Afghan Community of Maine elects growing number of women to leadership roles
For Shamayel Kargar, her path to U.S. began in the mid-1980s, when she and her husband fled Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion.
They now live in Falmouth, and earlier this fall Kargar was elected president of the Afghan Community of Maine. She is the first woman to lead the group, and was one of six women elected to the 12-person board of directors.
She said achieving gender parity on the board was a big step.
"So now they see that the women can do the same as men [do]. So this is a great change for my people. And I'm very proud of them," she said.
But Kargar said it’s also a bitter contrast with the ongoing suffering of women still in Afghanistan.
"When I think about my people, and women in Afghanistan, it makes me really great amount of depressed and anxiety to see what they go through every day," she said.
Since retaking power last year, the Taliban has “systemically excluded women and girls from public life,” according to the United Nations, restricting women’s movement, banning girls from attending school past 6th grade, and barring women from working most jobs, among other restrictions.
The Taliban has also cracked down violently on protests against the regime, as documented in international media reports, including one from France24 showing Taliban fighters shooting into the air to disrupt a group of women protesting in Kabul last August.
All this is taking place against the backdrop of an economic crisis that is pushing millions of people into hunger.
Since the U.S. withdrawal from the country, about 240 Afghan refugees have arrived in Maine, roughly doubling the size of the existing community here.
To assist the new arrivals, many longtime Afghan residents formed the Afghan Community of Maine as an official nonprofit in 2021.
"And so we want to aid in their adjustment, you know, to America, and to provide a sense of community because they've been through a lot," said Labina Faizizada, a chemist at Abbott Laboratories and a newly-elected Afghan Community board member.
Faizizada's parents are from Afghanistan, and she was born and raised in the Portland area.
As someone who was raised in both American and Afghan culture, she said much of her work with the board involves bridging that gap for newly arrived Afghan women, explaining everything from debit cards to student loans.
"They have to start over from the beginning," Faizizada said. "And it's really difficult to navigate that when you don't really know how the systems are here. So for me, my goal is to really help the women achieve their goals and to also help the kids as well."
Rona Sayed, another board member, joined the organization when it launched in 2021. As the community itself has grown, Sayed said the aims of the community association have grown as well. Now, they’re raising money to support language and job training programs.
"We're looking for more cultural integration programs, English language programs, and helping women who have job skills be able to work in Maine and be able to, at the same time, care for their families," she said.
Sayed, who works as a constituent services representative for Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, said other top needs include housing and transportation.
Community president Shamayel Kargar is able to provide some help on the housing question. Kargar is a landlord and opened up some of her properties to newly arrived families.
Kargar said it feels good to be serving her community alongside other Afghan women.
But as someone who fled Afghanistan decades ago during a different war, she said it’s hard to wrap her head around the continued cycles of violence that are forcing another generation of Afghans to seek refuge abroad.
"Now, after 33 years that I live in United States, I'm still trying to help people to get out of their country," she said. "I mean, come on."
For now, she said she hopes newly-arrived Afghan women can adapt after abruptly losing their homeland.
"They lost that country. Hopefully, here, they become strong, they become educated, they be working and serving their community and their city," Kargar said.
And, she said, she hopes they are able to find a measure of peace and comfort.