Afghan BackgrounderDOWNLOAD FULL PDF
This backgrounder contains historical, political, and cultural information intended to cultivate a general understanding of Afghans who are arriving to the U.S. The ongoing crisis in Afghanistan is complex and spans decades. CORE produced this backgrounder to aid U.S. Resettlement Agencies (RAs) and their local affiliates to provide culturally appropriate Cultural Orientation (CO) and other services to newly arrived Afghans. The information provided is intended as guidance and does not represent the needs and challenges of all Afghans. As such, resettlement staff are encouraged to adapt their services as appropriate. Download the Full PDF version of the Afghan Backgrounder for additional details and information not included on this page.
This page was last updated March 22, 2022.
Languages and Interethnic Considerations
Afghanistan is a diverse country. There are more than 19 different ethnic groups that each have distinct histories and rich cultures. Ethnic affiliation can be a significant organizing principle in parts of rural Afghan society. According to the language factsheet by the Words of Relief published by Save the Children, there are 35 languages spoken in Afghanistan. Dari and Pashto are the two primary languages spoken. Pashto and Dari languages belong to the Indo-European group of languages, and they share common features with the Aryan languages.
Photo Credit: Andrew Quilty/IRC
Interethnic conflict in Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora exists. This conflict is due to political, economic, sectarian, and religious affiliations. However, tension among certain groups such as Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks escalated following the 1979 Soviet invasion.
The most intense ethnic tension exists between the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and non-Pashtuns such as Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. After the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the tension and rivalry between the Taliban, whose majority members are Pashtun, and non-Pashtun ethnic groups have intensified. Currently (2021), the Taliban refrain from committing overt ethnically targeted attacks; however, minority ethnic groups are often the victims of violence carried out by the militant group.
Photo Credit: Stefanie Glinski/IRC
These interethnic tensions do not disappear upon leaving Afghanistan. However, they differ in that ethnic tensions are rarely physically violent in the United States. These ethnic tensions instead influence how Afghans form ethnic communities in the United States and enforce boundaries between one another. These boundaries can be harmless (e.g., Afghan newcomers feeling more comfortable with co-ethnics based on a shared language and culture) or they can be harmful (e.g., open discrimination between newcomers and resettlement staff or interpreters from different ethnic backgrounds).
To ameliorate tensions, service providers should be familiar with how these interethnic tensions operate both in Afghanistan and upon resettlement. It is vital to establish clear policies and guidelines for resettlement staff, volunteers, and interpreters to ensure that there is no opportunity for discrimination.
Photo Credit: Andrew Obserstadt/IRC
Delivery of Cultural Orientation
In this section, learn more about effectively delivering key Cultural Orientation messages when working with Afghan refugees. Download the Full PDF version of the Afghan Backgrounder for a more detailed and contextualized information on these topics and other information.
For Afghans, aspects of life in the U.S. may be new and present challenges in their cultural adjustment. In some Afghan communities, men expect their wives to stay home and continue to do their job as they did back before. On the other hand, some women want to exercise their rights, enjoy their freedom, and participate actively in society, creating confusion and tension. Furthermore, Afghan refugees may have never interacted with people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds other than those from their own country.
- Be aware of the history of Afghanistan, the current events that led to their displacement, and their basic values and cultural practices.
- Build trust and create an open dialogue around possible challenges related to differences in social and family life in the United States. To do this, use active listening and give space for Afghans to share their perspectives.
- Practice patience and be mindful of different communication styles. It will take some time before Afghans feel comfortable in their new environment and acclimate to the norms and customs of the United States.
- Include diversity and inclusion activities during Cultural Orientation (See CORE’s Cultural Adjustment Activity Bank for ideas) and ask Afghans how these concepts may affect them. These sessions should be a safe space for refugees to explore themes of culture, identity, and preconceptions without fear of judgement.
The education system in Afghanistan has had its ups and downs. Most Afghans, especially in rural and tribal areas, are illiterate and lack basic reading and writing skills. Furthermore, not all Afghans have learned from the same curriculum. Additionally, parent engagement is uncommon in Afghanistan. Afghan parents believe that schools and teachers know what is best for their children. Thus, they do not question school administration or teachers’ decisions about their children’s education. Finally, some children may have experienced the struggle to survive and may show evidence of post-traumatic stress.
- Orient parents around expectations for supporting their children at school using CORE’s Lesson Plan: Supporting Your Child in School.
- Build trust through different touchpoints, such as one-on-one meetings and Cultural Orientation sessions to reinforce messaging on the U.S. education system and roles and responsibilities of parents.
- Engage community partners or guest speakers, including valued community members or teachers from the school, as a part of Cultural Orientation. These individuals can serve as another entry point to educate parents and create an exchange with Afghan families.
- Prepare to answer questions about higher education and discuss the need to balance work with educational goals.
Afghans enter the United States with varying skills and work experience, from holding government positions to non-formal work experience inside the home. The mindset that stigma is attached to specific jobs and expectations of obtaining jobs aligned with their experience may pose challenges in accepting the first available job. In addition, some Afghan newcomers may not want to work in places that serve alcohol or pork due to their Islamic beliefs.
- Listen to the individual carefully and learn about their experience, qualifications, and goals. Acknowledge the individual’s work experience and qualifications and explain how the job market works in the United States without discouraging them.
- Use a strengths-based approach and discuss what skills individuals may have that are transferable to a job in the U.S. However, also set clear goals, expectations, and timelines, including identifying the types of jobs and planning to address barriers to employment (e.g., childcare, transportation, and language).
- Facilitate an open and honest dialog on traditional gender roles in the context of employment and emphasize the need for all employable adults to work to achieve self-sufficiency. The creation of and reference to a resettlement plan and budget will assist in understanding the importance for all employable adults to work to achieve self-sufficiency.
- Identify jobs that Afghans, especially women, feel comfortable doing. As Muslims, Afghan women may not want to work in an environment where they interact with a majority male workforce. Be sure to consider working hours and the distance between home and work. When possible, avoid night shifts and locations that require extended travel alone.
Poverty and lack of access to the adequate health care system and medical services in Afghanistan have harmed preventative care for many Afghans. Specific topics may create discomfort or are considered taboo to Afghans. For example, seeking mental health services may be perceived as shameful. At the same time, the resettlement process from flight to post-migration may result in depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
In response to these health concerns, consider the following tips:
- Educate individuals on what they might encounter as they seek out healthcare options, including the possibility that they might not receive treatment from someone of the same ethnicity or culture as themselves. However, individuals should have a health provider of the same gender when possible. When this is not feasible, ensure that care providers are made aware of the individual’s cultural and religious background.
- Given the lack of familiarity with health services in the U.S., be prepared to provide Afghan families with more support in understanding the complex U.S. healthcare system. Some RAs have used healthcare navigators or volunteers to accompany Afghan newcomers to appointments or the pharmacy and assist in understanding health insurance and medical bills.
- Demystify and destigmatize mental health services when discussing health and cultural adjustment. For example, asking interpreters to replace the term “mental health” with “emotional health” or “services to address emotional well-being” and replacing “therapy” with “counseling” may also be helpful. Partnering with a local mental health service provider could assist with training resettlement staff on destigmatizing mental health and linking Afghan clients to needed services.
Afghan families may prefer to live alone but closer to their extended families or in a community where they can interact with other Afghans or Muslims. Many new arrivals may have high expectations for their new living situations and may hope for a larger home, not an apartment. Additionally, Afghans may be reluctant to use previously used items, such as furniture, because it may reflect a loss of status; or feel the used materials are unclean.
- Discuss household maintenance, including clearly outlining which upkeep and repair responsibilities belong to the occupant and which fall to the landlord.
