Arzo Wardak’s name is familiar to many Afghans in the diaspora. She is a fierce advocate for Afghanistan and a tireless aid worker – who works for increased rights and opportunities for refugees. Arzo splits her time between the United States of America and refugee camps in Greece and France, where she works with Reed Smith Refugee Protection Team and Safe Passage UK to improve living conditions and resolve applications for asylum for marginalized refugees. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Arzo about what drives her work for social justice.
You are known for your work with refugees, lobbying for social justice and reform, bringing the community together for worthwhile causes, and so much more. Recently, you organized an event called “Bars and Borders” to raise funds for refugees in Greece. Please tell us more about this initiative.
I was working in refugee camps when the travel bans against refugees took place. It was a very difficult time for me. I was surrounded by some of the most vulnerable refugees in Greece: survivors of rape, gender-based violence and torture, and unaccompanied children, widows, and the elderly. I could not comprehend how we could implement a policy that barred one of the most destitute populations of the world. It all became very personal to me. I strongly believed that the proposal for policies such as the immigration ban barring refugees and the proposed border wall with our foreign allies only compromised America’s humanitarian values all in the pursuit of temporary security. And it was that rude awakening that bred Bars and Borders.
Through the event, we shared stories of refugees to help humanize the refugee crisis and change the flawed dominant narrative. We needed a strong platform to do this, so I assembled an incredible team and we began planning a benefit show. With our show, we brought together celebrity artists, their fans, and community leaders to collaborate and ensure awareness, resources, and opportunities remain for refugees stuck in transit.
The success of this benefit show was beyond what our team and I ever imagined. We witnessed members of the audience becoming a new generation of activists and supporters for the refugee crisis right before our eyes and we realized our work could not just end there. I am very proud to announce that Bars and Borders will continue to host more benefit events. Ultimately, we hope to serve as a platform for agents of change, socially conscious music artists, and community groups dedicated to serving critical causes.
Your persistence is admirable. What inspires you?
Although there are many people who have inspired me along the way, my earliest source of inspiration comes from my father, a man who proudly calls himself a feminist. He has always been such a positive source of energy and encouragement. Seldom will you find him with a frown on his face. From Afghanistan to the States – he’s always been a natural activist, finding himself in organized protests and marches. Ever since I could remember, he’d bring home books and newspaper articles for me to read on relative topics. He instilled in me this passion and love for history, politics, and activism. It’s also important to note that his own journey to the US is what inspired my work with the refugees.
He left Afghanistan as a young, single man. After spending two years in a refugee camp in Austria, he was granted asylum in the United States where a Greek family sponsored him. Some years later, he married my mother and then I was born. I remember being a young child when so many different families would be at our home for months at a time. I used to believe these people were my real uncles, aunts and cousins. It wasn’t until several years later when I learned those Afghan families were actually refugees and we were temporarily housing them until they could start their lives all over again. Now the world is witnessing another refugee crisis taking place in Europe with Greece bearing much of the responsibility. And one of my biggest supporters to travel there and offer assistance was my very own father.
Is there a memory that stuck with you the most while working with refugees?
It was the day when I was able to help a very vulnerable family and their children move out of a refugee camp, which was actually a former prison. Just the day prior, their mother wanted to commit suicide. She had lost nearly all hope, but I didn’t want to give up. Every morning for a week, I’d go to the door of the office for the Director of the Greek Asylum Services (GAS). I’d get publicly berated and yelled out, sometimes even told I’d lose my access to the camp. Looking back, it wasn’t the smartest thing for me to do because I was overstepping my boundaries, but it was that persistence that eventually led to some positive news. The Director was fed up with me and ultimately granted the family their papers for transfer to Athens.
I will never forget the moment when the mother came out of the gates and waved her new travel permit cards at me. She was smiling so big. Her 17-year-old daughter texted me later that day. She said that I was rightfully named “Arzoo,” which means hope in Dari, because I wouldn’t give up on them and that my efforts finally gave her family hope after a long time.
I always knew what my name meant but I never truly felt I lived up to it until that very moment. I realized then that my work was worthwhile. I find real purpose in serving refugees. There is no number of degrees I could earn, conferences, benefit shows or community events I can organize that can amount to what that very moment felt like for me.
What are some of the challenges and joys you have faced in your work thus far?
The challenge is always saying goodbye. It’s one of the hardest things for me to do. When it’s time to return home from my trips to Greece, it’s usually too late. I’ve gotten way too attached to many of the refugees at that point. There’s this sense of responsibility that you carry with you. I spent a lot of time wondering if I will ever see them again. It’s a very painful question I face each time.
Returning to my home in the United States becomes a bigger challenge for me. Life in the refugee camps and my life in the States are just so dramatically different. I always feel an overwhelming sense of guilt and sadness when moving between these two worlds. I constantly ask myself why I get to have the choice of leaving those camps and jumping on the plane to return to my comfortable home, while they’re living in the most deplorable conditions. It is a reality that is hard for me to swallow
However, there is also a lot of joy in giving back to the world. The joys come when I am with refugee children. They melt my heart each and every time. They’re filled with pure innocence and light. I also feel joyful when I am able to instill some hope in their parents. Many refugees have witnessed the worst of the worst. They’ve lost all faith in the system and by the time I meet them, they’ve endured unimaginable misery that many of us could never fathom. Seeing light in their eyes again is what keeps me going back. It proves to me that I’m not being useless and that I’m actually making a change there. This is very important for me. What we – as aid workers – set into motion for them today, sets the foundation for them tomorrow. I’d like to believe that is what I’m doing when I’m working there.
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