When divergent cultures create discomfort

New neighbors from Afghanistan bring with them cultural differences that we must accept — even as it may be difficult for some of us to do so

BRATTLEBORO — I am a second-generation American. My grandparents were immigrants. They came from eastern Europe to escape the pogroms and persecution that Jews faced. I often wonder what it was like for them when they arrived in this country. I never did ask them about their experiences.

I am thinking about this now because I am experiencing immigration from the perspective of someone welcoming new immigrants to this country.

Brattleboro, Vermont has become the home to about 100 people from Afghanistan. They have escaped the prospect of constant violence and painful lives to become citizens of a new country.

Our community has worked hard to help the Afghans adjust to their new home. I am surprised to realize that the adjustment can be difficult for the local people as well as the newcomers.

* * *

I was part of a support group for an Afghan family but felt that I had to move away from that role. I have a lot of conflicted feelings about doing that, and I hope that those feelings will evolve in the near future.

When I first started helping the family, I attended training sessions and did some reading about the culture of the Afghans. Although I was reading about the issues they have dealt with all of their lives, I did not translate that information into how they might behave once they settled into their new homes.

Afghanistan culture does not support equality of the sexes. Men dominate their wives. It is clear that the women must stay in the background. That is a cultural difference that we must accept of our new neighbors, and it may be difficult for some of us to witness that kind of behavior.

Also, the political world they come from is immersed in bribery and abuses of power. Nothing gets done in Afghanistan without the approval of those who control a corrupt system on every level.

Many, if not all, of the Afghans who have come to Brattleboro are devout Muslims. Our community has welcomed their religious practice, and there is now a small mosque with an Imam where the men can pray.

* * *

Brattleboro-area people have donated all kinds of food and items so that the Afghan families can establish homes here. The School for International Training provided temporary housing and a foundation of support when the Afghans arrived and continues to do what it can to support this new community.

Local churches and nonprofits have refocused some of their energy to support Afghan families and one group in particular has waded through federal and state bureaucracies to provide the new arrivals with health insurance and the documents necessary to move toward a path to citizenship. English classes are available to anyone who wishes to attend.

Afghan children are attending local schools and they are learning how to be a part of American baseball and soccer. Children seem to adjust better than adults in the short term, and local support groups are acting as surrogate parents, taking the kids to practice and games.

* * *

But any transition can be difficult, and as the Afghans families become local residents there will always be bumps in the road. This raises the painful questions that relate to assimilation and adjustment.

There should be a give and take as local residents and newcomers adjust to each other. How much should we be willing to accept as cultural difference, and where do we draw the line on feeling disrespected and taken for granted?

Those are difficult questions, and I do not have answers. I believe we must support our new neighbors and allow them to enrich our culture with theirs. The adjustment for all of us may be difficult for a time.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates