Inspiration - An interview with Shamsia

One of the greatest things in life is finding inspiration. Whether that be in the form of people, nature, or anything in between. Inspiration is what drives us. I am fortunate enough to call Shamsia a good friend, having met her on the first day of my sophomore year of high school, being my roommate for a portion of my year. Shamsia is a year older than me (17) and is from Afghanistan.

Up until I met her, I have never met anyone from Afghanistan and didn't know much about the country. I have read about the conflict going on their, however, none of my information was first hand. Throughout the year I have been learning more and more about Afghanistan through her stories and personal experiences. Conversations about gender equality and war have always been key subjects that I'm interested in, and I am fortunate enough to have received insight into the country, through the lens of Shamsia. Being an advocate for inquisitive thinking and learning from others, I am so excited to share an interview I did with Shamsia. It was partially odd to label our conversation as an ‘interview’ as heavy topics have always been organic topics of conversation for us, however, I tried my best to interview her in the most natural way possible for us, (which included a lot of laughter), enjoy x

Shamsia is originally from Ghazni but resides in Kabul

 

ZG - "what do you believe is the biggest misconception about Afghanistan"?

S - “I believe that the biggest misconception is people believing that as a society, we are behind. In terms of education, mindset etc, I also think that people view us as violent people (as usually, Afghanistan is common in war discussion). I wish people would rather see how much we value our culture and people, instead of reading the headlines regarding terrorist attacks, and generalize the whole country in a conflict and war riddled one. There are many incredible people in Afghanistan advocating for peace, who need support. We should focus on people like this instead of all the negative stuff.

ZG - "Would you say women are generally viewed as less than men in Afghanistan"?

S - “Unfortunately, there are a lot of issues regarding women's rights at the moment back home. Women usually count as a second gender. The biggest problem is that women don't usually have access to basic rights that men have. The fact that the Taliban occupies 70% of Afghanistan really affects women. They don't have equal opportunities, mostly in regards to education.

ZG - Would you say that majority of girls your age (17) in Afghanistan attend schools?

S - “ Not really. Those who live in the city will usually attend a government school. It really depends on the family, however, it is highly likely that boys will receive an education over a girl”.


ZG - “in simple terms, how would you explain what's going on back home?

S - “There is a lot of conflict happening with the government. The Taliban and ISIS are also involved, prohibiting citizens from being more democratic. They do this through fear, bombing, shootings, kidnappings etc. I truly believe lack of education and support is a big problem. If every teenager had the same opportunity as adults and if every man and every woman had an equal opportunity I believe that we wouldn't face the majority of our problems. Very few girls like myself are lucky enough to study abroad.  

ZG - “ What are some things you are proud of in Afghanistan’?

S - “The greatest thing about back home is the people. Despite all the conflict, there are so many good people working towards the good. I see teenagers and parents working so hard, and I would say that's my biggest motivation. I believe that opportunity is something you create for yourself. With more security, I believe that people would have more opportunities.

ZG - “Is it common for people to leave Afghanistan and seek refuge in countries such as Greece?

S - “security is the main reason people leave. I don't see why people want to leave behind their homes, family, and culture behind. Leaving doesn't mean they aren't proud of where they come from. People usually leave for better security and to support their families and communities back home, by working in different countries with higher paying jobs.

ZG - Do you have a final closing message, something you want people out there to know?

S - “I am proud of being from Afghanistan, my message is that I know that the situation is so difficult and a lot of the time our voice isn't heard. The school shooting that unfortunately happened a few days ago in the US was worldwide news, however, I feel like people there are so many people being killed in other countries, and no one hears their voices. People should be more open to listening to what people have to say, especially what the refugees have to say. Generalizing a country and judging it by its news and stereotypes is also wrong. We should work with our communities for a more peaceful world, Afghanistan isn't a bad place we just need to be patient and positive for it to be a better place to be”.

 

Close of a day

 

Sunsets are often mother nature's most obnoxious display of talent. The opaque hues of tangerine and fuchsia painted across the sky have caused my neck to hurt from staring up for long periods of time. How could such a sight, such a universal symbol of beauty signifying the closure of a day, cause tears to well in someone's eyes?

