.