Episode 8 of The Detour featured conversations with Karl Marlantes and Sean Davis, veterans from Oregon who served in two different wars. In this episode extra, we speak with Sosan Amiri. Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sosan has also had firsthand experience with war. In conversation with Rozzell Medina, Sosan talks about how she advocated as an Afghan American for her family, community, and home country during the US military's withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. Content note: this episode contains brief descriptions of violence.
Sosan Amiri was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, and was five years old when the Taliban conquered Afghanistan. She married and moved to Moscow at age twenty. In 2011, she and her husband received refugee visas and moved to the United States. They love visiting Kabul, although it is now impossible to travel there, and their homelands need help. She is happy to be in the United States, and her family is safe.
Rozzell Medina grew up in and around Choctaw, Oklahoma; San Francisco, California; and San Antonio, Texas. He has lived in Portland for about twenty years, though he loves wandering off now and then, mostly to visit ancestral homelands in Mexico and New Mexico. Prior to joining Oregon Humanities in 2019, he founded and directed the creative learning project Public Social University, which transformed art galleries, cafes, museums, and public parks into temporary community free schools. He earned a master’s degree in educational leadership and policy with an emphasis on regenerative ecological and cultural learning from Portland State University. There, he also instructed several interdisciplinary studies courses and coordinated the Chiron Studies program, which enabled students to create, design, and instruct official, for-credit classes. In addition to managing programs and serving as the lead instructor of Humanity in Perspective at Oregon Humanities, he is the festival director of the Portland EcoFilm Festival.
Read about Sosan and her classmates' One-Person Protest project, featured in the Summer 2021 issue of Oregon Humanities magazine.
Learn more about the Humanity in Perspective program.
Keiren Bond: Hi, this is Keiren Bond, the executive producer of The Detour. This episode extra is close to our hearts at Oregon Humanities and one I'm really excited to share. When we were putting together our episode about war, we knew we wanted it to be personal and to stay close to Oregon. We also knew that we were slated to release the episode during the Ukraine occupation and on the back of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Detour isn't a current affairs program. So we wanted to stay on the experience of war rather than the news of it. We had an interview with Karl Marlantes from 2014 in the archives and a close connection to Sean Davis, an Iraq vet, both of whom ended up featuring in the episode, "Going to War and Coming Home," that we released in March.
But during our research, another name stood out to us: Sosan Amiri. Sosan participated in and completed two Humanity in Perspective classes from 2019 to 2020, which is a program we offer at Oregon Humanities that provides free college-level humanities courses for people facing barriers to continuing education.
Sosan has also had firsthand experience with war. She was born in Afghanistan and was a refugee as a result of the Taliban occupation as a child, moving from Pakistan, to Iran, to Russia, and finally immigrating to the US in 2011. In this conversation with my colleague Rozzell Medina, Sosan talks about her experience as an Afghan American watching the US withdrawal from Afghanistan take place and how she went on from not being able to speak English, to advocating for her family, community, and country in front of Congress last year.
Thanks for listening.
Rozzell Medina: Welcome to a special episode of The Detour by Oregon Humanities. I’m Rozzell Medina. Sosan, thanks for being here. Really glad you're here. And this is just an opportunity for us to talk. And I'd like to start by just asking you, do you remember the first time that we met?
Sosan Amiri: Yeah. I remember that time. I was, I wasn't graduate from college community and I met you at the Southeast, and I talked with you and then I was very excited to be in your class.
And I wasn't sure. And we had the interview, and then we start the classes.
Rozzell: In the class that you took, the Humanity in Perspective courses that you took with me and with the other instructors, do you remember some of the things that you learned that, in those classes, that surprised you or that changed your mind or that left an impression in some way?
Sosan: Uh, yes. To be honest, I learned so much from Humanity in Perspective, from different instructors. I [especially] didn't have any like, open mind about the African Americans in the United States—what really was their history and how they like, finally achieved their rights, you know, before they didn't have any rights.
And then they achieved their rights. And, the people who fight for us, right now, as a refugee, as a Muslim, I can live in the United States with a, with peace and with all of the rights. You know?
