Afghans can be of many ethnicities, including Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek. The majority of Afghanistan's citizens are rural, but urbanization is slowly increasing. Despite untapped natural resources, it is one of the world's poorest nations with the average income only $900 per year. In recent years, over 30% of citizens have been unemployed. Due to the recent wars, Canada has become the home of many Afghan refugees.
Many Canadians had scarcely heard of Afghanistan until the most recent war, but Afghanistan has been of historic significance for thousands of years. It sits at the crossroads of south, central, and western Asia. Look carefully at the map and you can see that it is a trade epicenter and route connecting the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, and China. It is 41st in the world in terms of size at 647, 500 square kilometers. Its population is smaller than Canada's at 29 million, but it has long been fought over by surrounding and distant nations. Despite numerous attempts, even by Alexander the Great, Britain, the Soviet Union and the Taliban, the Afghani people have remained fiercely independent. Afghanistan is land-locked and mountainous with hot summers and cold winters.
Religion and Government
Afghanistan has been governed by a variety of governments: Islamic and Communist. Attempts at progressive laws have often been met by resistance by strictly Islamic tribal leaders. Afghanistan has endured centuries of political upheaval. Corruption and bribery are considered a problem. Military action, Taliban insurgents, and drug gangs make life in Afghanistan particularly dangerous.
Ninety-nine percent of Afghans are Muslim with the majority belonging to the Sunni sect of Islam. Other individuals follow Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity among other religions. There are many tribes in Afghanistan, and there have been ongoing tribal conflicts for generations. Personal honor, tribe loyalty, and a willingness to fight for beliefs has made Afghanistan impossible for other nations to conquer. The country has an ancient (500 BCE) and complex history often passed on in poetry and oral stories. Due to the most recent 1991 - Present war, many refugees and immigrants have come to Canada with their families to start a new life.
Afghans celebrate two religious holidays called Eid ul Fatar, and Eid ul Adha as well as a cultural festival called Nawrooz (first day of spring). They spend these events with family and friends.
Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic nation with Dari and Pashto (languages from the Iranian family) being the most common. Dari and Pashto both come from the Iranian family of languages.
Social Interaction and Values
Whereas Canadians often say, "How are you?" without expecting an honest response, Afghani culture requires a more detailed exchange of pleasantries and information. Be sure to inquire after your friend's health and family. In English-speaking Canada it's okay to say "hi" and keep walking when you encounter a colleague at college, but Afghani students have told me they value stopping and chatting for at least a minute to reaffirm the connection.
Most likely men will not shake hands with or touch unrelated women and vice versa.
In Afghani culture, it is rude to refuse anyone's request outright or to directly blame anyone. It is also very bad behavior to speak badly about anyone in your own circle or family.
For Afghans, dinner is usually later in the evening than most Canadians eat and it is a prolonged meal. Sharing food is a very important part of Afghani culture and meals are often served in a group setting on a tablecloth spread out on the floor. Everyone sits around eating from communal dishes using the fingers of their right hand as a scoop. If you get a chance to share an Afghan meal, don't be shy about eating lots as this is welcomed. When you are full, leave something on your plate or you will keep getting offered more. Usually guests leave after the dishes are cleared unlike in English Canadian homes where the dinner is eaten quickly, and the visiting continues afterwards. If you invite an Afghan friend to your house, serve several dishes or he/she may be surprised at your lack of food. An Afghani student once exclaimed that he had expected to be amazed by the food variety in rich Canada but ended up feeling sorry for the lack of variety and volume.
Meat is only eaten if it has been slaughtered according to Islamic law (Halal). Pork is never eaten, as it is forbidden (Haraam). Alcohol is forbidden but may be consumed by some - ask first.
Family is of incredible importance to Afghan culture. If you ask Afghani parents why they moved to Canada, the majority will answer "because of my kids and their education." Afghans may be quite shocked at the way some young Canadians criticize their parents and complain about restrictions. Be gentle in commenting negatively on any strictures your new friends from Afghanistan mention as maintaining family dignity is important. Families often live in extended groupings of several generations. Afghans have immigrated to Canada at various times over the past decades. Some have lived here for much of their lives and some are very new to this culture. Afghan-Canadians have adopted different ways of integrating. The generation gap can be very visible especially when it comes to difference in opinion on and use of technology. While some newcomers from Afghanistan are struggling, most have found a healthy balance between adaptation and keeping their ethnic and cultural identity. Nevertheless, it is important to be sensitive to religious dictates and cultural customs.
Women cover the head with a scarf and show as little skin as possible from the neck down. Under Taliban rule, most women wore the full burqa and niqab (face veil), and the education of women, beyond reading the Muslim Holy Book, "the Koran", was forbidden. Many Afghani women in Canada wear modest western clothes but sometimes also wear a hijab or a scarf. Hijab is a covering that covers the entire body, while a scarf covers just the hair. You will find a wide interpretation of what dressing modestly means in Islam just as one finds in Christianity and Judaism.
Sports and music are highly regarded and many Afghan-Canadians have become fond of watching hockey.
Afghanistan has a long history of valuing education, but with the last 20 years of war, many Afghani refugees and immigrants have had disrupted educational histories and have had to develop literacy skills, as well as learn English, before coming to college.
Take the time to chat with a student from Afghanistan and learn something about world history, determination to succeed, and how lucky we are in Canada to take education for granted.
There are two active Afghani student associations in the area. On Facebook, you can find the Conestoga Afghan Student Association and ASAW (Afghan Student Association in Waterloo).