For one survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb drop of 1945, the fiery crimson that covers the sky is nothing but a vivid reminder of the pain she had once endured. This piece is going to be about a Hibakusha (Japanese name for an atomic bomb survivor), and how certain sights such as ‘sunsets’ trigger her memory of the day the atomic bomb dropped on her hometown.

Emiko Okada is the teller of this story. She told this story with the help of a translator -

“You can never tell when things like this are bound to happen. It was just like always, where I would wake up, get dressed, and prepare for the day ahead of me. I was in high school at the time. I said bye to my mother, however, my father had already departed for work. I grabbed my younger sisters hand and left for school. As expected, my younger sister being significantly younger than me lingered far behind. I don't exactly remember what I felt or saw when the bomb dropped, however, I can recall straight after. I found myself on the floor, Being flat on the floor facing upwards, the only view I had was of the raven sky and mushroom cloud above. All surrounding infrastructure had fallen, and the ground was covered with bodies and rubble. I was so afraid to inspect my body for injuries, I instead simply ran my fingers across every inch of my body. To my surprise, the only thing my fingertips felt was the erosion of goosebumps. After concluding I wasn't severely injured, I started to walk around. I obviously had no idea as to what occurred, as in a twenty-second time span My entire city had fallen to the ground leaving the blue sky hidden behind, and replaced by a layer or blackness.

I struggled to get on my feet, but once I did I just started to walk. I walked and walked and walked until I couldn't walk anymore. My sister that once lingered behind me was gone, my father who worked somewhere in the city was gone, and I had no idea if my mother was dead or alive. When walking I tried to help people I saw, many lying on the floor with blood spewing out of various body parts, or some with their skin peeling back. All of which were covered in a layer of soot, like me. Guilt overpowers me to this day when I think of all the people I didn't help. I tried to help everyone I could, but I couldn't help those being engulfed by fire or those who had barely an inch of skin left on their body.

Upon walking, I had the time to conclude the new circumstances of my life. Taking in the damage done to my once serene hometown, wondering what phenomenon had just occurred, and the most incomprehensible - the loss of the people my heart to this day still longs for. After pondering by myself upon my broken city and heart, I looked up. The obsidian sky had transcended into a blazing red color, due to fire.

To this day 73 years later, on that odd day once or so a month where a ‘beautiful’ sunset presents itself and my husband and friends admire the natural beauty of it, I softly excuse myself. The display of nature's best work only reminds me of human kinds worst. A tear of two usually rolls down my cheek, as I once again am reminded of the damage caused to my heart and soul on August 6th”.

ALL PICTURES OF HIROSHIMA ARE TAKEN BY INA BICAJ

if only I could be back home

 

Here are some poems I have written from the perspective of a refugee. I have had the fortunate experience of interacting with unaccompanied minor refugees in Athens, Greece.


- Home -

Turning your back on us when we are in need,

What else can I offer you, for I have sailed the seas as I fleed

The land and merciful soil I used to call my own,

What else can I offer besides my sanity, purpose and childhood,

Just to be back home.

 

- I'll come home someday, not sure when, but someday :) - 
 

Some write poetry about a loved one,

I write poetry about a loved place,

It's difficult for me to explain,

As you don't have a body, nor do you possess a face,

If only I could hug you tight,

And translate into words just how full my heart is for you,

I could only then let you know how lonesome I feel at night,

I best believe you miss me too

I long for the aroma of the Sunday spice market,

Almost as much as I long to be sleeping in my own bed,

My great sadness comes from the guilt I feel,

Wishing I was never forced to have fled,

I am told that I will never

Smell,

Touch,

See,

Or breath the air you provided me, in my lifetime ever again,

But I can promise you that I have not left you to decay or burn,

For Syria I give you my word,

That one day I will return.

hopeful yet hopeless

Even though I don't want to admit it, I can assure you that even I in the past, have become desensitized by the current refugee crisis. We constantly read about the terrible things occurring in Syria, and the people who suffer. We often lose sight of how the people being affected are people, not just statistics. I’ve read about the gruesome details and ordeals of schools being bombed, but my imagination can only stray so far away from what my reality is. Not only can I admit that I find it hard to imagine what these people feel, but I’ve also painted a specific picture of whom I imagine these people to be. I naturally expect someone who's experienced unspeakable tragedy at a young age to be reserved and unhappy, however, when faced with some of these people I was taken aback when my preconceived ideas were dismissed.  