Rozzell: Yeah. I remember when you took your first class with me. I remember that you told me that you wanted to take the class because you wanted to learn—you wanted to improve your English. And I remember you told me that you were taking the class because you wanted to understand our culture better. I'm curious, how long had you been in the US before you took the class? And what were some of the things that you felt like you didn't understand about our culture or maybe things that you wanted to understand better about the culture?
Sosan: I came to the United States in 2011, and then I couldn't speak English, and I had one child and before, I was in Russia and I was looking for a better life and education. But in Russia, it was very fearful for refugees, especially [those] who have a different color. And, we were afraid [of the] police, and they’d stop us and take a lot of money from us. And I had the same problem and the same things in my mind when I came to the United States.
And because of that, one year I was home, I remember, and I didn't go out, and I was afraid, especially the language barrier. And if someone was asking me questions or what to do and how to answer the question. Just, I went to the doctor office, and I came home. I didn't know anybody, no organization, nothing.
I was then pregnant, and I had my second child in United States. I couldn't speak English very well, but I feel I need to learn English. And I went to community college and, you know, the community college has big classes and a lot of students and different kinds of instructor. And I had a good experience and not good experience, but they always encouraged me, Oh, you're speaking really good English. You can [take] higher classes. But I didn't learn very good English. And then when I heard about Humanity in Perspective, with a lot of reading, I felt, oh, this is a great class for me. And when I took an interview with you and, um, it really has improved my language, especially the separate class we had together, and you helped us—me and my two sisters—to learn English and it's, it has helped me a lot. And, and another part, my first goal was to learn English better. And then, also at the same time [to know] the culture better.
Rozzell: That makes me really curious. You know, you live here. Your family, your sisters have lived here for a long time. Your husband, your children are growing up here. I'm curious, in terms of your, your experience, what did you…what did you hope to find here in the United States when you came here, and do you feel like you found it? Do you feel like you're still discovering it?
Sosan: Uh, when I came to the United States, [it was] about the freedom, freedom of speech and education. I really [looked] for the education, at the low level, for the high school. And I couldn't really find it, because the school is, um…I feel the public school is not really safe. My son, he wanted me to come to pick him up because he said that [his] classmate is laughing to me, why is your mom wearing the fabric, and uh, why you are like this?
And also, I heard a lot about the public schools, um, especially [that] they are not teaching right and wrong. They are teaching just what you think is right. What is your belief is right. And, uh, because the kids really need to learn right and wrong, cause I'm…and also about the idea of justice, but it is not really… Everywhere I see, you have to lose something. You have to earn something. You know, I know, I believe this to be like this, but for the middle class, especially for poor people, there’s not really justice here, I find out.
Rozzell: So speaking of justice, so the first class you took with me and with other Humanity in Perspective instructors, we learned about art. We learned about philosophy. We read, uh, Martin Luther King's “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Uh, we learned about artists who do work in their community, working creatively with their communities. And then the second class that you took with me was about social movements and about how movements for economic and racial and environmental and disability justice—how people work together to try to make the world look and feel more like the world that they would like to live in. Right. And so we did, um, one of the projects we did in that class, I invited every student to do a one-person protest, right? With that project, every student made a sign. Every student wrote a pamphlet describing not what they were protesting against, but what they were, what they were trying to communicate for. And then every student was asked to go out into the community and to perform or implement that protest.
Can you talk a little bit, in that class, what your one-person protest was?
Sosan: Yes, of course. Because of that, I talk about the justice, you know, and it has made me think more, and it has made me think deeply. [Those] people, I really appreciate the the things they did. I cannot even appreciate that, because of those people, right now, I have a right to talk and to fight for my rights, you know?
Rozzell: When you say those people are you, are you talking about Martin…?
Sosan: Martin Luther King and the other ladies. And, um, there were many, but I forgot the names.
Rozzell: Yeah. We talked about the American Indian movement. We talked about the Black Power movement. People who—who advocated for disability justice.
Sosan: Yeah. Mm-hmm that, that movement has really, really affected [things] right now for refugees. When I looked my life in the United States, which is, I'm really happy, and I'm really appreciative to be here—that's my honor to be an Afghan American. My speech was about abuse of power. And right now, when I said [that] the justice is not really in the United States, because the power… who has the power always wants to do something for their business, wants to keep that power, you know. Uh, sorry. I want to say more about it. I don't know the word for it, you know?
