We first connected with Sosan Amiri in 2019, when she enrolled in the six-credit Humanity in Perspective (HIP) class. What began as a way to learn and practice English became a supportive community where Sosan explored social movements and reflected on historic and present-day struggles for liberation throughout the US. Since then, she has completed two HIP courses and also encouraged two of her sisters to enroll in the class.
Last year, following the withdrawal of US military from her home country of Afghanistan, Sosan immediately began advocating for the evacuation of her family and hundreds of other Afghans with SIV (Special Immigration Visa) status. Her actions led her to Washington D.C., where she was invited in December 2021 to speak in front of lawmakers and military personnel about her experience and perspective as an Afghan American.
Sosan recently talked with lead HIP instructor and program manager Rozzell Medina about the events of last year—and about power, justice, and community—for a special episode of our podcast, The Detour. Today, we’re sharing excerpts from their conversation, edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Rozzell Medina: When you took your first class with me, I remember you told me that you wanted to take the class because you wanted to improve your English and because you wanted to understand our culture better. 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 Amiri: I came to the United States in 2011, and I couldn't speak English. Before, I was in Russia. I was looking for a better life and education, but in Russia, [it was fearful] for the refugees, especially those who have a different color. We were afraid of the police, and they’d stop us and take money from us. And I had the same problem and the same things in my mind, even when I came to the United States, and because of that, one year I was home, I remember, and I didn't go out. I was afraid, especially [about] the language. I didn’t know what to do. I went to the doctor's office, and I came home. I didn't know anybody. No organization, nothing.
[When] I had my second child in the United States, I felt I needed to learn English. And I went to community college and, you know, the community college has big classes with a lot of students. I had good and bad experiences, but I didn't learn very good English. And then when I heard about Humanity in Perspective with a lot of reading, I felt like, oh, this is the right class for me.
It really improved my language, especially the separate class we had together and you helped us, me and my two sisters, to learn English. It has helped me a lot. My first goal was to learn English better. And then, also at the same time [know the culture better.]
I learned so much from Humanity in Perspective and the different instructors. I didn't [know much] about African Americans in the United States, what really was their history and how they finally achieved their rights. Right now as a refugee, as a Muslim, I can live in the United States with peace and rights [because of the people who fought for their rights.]
Rozzell: In the first HIP class you took, we learned about art and philosophy. We read Martin Luther King, Jr.'s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and learned about artists who do work in their community. 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.
Rozzell: [For] 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 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 about what your one-person protest was about?
Sosan: Yes, of course. Because of that, I talked about justice, and it made me think more deeply.
Those people [civil rights activists], I really appreciate the things they did. Because of those people, right now, I have a right to talk and to fight for my rights, you know? My one-person protest was about the abuse of power. And right now, when I said that justice is not really in the United States, because who has power always wants to do something to keep that power. My one-person protest was in the mall, and I took my writing and my sign and there were a few people that came and read it, and they showed me like this, good, good!
Rozzell: So I want to talk about what happened last year. Could you talk about what your experience was like when you found out that the US was drawing military out of Afghanistan, and what that time was like for you?
Sosan: When I did my protest on the abuse of power, [it made me] see a bigger angle—how the government is trying to ignore the people, you know, the ordinary people who want to have a good life. When [the Taliban] occupied my country for a second time, it made me think very deeply, what is going on in this world?
I'm originally from Afghanistan, and my family lives in Afghanistan. My father has been fighting for many years for women's rights, and he is very educated, and [I wondered] what would happen to him. Because I know the Taliban has killed a lot of people before. And my father had to hide—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 my siblings, my nephew, my neighbor’s child to experience what I had. And then I thought [about] what to do, and I started to contact the senators—even [President] Joe Biden, and the people who really have the power—to make them do something, as much as I could.
I couldn't sleep one night, and that night I tried to find the connection with Joe Biden, to contact him. I wrote about myself: I am Sosan Amiri, I am from Afghanistan originally, and 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 for my family. I wrote all of these things, and I said, what do you think? And please do something.
