The local chapter of National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) is preparing welcome baskets for Afghan families about to arrive in Metro Atlanta. Because this organization has a long history and strong commitment to the resettlement of immigrants, as well as a true desire for a deeper understanding of and sensitivity to their needs, NCJW engaged with the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta (ISB) to provide volunteers with background information about Afghanistan and promote cultural sensitivity.
I already knew a fair amount about Afghan history and geography and, having lived with an Afghan family in Israel 35 years ago, I was familiar with the resilience and work-ethic of Afghan immigrants. Still, I learned so much at the online training workshop. For example, I knew Farsi was the predominant language of Afghanistan but I didn’t realize it differs from the Farsi spoken by Iranians. While I was familiar with the celebration of Nowruz, the Iranian or Persian New Year, I was delighted to learn that the Blue Mosque (located in Mazar, Afghanistan) is the site where many pilgrims celebrate this festival.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me was learning how to refer to our new neighbors. A person who is a citizen of Afghanistan is called an Afghan. Afghan functions as the proper noun and the adjective. Afghani is the currency of Afghanistan; this is also a proper noun. Obviously, saying Afghan families is preferable to saying Afghan refugees.
Knowing the correct terminology may seem utterly basic, but I’d argue it’s fundamentally important. Showing respect for another person and recognizing their inherent humanity, which transcends their current circumstances, is essential. We greet our new neighbors as equals.
I have long struggled with the ideological and liturgical assertion that God chose the Jewish people from among all the nations, mi kol ha-‘amim. Recently, I learned how easy it is to switch the preposition “from” to “with.” God chose us im kol ha-‘amim, along with all the nations. Loving our new neighbors as ourselves begins with an attention to the language we use to communicate our love and respect.
We’re eager to welcome several hundred Afghan families to their new homes in the coming months. We’re hoping that by forging friendships and getting to know each other, by affirming our shared values—the importance of family, education, and Afghan/Jewish/Southern hospitality—Atlanta will soon begin to feel like home.