And, um, my speech was the…my one person protest was at, in the mall, and I took my writing and my [sign], and there were a few people who came and read it. And then, uh, they showed me like this, good, good!
Rozzell: Yeah. I also remember in that protest, you brought it home because you were looking at homelessness.
Rozzell: And here in Portland, it's such a, you know, in so many places, including Portland, everywhere you look, We look at people who seem to not have any options or who seem to have very few options. And I remember you made it very personal by saying there are people who have so much power, who are abusing this power, and there are people who don't seem to have much power at all. So why don't we, why don't we work together to sort of redefine what power is in our society?
Sosan: Of course.
Rozzell: And I thought that was great. I also really appreciated that you did it in the mall. You went to a shopping mall. There were a lot of people there, like you said, people were interacting with you.
So I want to talk about what happened last year. If you could just talk about what your experience was like when you found out that the U.S. was withdrawing military out of Afghanistan, and if you could talk about that time and what that was like for you.
Sosan: Yeah. When I, when I did my protest on the abuse of power, and if I see the bigger, a bigger angle [on] things, is how the government, what the government is trying to do, and they are ignoring the people, you know, the ordinary people who want to live a good, uh, have a good life. I believe it is between the Afghanistan, government and United States government. I mean, the people who are doing the politics or military or someone who is doing these things. When they gave the power to the Taliban or the Taliban tried to fight, to achieve that power to occupy my country for second time, it made me, uh, very, very serious—to think very deeply, what is going on in this world? I'm originally from Afghanistan, and my family lives in Afghanistan. My father is fighting for many years for women’s rights, and he is very educated and, uh, what happened to him—because I know that the Taliban has killed a lot of people before, and my father was hiding. And we—the first time we went to Pakistan and Iran, we were refugees, and we had a really, really hard time. I lost my childhood, and then I thought, I don't want to my siblings, my nephews, my neighbor’s child to experience—to have the experience I had. And then I though to do something, what to do? And then I started to, uh, contact the senators, even with Joe Biden and with, uh, the people who really have power, to make them do something, as much as I [could].
Rozzell: So when you heard that the Taliban might come back into power in Afghanistan, what are some words that describe how you felt at that time?
Sosan: I can say, very, very sad. It reminded me [of] all the hard times I had before and the time my father was in Pakistan. We had a really hard time in Pakistan. We came back to Afghanistan and even… I saw a lot of murder and [indistinguishable], and then it reminded me all of that. It made me, I can’t describe that feeling. I even, I couldn't sleep one night and that night I tried to find a connection with Joe Biden and to contact him.
Rozzell: So this was last year, last year, 2021. And so, when you found out, you found out what was happening, you decided to contact Joe, to try to contact Joe Biden. President Biden. Um, what did you do, and what did you say in order to try to contact him? What were you trying to communicate to him?
Sosan: Uh, I wrote about myself. I am Sosan Amiri. I am from Afghanistan, originally. And, uh, I came to the United States for a better life. And, right now I have a good life here, and I was happy as [there was] freedom in my country and my family [was] free, and I know the politics, what they are doing. I saw the news and I might believe that the government just gave the power to them. And then I wrote all of these things and, I said, what do you think? And please do something. And then I send it to him, and he is not answering me. Oh my gosh. And I said, that is not cool. He's not answering And I resend it, and I resend it. He is not answering. And then I try to contact with the senators, all the senators in the United States. And I send my email to, I think, 20 or 30 senators.
Rozzell: So after you sentthe email to Joe Biden, uh, and you sent him the videos and things like that, and he, he didn't respond. Not cool, Joe. He, he didn't respond. So instead of giving up, you decided, well, I'm gonna look up all my—all the senators that I can find.
Rozzell: And then you sent, you sent emails to senators, asking them—at that point, were you basically asking them the same thing? What was gonna happen, or what were you asking them? And then, did you ever get a response from anyone?