Obviously, the refugee crisis is a vast topic, and every individual involved has their own story. However, my sole point is that before meeting a refugee, I expected everyone involved in the crisis to have the same approach and outlook on life. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet some refugees on a Saturday, and teach them English. I was put in a group with boys under 18. I expected all of them to be from war-torn countries I see on the news (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan) however more than half of them were from Pakistan.

I was buddied up with two boys, Aruf and Harun, both from Pakistan. Harun was 16 and Aruf was 18. Our interaction was nothing out of the ordinary, we laughed made jokes and acted the way ‘normal’ teens do. One thing I expected was for their stories to define them. I expected that the struggles they had faced to come up in the first few minutes, however majority of our conversation consisted of Bollywood movies and soccer. Little bits and pieces explaining what they had been through emerged subtly across a 3-hour time span. When teaching Aruf a list of English vocab, one of the words listed was ‘lice’. I explained to him the meaning of lice and how they are tiny bugs that live in one's hair. He immediately understood, explaining to me how he had previously lived in a refugee camp in Turkey for 6 months, where he had to share a small tent with 27 other people. He explained to me how everyone had lice, and the overcrowding and lack of sanitation led him to come to Greece, by boat. It’s then that I realized that I had only seen the tip of the iceberg with Aruf, despite his optimistic approach towards being in Athens, I understood the hardships he endured and how Greece was not his optimal destination.

Positivity and hope are things that get most of these boys through life each and every day. Religion is what motivates many of them, the thought of being reunited with family is another. I am honestly so inspired by these boys, many of them arriving in Greece just a few months back and already speaking conversational Greek and English. Upon reflection I thought of what motivates me to live, my family was my first thought. Most of these kids have lost their families in transit with the chance of being reunited very slim. At a young age the thought of only living for myself is extremely hard to grasp, but for many, themselves is all they have.

Simple lessons the boys taught me

  • We are all the same

  • Find purpose in everything, including the little things

  • Never stop asking questions in order to grow and learn (you are always learning even outside of a classroom)

  • Find what gives you hope (whether it be religion etc.)

  • Persevere through hard times, have a clear goal and work hard for it. (For example, Aruf's goal is to get to Germany. He spends a countless amount of hours a day on online sites such as 'Duo-lingo' learning German. He works hard for his goals and uses bad experiences to drive him for a better life).

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Greece

Home to over 57,042 refugees.

Hope sees the invisible, feels the intangible and achieves the impossible
— Helen Keller

Japan's obsession with white skin.

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Japan's obsession with white skin.

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When you look at it from a historical point of view, white skin has been a key sign of beauty in Japan for centuries. Japan amongst many other countries in Asia, have a long history of skin color being connected to social status and hierarchy. In japan specifically, it was often thought that if you possess a darker complexion you belonged to a working class family. One reason for this, is that ‘Ceruse’ (a paste made with white lead and vinegar applied to achieve a fairer skin tone) was quite expensive.

When walking down the street in Hiroshima and crossing the famous Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, it’s impossible to avoid the advertisements on billboards, bus stops, and kiosks that are trying to sell makeup or skincare. When you take a closer look, however, it is always a model with fair skin. What is subconsciously being advertised, is the lifestyle and social status that comes achieving the look seen as 'desired'.  

Nowadays, it is common to see an array of different ethnicities when it comes to advertisements and magazine covers. The world of magazines and advertising, is slowly getting more diverse. For the most part there isn't one look or beauty ideal that is more preferable over another….. But why is Japan still obsessed about achieving fairer skin??!! These are some theories based on facts and personal knowledge - 

  • Pop culture/celebrity culture - whether you admit it or not, we all get influenced by the media. The days of teens fawning over music videos and the stars of TV shows are over, and have been replaced by the people we follow on Instagram. For many people in Japan this isn’t the case, and the people that represent beauty ideals are the stars of J-pop and K-pop, all of which maintain fair complexions. 

