Dear precious Afghan girl,
I see you.
I see you in the belly of a packed U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III, a telling round face among the 640 Afghans being airlifted from Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 15 amid chaos.
Your black hair pulled back, your dark eyes questioning, your shirt the color of the desert earth you’re leaving behind, and your lips mum, hands clasped.
You’re losing your childhood innocence in this act of desperate flight, in this crossing to an uncertain life in exile and the loss of homeland.
I want to reach out and hug you, tell you that everything will turn out all right, that I hope you make it to America.
The heart and soul of the immigrant woman you will become are beginning to take shape at this very moment.
I know this.
I was once that little girl on a Freedom Flight to the U.S.
Young men, too, tried to cling to my airplane the day my family left Cuba. We also were detained on the runway for a long time, our fates suspended, the adults filled with dread, a feeling we, the children, made ours.
I didn’t have to guess what was going on. I might have been 10 years old, but I had already seen so much.
Like perhaps you did in Kabul with those searching eyes, I witnessed the young men coming out of the bushes and running to hop onto the landing gear of the morning’s previous flight from Varadero Airport. They tried again during our flight’s turn on the tarmac. Those Oct. 7, 1969, flights, part of an exodus that brought more than 250,000 of us to American soil, made the front page of The Miami Herald, the newspaper where I have worked as a journalist the past 41 years.
Straddling two worlds
On the day the world’s eyes were fixed on the dramatic images of swarms of men clinging to your plane in Afghanistan as it tried to take off, two men plunging to the ground as it climbed, I was immersed in dual language duties in Miami.
I write in English, but publish in two languages.
My workweek begins straddling two worlds, playing the role of interpreter and trying to make sense in Spanish, not only by way of letters but also cultural connectors, what I said in a tongue that’s now more mine than my native one.
I both loathe and love this task, the same way I felt when I translated mortgage documents for my exiled parents at age 12 and when I wrote a letter to a government agency for our Cuban neighbor.
We, immigrant women and immigrant girls who have fled our countries of birth, straddle two worlds and carry double the burdens.
The dual reality becomes the ebb and flow of life, made all the richer by two languages and two cultures that will open doors for you, despite the obstacles. Never forget this part: Who you are may seem at first a curse among strangers who fear your presence. And you will never be fully understood in your adopted country, where you and yours will become another weapon in the election-time battleground of American identity politics.
Yes, you will be a free-choice woman in the United States, but you’re likely to remain bound by family traditions, which can elevate you, feed your soul — and hold you back. And you will face prejudice, and perhaps gender-based violence at a university or in your relationship. You do have three strikes against you: You’re a woman, an immigrant woman and Muslim.
Your flight, like mine was, is the beginning of a never-ending cycle of family separations, a wound that never heals, a journey that marks forever your before and after.
There are more than 23 million of us female immigrants in the United States, more than men, and half of us are naturalized U.S. citizens, like you may be one day.
But never forget who you are, immigrant girl.
It’s your superpower.
Fabiola Santiago is a columnist for the Miami Herald.