Sosan: Yeah. After a few days, Senator Dan Crenshaw’s office contacted me and asked me to send your family’s passports and, uh, your citizenship. I was really, really happy. And my sister—there, uh, she never applied for a passport, and she didn't have it. And they asked me for the passport, and then five of my family [members], they had a passport, and I sent to them with my citizenship and there was another form. And I, I filled out that form, and then, uh, they said, okay, we will evacuate your parents from Afghanistan. And finally they did.
Rozzell: So I'm curious because, a lot of people who hear your story, they can hear your story, but they'll never know what it's like exactly, what it feels like to be afraid, to be sad, like you said, because their family is somewhere. Your parents were somewhere where these very real effects of war had really jeopardized, not only their lives, but their neighbors’ lives, their friends' lives. The lives of the people who they buy bread from the store. You felt a different way, like every two minutes, like I hope this happens, I hope that happens, what's gonna happen here? Like it was this…when you've described it to me in the past, it almost sounds like there was a sort of frantic quality to what you were feeling.
What did that feel like? And what—what did you hope might happen? And what did you fear might happen?
Sosan: You know, at the time when the Taliban occupied Afghanistan, and we thought, it is just the sleep, it is just a dream, maybe. No, they are lying—and nobody believed it. And the sleep, immediately, it—it disappeared.
Uh, in my eyes, you cannot believe it. Two days, two nights, which is twenty four—more than twenty-four hours, I didn't sleep. I feel like, uh, you know, when you are in the room, and the room is full of water, and you want to go, and you see the outside is clear, and you can breathe and you can be, but you can't go to the outside, even. You can, but you can't.
And I was in that situation with my whole family, and in August, one of my father’s friends, which they worked together, a group of Taliban, they, uh, they knocked on the door, and the son opened the door, and they asked, where is your father? And, he said, okay, I am the father in the house, and they are calling him, uh, we wanna talk with him. And he went, and he called to his father, and the father, when he comes and directly, to talk him, and they hit him very badly in front of all the neighbors and the child. And they talk, ask him about something, and then immediately, they killed him in front of the kids, in front of the neighbors near the door.
That is scary, because my father, he said, from these forty years of fighting in Afghanistan, I never lived in Afghanistan. I love my country. I want to live, I want to do something for my people. At least they feel there is someone to fight for us. I don't wanna leave my country.
And then we heard that, and I talked with my father, please make a decision, please do it, please. I asked him a lot. And then he said, okay. I said, if they find you, they will kill you. And then all of my family were full of stress, and we couldn't sleep. We couldn't think about any of the other things. We were just thinking, uh, how did the U.S. military allow the Taliban to occupy Afghanistan? What was the—what was behind these things? I still, this is a big question in my head. Why they are doing these things. Why the people, ordinary people, who have a right to live a good life, why they don't want to allow them to, to do—and just, they are thinking about their power, you know. They are using, they are abusing the power.
Rozzell: Yeah. And it's interesting too, to hear you talking about this sort of—the, the continuation of time, the continuum of time. How we can be aware of how struggles in the past shape the present, and how our struggle and—how we can only imagine how our struggles now are going to shape the future. I think that's so fascinating.
And I think there's a lot of power in thinking about that. So, After Dan Crenshaw's office contacted you, you went through this process to have, um, your family evacuated from Afghanistan, but you did more than that. You decided that it wasn't enough just to help your family. You wanted to help other, uh, other people in Afghanistan as well. So what did you do?
Sosan: Yeah. And when I, you know before, there was the news that the Taliban will occupy Afghanistan, like this stuff. And then, one of my cousins, he was SIV, which is a special visa for Afghan people who work with the U.S. government, U.S. military, and, uh, he applied for SIV visa in 2015, and he was rejected. The embassy rejected him because of some kind of document or something. And then another friend contacted me [about] what to do, we got [a note] from the embassy about not receiving the visa, and then, do something. And I thought, okay, when I'm receiving all of this kind of help from the people who are fighting for me, and right now, they are not in this world. And there is a position for me too, to do something.
