People, Campus & community, Profiles, Berkeley Voices

Maryam Karimi: This generation in Afghanistan will not give up

By Anne Brice

Subscribe to Berkeley Voices.

See all Berkeley Voices episodes.

Third-year UC Berkeley student Maryam Karimi was born in Afghanistan in September 2001. A month later, the United States invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks. The Taliban was ousted from power, but everyday violence remained. Her family applied for asylum and eventually settled in Fremont, California, when Maryam was 12. Now, she and her family watch as the Taliban once again takes control of their home country. But Maryam knows that Afghans — especially her generation — won’t give up. “The fire of revolution and freedom is lit in their hearts. And with a little breeze, it’s going to burn brighter than ever before,” she said.

Maryam Karimi stands with her hand on a tree

Maryam Karimi, a third-year UC Berkeley student double majoring in political economy and Persian, wears a scarf the colors of the Afghanistan flag. “I want people to see us as humans, not statistics — with real pain in our minds and hearts.” (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Read a transcript of Berkeley Voices episode #84: “Maryam Karimi: This generation in Afghanistan will not give up.”

Intro: This is Berkeley Voices. I’m Anne Brice.

[Music: “Titter Snowbird” by Blue Dot Sessions ]

Maryam Karimi: My name is Maryam Karimi. I’m a junior at UC Berkeley. I’m double majoring in political economics and Persian.

Narration: Maryam was born in Afghanistan in September 2001. She grew up with her parents and five brothers and sisters in the countryside of Kabul.

As a child, she loved poetry. It’s a big part of Afghan culture. Dating back thousands of years, poetry in Afghanistan is cherished by almost every group, from modern-day progressives to conservative Muslims.

Maryam Karimi: My family and I are really connected to the culture of Afghanistan, poetry. Also, I perform sometimes. I go to events and I perform. One of the poems that I actually posted on my Instagram that went viral in my community and that people connected with is a poem by Mawlana, or most people know him as Rumi.

Let me remember, the poem goes … I will say it in Farsi first, in Persian, and then I will translate it into English:

[Maryam recites a poem by Rumi in Persian]

In this earth

In this earth

In this pure field

Let us sow nothing

Let us sow nothing but the seeds of kindness and love

[Music fades]

Anne Brice: Why did you choose that poem? What does it mean to you?

Maryam Karimi: It means so much to me because me and my people, and I guess all the people in the world who are going through a hard time, going through wars, they are tired of it. We need to embrace each other. We need to love each other. We need to take care of each other and our environment.

If you go out in nature, you see all this beauty that we have been blessed with. I want people to give flowers to each other instead of guns and bullets.

Why shouldn’t we just love each other and be happy and have harmony in the world? Rather than all these wars and all this darkness that we’re bringing upon each other by supporting these terrorist groups, by funding them, by not speaking out against our governments, against the politicians who are bringing all of this upon us. Why are we silent about it?

[Music: “Evidence Room” by Blue Dot Sessions ]

Narration: When Maryam was born, the Taliban was in control of much of the country and had been since 1996. In Kabul, most libraries had been closed, and in some cities, all library books had been destroyed. Girls’ schools had been burned to the ground. Women were forced to wear head-to-toe burkas, and men were required to have beards. Television, music and cinema were banned.

When Maryam was 1 month old, the United States invaded Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks. The Taliban was ousted from power, but everyday violence remained.

After Maryam’s father was severely injured in a bomb explosion and a colleague of her mother’s was shot and killed, the family applied for asylum and eventually settled in Fremont, California, when Maryam was 12.

Maryam Karimi: I could go on about them. I could go on and on about all the people (in my family) who have been victims of these terrorist attacks.

But even then, I want to say that when I was immigrating to the United States, for months prior to and after coming here, I was crying the entire time because I wanted to go back. I wanted to live in my own country, even though I was young.

I’m saying this because I want everyone to understand that no one is going to latch themselves to a plane knowing that they are going to fall to their death unless the sky is safer than Earth for them. People such as me, people from Afghanistan, come here or go to other countries in the world simply because they want to survive.

Narration: Now, in her third year at UC Berkeley, Maryam is watching with her family and friends as the Taliban once again takes control of her home country.

[Music fades]

Anne Brice: How is your family doing right now where you are in Fremont, but also in Afghanistan?

Maryam Karimi: My family right here in Fremont and all the family friends that we have here are extremely devastated. Their mental health is deteriorating day by day because they are seeing all these things that are going on in their motherland, but they cannot do anything about it.

And also, they feel survivor’s guilt. All of us feel, “How am I better than people who fell from the plane and died, who were ripped into pieces?” And, at the same time, this helplessness that they cannot do anything. All they can do is send their hard-earned money that they earn here to feed their family members over there and constantly worry about them.

And my family in Afghanistan, they’re in a far worse situation. Many of my family members have been displaced from their homes that they lived in outside of Kabul. Most of them lost their jobs. They are very hopeless. They are looking for a way out. And they’re always telling us, “Please do something so we can get out of here. Is there any way?” And we’re telling them that we’re doing our best.

Anne Brice: I’m curious, so, when we talked before, you were talking about how getting an education was so important to you and how it’s so special to you that you’re able to be a role model to girls. How are you feeling right now about the girls and the women who are in stuck in Afghanistan now?

Maryam Karimi: Right now, my biggest concern about Afghanistan is education — education of women and girls and women’s rights, in general. We can see that, in the past, women’s rights and education has been jeopardized by terrorist groups that ruled Afghanistan, and it continues to be jeopardized to this day. I’m really concerned about how the education system will be implemented after this because the people that are in power right now, they do not believe in this education system.

