By Jay Martinez
Starting with the early 90s, young East Village teens traveled around New York to visit a local Afghan Hazara cultural center as part of a culture class. Afghan-American activists immediately grasped the value of these cultural exchanges as they sought to expand the horizons of those living in the heart of the 1960s counter-culture. For a community that had been ignored by the establishment for decades, “cultural infiltration”—a term of art inspired by the marketing of fast food chains in the 1960s—was a lesson in the power of cultural engagement and promoted a level of understanding that “normalized” a community that didn’t have the resources to make its own cultural influence real.
Back then, the cultural center with its gallery and speaker series couldn’t get enough of the teenagers who came from all over the city to learn the challenges and fears of Afghanistan. Today, when we have had more than thirty years of war and have become an entrenched part of the culture, we have taken much less interest in the many positive changes that have occurred.
I spent two weeks in Afghanistan in late June working for the American Council for Afghanistan (ACA) and meeting with family and friends of the current CEO, Mohammad Mirza Bistroti, and elected officials and their staff in Kabul and Kabul as well as with US State Department representatives in Washington DC. What I discovered is a country that now has to ask for American support as the world continues to be a threat to its security and safety.
Although our work with Afghanistan was deeply connected to supporting civil society, it was important to explore the root causes of the security problems Afghanistan faces today, especially the differences between Afghanistan and the United States. Since I’m visiting the country as an American who has only been to Afghanistan twice, many people asked, “why don’t you have a go-to guy in Afghanistan who can tell us what is going on?” To address this very common question, many in the political circles in Washington and Kabul told me that the answer lies in the social and cultural consciousness we must foster at home.
Afghanistan has a large population but the majority of people don’t speak English, understand the English language, or have access to information on the Internet that is easily accessible to them. And being a part of the New York City media environment helped me by my access to media experts. As an established online celebrity, I had the opportunity to speak with the most influential people in Afghanistan through speaking engagements and social media engagements. At one event in Kabul, I had a chance to speak with people like my friend Hassan Farzi, President of RMG, Afghanistan’s largest newspaper, who spoke about current issues that the country faces such as peace, reconciliation, human rights and women’s rights.
We should all reach out to friends and family who live in Afghanistan and share stories and experiences. Every conversation should begin with a question: What have you learned in this visit to Afghanistan? How can I help? What can I add to the conversation? And when you do so, you’ll feel better, and I hope that not only your Afghan friend can find this positive experience in their homeland, but also that the experience will inspire you to take action to make your own difference.
Jay Martinez of Manhattan is a #AfghanistanLady who uses social media to reach young women in America and share their experiences as Afghan women living in New York City.
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