And this, um, the protest I did about the abuse of power, and the writing and the reading I did, and the talking we did together, it made me, it's given me power—oh, I am someone to do something. And then, I wrote an email for the, Senator Wyden, and I wrote an email to them—I wanna be an advocate for Afghan SIV. And then they sent me an email, okay, and send your document…these things. And I said, I don't have any kind of documents, but I wanna be a voice for them. And I send all their messages, for the Senator. And then they started to help me. And I said, okay, we are going to help these people. And then they send me a form. Okay, they have to sign this form, and send it to us. And then my job started from there. And since I worked with them, another special force contacted me to evacuate 320 people from Afghanistan to be a translator or to do something. And I made a group and, uh, we couldn't sleep for twenty-four hours. We helped them. And at the same time, after two, three weeks, I received an email from the Congress, and they invited me to come and talk in the conference, to be, since [I] was an advocate and [I] advised for them, and helped them. And then I went to Washington D.C., to Congress.
Rozzell: It was interesting to me to hear you describe that feeling, like you were treading water, like you were drowning, and you were looking, and you could see, well, there's somewhere where there's not water, but I can't get to that place. I'm—but you kept trying. But all the same, you realized, well, I'm someone who can do something, and I'm gonna try.
So you tried, you worked with the senator's office, to get your family evacuated. You started a group for other, for other people to connect around trying to create a solution for themselves, for their families, things like that. And then you were invited to Washington D.C., to speak about your experience.
Can you talk a little bit about who invited you, what you did to prepare for that? And then what the experience was like for you?
Sosan: The office of—Dan Crenshaw’s office was there. And a special force army invited me, with the Dan Crenshaw office. And, there were like, three to four groups [who] worked together to do the evacuation, which they did, uh, [evacuate] hundreds of families.
And, uh, I thought what—and they asked me to speak for three to five minutes. And since I, my English wasn't really good, I was wondering what to do, where I should ask. And the first person who comes to mind—oh, Rozzell, oh my gosh, he's the best friend—the best person. And he’d never reject me, and I, I contacted you. And you helped me to write my story for, the first time the Taliban came, and how was that? And then what was my plan? And, and then we wrote that, and I went to Washington D.C. I was the near the White House. It was a really great experience, you know, a really great experience, but my heart wasn't happy because of the people [who] were in the hard time.
Even some of them [were] messaging me, we can't go outside to buy something. We are afraid to, they might take us and they will kill us. And even, you know, in the Taliban time, like a woman can't go outside without a man, her husband, father, or brother. One of these three things should be with a woman. And I was struggling with that group, and with the—always with the speech, and also with this speech I had with the Congress.
And when I went to the Congress that night, uh, I cannot believe it. And there were a lot of people. Always, I wish to say my thoughts and my dreams with the people who really have the power, because the time—you remember, when I wrote my one-person protest, I didn’t think about [how] one day I’d go to, in front of the people to, to speak about the abuse of power, you know, when I saw them, and I forgot all of my speech. And I went in front of all of them. And I talked about, uh, three minutes about what I did, but not from the paper I wrote. I was really excited, very happy to be there. At the same time, I wasn't happy because it reminded me— these people who are making the power, who are making the rules, who are making the laws— and why are they not thinking the other people are abusing, and then why they are not taking people who are abusing the power and not putting [them] in the jail or somewhere, and they are free, they are walking, and they are making the rules. They are breaking the rules. Nobody is catching them, you know?
Rozzell: Yeah. So you were in this elegant setting, where you were being driven around Washington D.C. And then you get to go speak to these powerful people about your experience, but in your mind, you're thinking, well, thousands of miles away in Afghanistan, there are people who still can't leave their house. There are people who are scared. So that's in your mind at the same time as you're speaking to these people. And you're wondering, why aren't you doing more with your power?
I remember one time you told me, the solution is not to evacuate everyone from Afghanistan.
Sosan: Yes. Yeah. That—I’m still saying that. That is not the solution, to evacuate. Another time I wrote a, another essay or writing, and I said, the solution is not [for] the military of the United States to be in Afghanistan. And a lot of many is they are using for a lot of things. And, but the solution is not that. After like, many years you see the solution—the result wasn't good. And the solution to evacuate the people. There is a both sides, good side and a wrong side. You know, the most—people in Afghanistan, I think in the world—the people are abusing us because of the lack of knowledge. And if they evacuate like another thousand people, but in Afghanistan, 30 million people, and then what about the others? I know their power. They have the power to take out the Taliban again and what, the reason they are not doing it, I really don't know.