And about women — women have worked so hard in the past 20 years to achieve everything that they have achieved right now. If this keeps going on, all of that will be for nothing.

That’s why I’m asking the United States government and the United Nations and human rights activists to speak out for women in Afghanistan — because we don’t want to go back to the Dark Ages. We don’t want to leave them alone.

Anne Brice: I know you’re really active on social media, especially with Afghan girls in Afghanistan and here. And I’m curious what communication you’ve had with them in the past few weeks or few months?

Maryam Karimi: I have been communicating with a lot of Afghan girls through social media, and I have gotten a lot of messages from them, as well. And because I was really hurt by all these situations, I was expressing my feelings on social media. I was showing how sad I was because I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted to be there with them.

[Music: “Tessalit” by Blue Dot Sessions ]

And it was really incredible that some of them were giving me hope. They were sending me messages of love and hope, and they were asking me to be strong.

They were telling me that when they look at me, they see hope. But when I look hopeless, and I don’t give them hope, then how are they supposed to feel?

They are in the fire and I’m outside of it, watching it from far away. They are telling me to be hopeful, to not give up, to still keep raising awareness and try to get the United Nations and the nations in the world to hear us and their concerns.
At the same time, I’ve been getting messages from them that they are scared.

They haven’t been out of the house for many days now. And even though there have been words from these people that are in power right now in Afghanistan that they do not want to hurt any women or that they have changed, they don’t believe it. They have heard everything that their parents went through and they have read history. So, they are really concerned.

Anne Brice: Can you share a few messages that you have received from girls in Afghanistan recently?

Maryam Karimi: Yes, one of them said: “Hi. I’m currently living in Kabul and I feel kind of lost. All my dreams and all my goals are fading away. The future looks blurry. I feel scared, scared from even going out. All the men look scary to me. They look at me differently now. They look at me like they’re seeing a criminal. But I didn’t do anything. I just came out to shop for groceries. I feel empty and numb.”

Another one wrote: “Salaam, Maryam Jan. I’m a 12th grade student. I live in Kabul. We lost many things after the fall of Kabul: our freedom, our independence, our dreams, our goals, our hopes. I’m so shocked how everything we worked for vanished in one night. My heart aches for my people, my country and for Afghan girls and women. For me, living without my dreams and goals is like a body with a dead soul. But this is not the end. I won’t be silent. I will work even harder for my dreams because I’m an Afghan girl and I’m strong. I will either achieve my goals or die fighting for them.”

[Music fades]

Narration: Several years ago, when Maryam was in middle school, she started a nonprofit called Educate a Child for Change, or ECCO . Its mission is to provide educational opportunities for children in developing countries.

Recently, ECCO started a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for sanitary products for women and diapers for their babies who have been displaced from their homes in Afghanistan. Already, they have raised more than $19,000, and her team on the ground in Afghanistan has begun purchasing and distributing products. This fall, she plans to register ECCO as a student organization at Berkeley.

Maryam has also been working with the Afghan Student Association at UC Berkeley to organize protests across the country. On Aug. 28, the group joined more than 40 cities and 16 countries around the globe in a “World Day of Protest for Afghan Lives.”

[ Audio clip from KRON 4 video : Crowd chants “Save save Afghanistan.” Person says into a loudspeaker: “Fathers are claiming their daughters as their own wives just so they aren’t taken away by the Taliban. Yet the world is silent and my question is: Why?”]

Anne Brice: On Aug. 30, the U.S. fully withdrew its troops from Afghanistan and stopped its emergency evacuation effort. And while you have said that life over the past 20 years was better for people in the country than when the Taliban was in control, Afghans still lived through a lot of violence every day, like you talked about. And so, I’m curious what you think needs to happen for Afghanistan to have peace?

Maryam Karimi: First of all, I want to say that the U.S. withdrawal and evacuation was done extremely irresponsibly. It ended up taking so many lives and caused extreme chaos that could have otherwise been avoided with better management.

I know that I’m raising awareness in the United States, but I strongly disagree with yet another U.S. intervention in Afghanistan or another U.S. occupation. It is important to consider that things could not be left the same as they were in Afghanistan. People were dying every day. Maternity hospitals were attacked. Thousands of kids were killed in schools. And all of this was happening when the previous government was in power and the U.S. forces were present.

[Music: “Slate Tracker” by Blue Dot Sessions ]

This generation of Afghanistan is different from 20 years ago or 30 years ago. This generation has tasted a bit of freedom and I don’t think they will give up easily. You know, there might be some influencers and journalists in the media that we see… they left out of fear for their lives.

But there are millions of other motivated and strong individuals like them that are still in Afghanistan — people that many of us may not know yet, and they will rise. Eventually all women, men, girls and boys — they will come out of their houses.

I know they will not rest because the fire of revolution and freedom is lit in their hearts. And with a little breeze, it’s going to burn brighter than ever before.

I personally believe in no one but the people of Afghanistan. They will be the ones who will end this war together. And they will come out of this. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a month, maybe in years, but they will.

Anne Brice: Maryam, thank you for joining me on Berkeley Voices.

Maryam Karimi: Thank you for having me today.

If I could leave you with one message today, that would be these verses of poetry by Saadi Shīrāzī:

[Maryam reads a poem in Persian, then translates it into English]

Human beings are members of a whole

In creation of one essence and soul

If one member is afflicted with pain

Other members uneasy will remain

If you have no sympathy for human pain

The name of human you cannot retain

Listen to other Berkeley Voices episodes: