My Afghan Parents’ Escape to the U.S. and How It Shaped Me as a Storyteller

Posted on September 27, 2018

By Lila Razzaqui

My parents escaped the Soviets on the last plane out of Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1979. At age 21, they came to the U.S. with two suitcases, an heirloom prayer rug and a Dari-English phrase book full of useless sentences: “Look at those beautiful flamingos.”

They established a new life in California as political asylees. (Thankfully, Reagan’s administration was more welcoming than the administration we have today.) Time would reveal they brought something else, a gift saved for their future children: stories.

Eventually this would lay down the path for my own existence and for my career as a storyteller in PR.

My parents told stories of Afghanistan in times of peace — kite flying on Eid holidays and picnics in the Gardens of Babur. Family tales and history — my grandfather the four star general, ancestors who traded and traveled the Silk Road, Mawlana Rumi, Genghis Khan’s unforgivable sack of Balkh.

And stories of war: Dad hiding for his life from Soviets in a library; newborns who survived on oranges; family fleeing anywhere they could go — Iran, Pakistan, India, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S.

Throughout my youth, I took these stories for granted. All parents tell tales about how they walked home miles from school, uphill in the snow.

Now, as an adult, I see these stories for what they really are: a sign of love.

My parents’ stories have instilled my sisters and me with a sense of identity more powerful than the Soviet invasion that uprooted our family. They’ve created a framework for us of belonging, helping us understand our existence within the context of a place and people.

They connect us to our ancestors who passed knowledge down generation by generation for thousands of years. Thanks to them, I am aware of impossible links – songs tying to medieval science and home remedies that stem back to Alexander the Great.

Naturally, my parents’ stories have played a role in who I am. I grew up seeing the world brimming with untold but meaningful narratives. I devoured books as a child, studied literature in college and have established my career as storyteller in PR.

I’ll admit that I have only just learned to hang onto what my parents share, every chance I get. With time, I hope to remember more than just bits and pieces of particular stories. And I’m finally asking questions and writing things down.

Given today’s political climate, I’ve begun sharing my family’s stories in hopes of inspiring others to create the future. I’d had the honor of meeting with Congressional staff where I now live (Texas) to advocate for refugees and asylum seekers. As my parents taught me, a story can open up the heart, planting a seed of compassion when the head won’t listen.

As it goes for every child of immigrants, there’s a strong desire within me to hang onto what I can from my parents and their homeland. So as I continue to carve out my future, I cannot help but look back.

Truth is I’ve been doing it all my life.

That’s why no matter how useless that phrase book was to my parents — lovely flamingos and all — it will always hold a special place on my bookshelf.


Lila manages Offleash’s content practice. She also helps drive PR programs as well as client strategy, and spearheads the agency’s Think! newsletter. Contact Lila at lila@offleashpr.com.