Rozzell: I'd love to hear two things. One of the things is, I loved hearing you talk about how suddenly you realized, oh, I'm someone who can do something. It's not gonna come from somewhere else. It's gonna come from me. Were there any things that helped you? You know, maybe there's someone who hears your story, who thinks, I would love to feel that way. I would love to feel like a solution is gonna come from me. Is there something that helped you? Not only to feel that way, but to be guided by those feelings?
Sosan: Since when I look at my childhood during the Taliban time—I was five years old when the Taliban occupied Afghanistan—I, we went to Pakistan, and then in a different name and different area, we went, because it wasn't very hard to live in Pakistan, and then we'd come back to Afghanistan, and my father was living [under an] unknown name, in a different city we lived. And my father, he helped to, we had a secret school during the Taliban time, and I learned how to read and write and a little bit of science, but still, I had a really hard time. It has really affected, uh, when I saw murder, a lot of tanks in the street, and, then when I went, when I was 18 years old, I went to Russia. I married with my cousin, and then I went to Russia and there was another problem. I went to study there, just—I finished high school in Afghanistan. I went there to study, and there was another problem when I come to the United States.
Because of that problem in Russia, I was afraid to be, to go out in the United States, and I didn't have any kind of help. And we had food stamps. I know there is an organization, a lot of organizations, but it wasn't really helpful for me. Maybe there is for others too, but for me, it's just for me, I'm talking about myself. And from 2011 till 2016, I really couldn't speak really good English. I was like home woman, home wife.
And when I went out to learn more English and, I speak to you, and then I learned so much from Humanity in Perspective. If I can make a conclusion about all my life, it’s [that] the Humanity in Perspective, and Mr. Rozzell, has made my life to be helpful in this world, because you are the one person who—the second person who, uh, without asking me to—because, you know, I said for everything, you have to pay—and without asking me to pay for something, you spend many hours [helping] me for my writing and for my language, and also for my sisters and, the correct sentences. And this has made me to [think] someone as I am in this world, if I receive this kind of help, I have to be something like him to help the community. And I made a class online right now. I'm teaching, but it is in Persian. And I made a class for Afghanistan children, which is thirty children in one class.
And I'm paying for one teacher, which is not too much, under a dollar a month. And she's teaching for the children, and I'm sending the good YouTube videos for them to learn the knowledge, the bigger knowledge, because in Afghanistan, there is not like in the United States, you know, they are really—everything is closed for them. Even the teacher is not very knowledgeable, and because they are, they are learning more traditionally, you know, a bigger view. And I'm teaching them to look at the world with a bigger view and, uh, build their knowledge.
And these children, when they grow up, they will have another thirty families. And then the thirty families will have another few children. And then at least thirty families have a knowledge to see the world in the bigger view. I can say the United States, and then—one of my friends, she's from Texas, and she learned, uh, she taught me English a little bit. And then Mr. Rozzell is the second one who has made my life to be different, to be someone useful in the community and in the world.
Sosan: (reading) I have been thinking for a long time about helping my people and solving their problems. I dream of meeting people in high positions and sharing my story. And now I have been invited to this wonderful event, which feels like a dream come true. And I have a bigger dream to advocate for world peace and care and safety of my people and the land.
In Afghanistan, we have a saying everyone has a moon, brightening their life. The moon has a bright side and also a dark side. Sometime we do not recognize the dark side until something happens that draws our attention to it. I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. The dark side of my moon revealed itself to me when I was five years old and the Taliban occupied our country. What a very dreadful time that was for all of us, but especially the women.
All schools at the time were closed to women. At the age of five, I went to a secret school. It was a very difficult time for me, but my parents pushed me to keep trying. They taught me that education is the only way out of ignorance. And this inspires my passion for education. Now I am continuing my education and hoping to work in service to humanity.
Keiren: Sosan Amiri is now teaching a class of her own and hopes to start a project that would create economic and cultural opportunities for Afghani women in the U.S. Thanks for listening to this episode extra on The Detour.