And then I sent it, and he didn’t answer. And I re-sent it and re-sent it, and he did not answer. Then I tried to contact the senator, all the senators in the United States. I sent my email to, I think, twenty or thirty senators.
Rozzell: Did you ever get a response from anyone?
Sosan: After a few days, Senator Dan Crenshaw’s office contacted me and asked me to send my family’s passports and [proof of] my citizenship. I was really, really happy. And my sister had never applied for a passport, and she didn't have it. And then five of my family [members], they had passports, and I sent them with my citizenship and another form. And I filled out that form. And then they said, okay, we will evacuate your parents from Afghanistan. And finally they did.
You know, at the time, when the Taliban occupied Afghanistan, we thought it was just a dream. Nobody believed it. And the sleep immediately disappeared.
For two days, two nights and more than twenty-four hours, I didn't sleep. I felt like, you know, when you are in a room, and the room is full of water, and you see the outside is clear, and you can breathe, and you can be calm, but you can't go outside. You can, but you can't. And I was in that situation with my whole family .
Rozzell: So, after Dan Crenshaw’s office contacted you, you went through this process to have 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 people in Afghanistan as well. So what did you do?
Sosan: Yeah, before there was any news that the Taliban would occupy Afghanistan, one of my cousins applied for an SIV visa, which is a special visa for Afghan people who work with the US government and military. And he applied for the visa in 2015. The embassy rejected him, and then another friend contacted me about what to do. And I thought, okay, when I'm receiving all of this help from the people who are fighting for me, there is a position for me to do something. And the protests I did [on the abuse of power] and the writing and the reading I did and the talking we did together, it gave me the power [to think], Oh, I am someone to do something. And then I wrote an email to Senator Wyden and said I wanted to be an advocate for Afghan SIV, and they sent me an email asking for documents. And I said, I don't have any kind of documents, but I want to be a voice for them. And I sent all their messages to the Senator, and then they started to help me.
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 with others [on Facebook], and we couldn't sleep. We helped them. At the same time, after two or three weeks, I received an email from Congress inviting me to come and talk about [what I did].
Rozzell: Can you talk a little bit about what you did to prepare for that? And what the experience was like for you?
Sosan: 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 a hard time. Some of them even messaged me: We can't go outside to buy something, we are afraid they will take us and they will kill us. And even, you know, at the time of the Taliban, a woman can't go outside without a man—her husband, father, or brother. One of these three things should be with the woman. And I was struggling with that group and also with the speech I had with Congress. And when I went to the Congress that night, I could not believe it. There were a lot of people. I had always wished to say my thoughts and my dream with the people who really have power, because at the time when I wrote my one person protest, I didn’t think about how one day I’d go in front of the people in power, to talk about the abuse of power.
Rozzell: I loved hearing you talk about how suddenly you realized, Oh, I am someone who can do something. It's not going to come from somewhere else. It's going to come from me.
Is there something that helped you, not only to feel that way, but to be guided by those feelings?
Sosan: When I look at my childhood during the Taliban time, I was five years old. The Taliban occupied Afghanistan, and we went to Pakistan and then with a different name and a different area. We went because it wasn’t very hard to live in Pakistan.
And then we came back to Afghanistan, and my father helped to have a secret school during the Taliban time. I learned how to read and write and a little bit of science, but still, I had a really hard time.
From 2011 until 2016. I really couldn't speak good English. I was like a housewife. And when I went out to learn more English and I met you, I learned so much from Humanity in Perspective. Without asking me to pay or something, you spent many hours helping me with my writing and my language, and also for my sisters. And this has made me [believe], if I received this kind of help, I have to be something like him to help the community.
I made a class right now, that I’m teaching, in Persian, for thirty Afghanistan children. And I'm paying for one [other] teacher for the class. I am sending videos for them to learn the bigger knowledge, because in Afghanistan, everything is closed for them. Even the teacher is not very knowledgeable, and because they are learning more traditionally, I'm teaching them to look at the world and build their knowledge.
And these children, when they grow up, they will have a family, and then those people will have another few children. And then at least those people will have the knowledge to see the world with a bigger view.
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