- Practice or demonstrate the use of appliances and utilities that may be new to individuals, such as using gas stoves. Plumbing and drainage systems in the United States are also different, so review steps to avoid clogging toilets or kitchen sinks.
- Review tenant rights and responsibilities and the concept of a lease based on the U.S. context, including the importance of background checks, security deposits, and establishing positive rental history.
- Include community guests from banks or other trusted financial institutions to discuss pathways to homeownership and help Afghans identify realistic goals and timelines.
Afghan refugees may have misconceptions about the U.S. resettlement process and its refugee-specific forms of assistance. These expectations may rely on the United States’ stereotypes in films, books, and social media outlets. They might expect items like a house and a car and not to struggle in the way they did in Afghanistan.
- Facilitate an open and honest conversation regarding the role of resettlement agencies, including what services exist or do not exist as a part of initial resettlement.
- Emphasize that while resettlement agencies will support them in their transition, they must also consider that their integration into the host community will rely heavily on their participation and initiative.
- When possible and relevant, refer Afghan refugees to Afghan-led community organizations. These organizations will provide them with a network of individuals that could assist them with finding work, facilitating their social and cultural integration, and offering them an opportunity to form relationships with other Afghan refugees and Afghan Americans.
Afghanistan’s legal system has undergone many changes in the past few decades. While the previous administration did its best to establish a rule of law and a legal system capable of guaranteeing fundamental rights, many of these laws were either not enforced, or courts instead applied Islamic laws rather than the provisions of its constitution. Additionally, many of Afghanistan’s citizens often refuse to seek help from law enforcement and the courts based on their knowledge of police corruption, inaction, or believing that certain events (e.g., domestic abuse) are familial matters and not for discussion outside of the home.
- Provide a clear explanation of the American legal system, including emphasizing the responsibility for each individual to know the laws. Explain directly that any violations of this law might have legal consequences, such as jail, fines, or deportation, and can negatively impact their immigration status.
- Encourage cooperation between Afghans and law enforcement. Cooperation will take effort on both ends; Afghans must be willing to work with law enforcement, and law enforcement must take the steps necessary to understand their cultural background and way of living. Forging mutual trust and respect is essential. If possible, build partnerships with local law enforcement to participate in Cultural Orientation sessions as guest speakers.
- Establish respect and trust. If unsure of an answer related to U.S. laws, be transparent and identify trusted sources or community partners that can assist in finding the answers.
The following are additional resources that may assist resettlement staff in delivering Cultural Orientation.
- Cultural Orientation Objectives and Indicators
- Activity Bank (organized by CO topic, includes U.S. Laws and Parole Status)
- Settle In U.S. website(English and Dari)
- Cultural Orientation Videos (Dari and Pashto)
- How to Use Settle In Facebook with Afghan Arrivals
- Promising Practice: Delivering Gender-Segregated Cultural Orientation Sessions
- Promising Practice: Including Guests from the Community
- Settle In Facebook and App (Download on Apple or Google Play)
- NRC-RIM: COVID-19 Resources for Afghan New Arrivals
- Refugee Processing Center: Afghans Granted Humanitarian Parole
- Switchboard: A Round-up of Resources for Serving Afghan Evacuees
- Switchboard: Supporting Clients and Staff Affected by the Crisis in Afghanistan
- Switchboard: Who are the Afghan Newcomers?
- Switchboard: Toolkit Supporting Afghan Students in Schools and Youth Programs
- WRAPS: U.S. Refugee Admissions Program information for Afghan PY2, Iraqi and Syrian refugees, and SIV applicants in (English, Dari, and Pashto)
- U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants: Resources for Afghan Allies
- USCCB and CLINIC: Guide to Client Documentation and Benefits for Afghan Parolees
- BRYCS: Raising Children in a New Country: An Illustrated Handbook, Raising Teens in a New Country: A Guide for the Whole Family
- Minnesota Department of Health: Center of Excellence in Newcomer Health Website