  • Conformity - conformity is common, and very encouraged in japan. Many girls of the 'Harajuku' region, fake tan their skin. The Japanese word for not complying with norms regarding physical appearance is called 'Ganguro'. Ganguro is described as a form of self expression and rebellion, and is when young girls fake tan their skin and dye their hair a color other than black or brown. This beauty practice is often the subject of ridicule amongst locals, as it isn't seen as admirable to look different to everyone around you. 

  • Kawaii o´〰`o♡*✲゚* -  Kawaii  culture !!! Kawaii means cute in Japanese. Purity and youth is often is associated with the color white, and the best way to stay looking young and pure forever is to adopt the exact same physical characteristics that you had when you were a newborn!! This includes fair skin, bangs and rosy cheeks (all of which are VERY common is Japan).

What is not discussed, however, are the harmful effects of the chemicals put in many of these products. Most skin whitening creams are really bad for you!

It is common for creams advertised to 'lighten your skin' or 'brighten your complexion' to contain chemicals that slow down the production of melanin in the skin. Melanin is a natural UV shield and is produced by OUR body’s melanocytes. Hydroquinone, mercury and steroids are all ingredients that are in some creams. When my grandmother was growing up, her dad brought back a cream from the UK (circa 1950). She used this cream day and night and yes, it worked and her skin transformed to the color of paper.... but the cream contained mercury and caused serious damage to her skin. It created holes in the second layer of skin, and to this day she can't go out in the sun because her skin burns. Most skin whitening products nowadays contain carcinogens which can lead to skin cancer and liver damage, and are often not included on the list of ingredients. The rule of thumb is to only use products from well established and global brands. Stay away from products which include, oxybenzone, parabens, and triclosen.


    "Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder" 

Beauty in Japan permeates many areas of Japanese culture. From the historical Geisha's to the modern photos booths, it is hard to ignore the influence that cosmetic appearance has had and continues to have on Japanese society.

 

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GEISHA'S

 

 

During the 18th century, female entertainers who hosted parties, sang, and danced, were named Geishas. These were women who epitomized beauty and grace. Geisha would apply layers of powder and white paste to their faces in order to achieve a porcelain fair complexion. Vicky Tsai, the founder of 'Tatcha' a Japanese skincare and cosmetic company that is sold worldwide in outlets such as 'Sephora' and inspired by Geisha beauty, explains how 'the average women in Japan wanted/wants to emulate Geisha beauty in any way possible'. Despite being thoroughly exaggerated, every beauty ideal in Japan is seen on Geisha. Red lips, rosy cheeks, black hair and fair skin.

 
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Angelic and pure

 

 

Fairer skin is often associated with being pure and angelic. Research from the University of Toronto, states that ' people with lighter skin are associated with being ethereal and innocent'. Almost every single painting of angels or women from the Renascence era had fair skin. History and past standards of beauty, all have a say in what is considered desirable in common day culture. As mentioned before, the rules of beauty that Geisha possessed (red lips, black hair, fair skin) have transcended down to the modern day women of Japan. A newly sought-after concept is too look youthful. Not only youthful but cute and innocent. The culture of 'cuteness' is called Kawaii. A study by Kanebo, a cosmetic company, found that Japanese women, in general, favored the "cute look" with a "childish round face".Women also employ a look of innocence in order to further play out this idea of cuteness and purity. Having large eyes is one aspect that exemplifies innocence; therefore many Japanese women attempt to alter the size of their eyes. To create this illusion, women may wear large contact lensesfalse eyelashes, dramatic eye makeup, and even have an East Asian blepharoplasty, commonly known as double eyelid surgery.

                                  

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 PHOTO  BOOTHS

'Purikura' machines are the craze in Japan

What is the difference with a normal photo booth and a Japanese one? Well, with the photo booths in Japan, you can hardcore edit your face. You can enhance your features, and make yourself look more 'Kawaii' by increasing the size of your eyes. Did I mention that you can also lighten your skin? There was NO option to make yourself more tan, but their was an option to lighten your skin by up to seven shades !!!

 

Do people actually go to photo booths? 

 

 

 

 

The answer is, yes. In Japan photo booths are a serious affair. I can't count the amount of times I have spotted groups of young teens in their school uniforms, packing into one of them. It's a form of socializing.  

 
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