Life as a Refugee and Beyond

A Q+A with Yalda Baktash (C'18)

Yalda Baktash (C'18) spent much of her life living as a refugee in Iran. Today, she is passionate about doing work that benefits women and other refugees. Photo by Melissa Nyman.

April 19, 2016—Last semester was Yalda Baktash’s (C’18) first at Georgetown College—but her journey to the Hilltop began long ago. Baktash, a sociology major and psychology and history minor, moved to the United States in 2011. Originally from Afghanistan, she spent most of her life living as a refugee in Iran. She’d always dreamed of going to college but was unable to do so after graduating from high school in Tehran. We sat down with Baktash to learn more about her background and how Georgetown became the place she calls home.  

Georgetown College: How did you come to live in Iran, and what was it like to grow up outside of your home country?

Yalda Baktash: I was born in Afghanistan and lost my father during the civil war. After the Taliban took Kabul, they immediately forbade women to go to school or work. My mom was concerned about my and my brother’s safety, and after some very rough weeks, she found a way to flee the country.

Refugee life is never easy—you feel that you are different every minute of every day. I grew up thinking a lot about that and how I could make a difference. My mom was pretty active in the refugee community—I think over three million Afghans are living in Iran. When I was about 13, my family and I founded an association for Afghan refugees called “The Blue Umbrella.” We offered free services and classes for Afghan refugee communities, especially for women and young adults who never had the chance to voice their opinions about their country or show their passion about who they are. We wanted to give them the opportunity to feel loved and respected and showcase their talent.

GC: You have a professional background in media. How did you get into that line of work?

YB: Art and writing is my blood—my mom and my grandfather are poets, and I’m also a writer. I feel art is a good way to show the pain and the passion and the history of a nation. Growing up, I studied journalism, voice articulation (four years, in Farsi), film production, and calligraphy. In Iran, calligraphy is an important field—it takes four years to master it.

Going to college had been my ultimate goal, but I wasn’t able to do so after I graduated from high school. My calligraphy professor told me that I shouldn’t believe that education only exists inside a university, and that I could find it outside if I enjoyed my work and continued to study. And that changed my perspective.  

My life became very busy—although I was in Iran, I worked for a lot of Afghan tv and radio channels. I produced programs, including two aimed at providing educational materials for Afghans, in particular, girls and young women—some parts of Afghanistan are still unsafe, especially for girls and women, and it’s really hard to go to school. As a result, I was invited to teach calligraphy for Iranian national tv, which was a great experience. I would get emails, or people would come up to me to tell me that they were proud to see an Afghan girl teaching calligraphy to Iranians in Iran. Seeing other Afghans happy and satisfied with the work of a fellow Afghan was uplifting.

GC: How did you first encounter Georgetown?

YB: My husband was working for the United Nations when he was accepted to Georgetown’s PhD program in comparative government. He asked me if I wanted to move, and I felt it was a great opportunity. When we arrived in DC, my husband was very excited to see campus and get started right away—it was already one or two weeks into the semester. We came to campus and I sat in the ICC galleria, watching the students—they were so busy and energetic and happy. That day, my old dream of being a student came back. Like a flash, I said, “What if?” But back then it was an impossible idea.

GC: Tell us about your journey to becoming a student.

YB: Life here was very hard for me at first, coming from an active background in Iran. Here, with an F2 visa, you can’t study, you can’t work. So I decided to change my status.

We’d been in the U.S. for two years, and through my husband, I was a part of the Georgetown family by that time. I was always here, but I had a sad feeling whenever I came to campus—I really loved the school but I wasn’t a student and I didn’t really belong. It’s a very powerful feeling going to a place you really like and at the same time feeling you are a stranger.

I enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA)—they were wonderful. When I started, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve always dreamed of becoming a writer—books were the only true friends I could count on growing up. So I took literature and philosophy, but I also found myself loving psychology and sociology. Soon it was time to think about applying for a four-year school. I was notified that I received an official recommendation from NOVA’s president—each year three students get this honor. I cried—it was the first time I was recognized for my work living in this country. I’m still very grateful.

GC: Why did you choose to attend Georgetown?

YB: Georgetown was always at the top of my list—it was still my dream. I applied here, and to George Washington, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania. I was accepted to all of them, and three offered me a full scholarship. My husband said this was my opportunity and that, whatever I chose, he would support me as I supported him.

I told my mom that I didn’t know what to do. She said, “Listen to your heart. Wherever your heart is, that’s your home.” And my heart was at Georgetown. This is a place that I can call home—I had that feeling the first day I was here. And believe me, when I got the admission letter [for fall 2015], it was amazing.

GC: Why are you passionate about what you're studying at the College?

YB: I feel I have a commitment to the future generation of Afghanistan, to do research and try to improve communities. So I like sociology and trying to understand the nature of people and the nature of conflict, and asking questions like, “How did we get here? How can we prevent future problems? How can we find solutions?”

I study psychology because I’m also concerned about the generations who grew up in refugee camps and places other than their own countries. When you move to another country, you leave part of yourself in your hometown. Your memories, your past, your childhood. There is a war inside of you all the time, and I understand that. I live it. I want to do something and give voice to people who, for many reasons, don’t have that opportunity.

GC: How have you made connections around campus?

YB: Being a transfer student, you have to start a new life. And it’s exciting—I always love to meet new people. Tad Howard and Thom Chiarolonzio in the College Dean’s Office have been very supportive in helping me find community, and I’m so grateful to them.

I volunteer at the Women’s Center, the first place I went when I arrived. I told them I’m very interested in women’s issues and women’s rights, and I would really love to be a part of this great cause. The staff were great and welcomed me.

When I was considering Georgetown, I knew I’d want to work with the US-Afghan Women Council here. I work with the executive director, and with the help of a few friends we hope to hold a youth council. I’m also a member of the Iranian Culture Society, and I teach a Dari roundtable once a week.

I’m a member of the Georgetown Scholarship Program (GSP), and I’ve just started volunteering with them. Without GSP, this transition [as a transfer student] wouldn’t be as smooth as it is for me. I feel like I have a family there.

GC: Looking back on the last five years, how do you feel now that you’re a Hoya, and what do you hope for in the future?

YB: What I really like is that Georgetown thinks about making you a better person—giving you the opportunity to explore yourself and challenge yourself. For example, with the Problem of God course—it’s not easy to question your core beliefs. But sometimes if you want to become stronger, you need to destroy everything that society or your family constructed for you and then discover yourself again. I’m enjoying discovering myself again.

When you take a risk, sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. For me, it did. I’m very glad to be at Georgetown, and I’ll always remember that day—the first time I realized that I could dream about going to college again.

Someday, I want to write a book about the women of my homeland—which is the title I plan to use—and work in media again, making documentaries and short films. I also would really like to work for women, Afghan and otherwise. I still feel a very strong connection and commitment to my past—I want provide a voice for people who don’t have one.

I always feel that my father is with me and encouraging me—whatever I do is for him and for my mother and brother. When I talk about my past, I think about how it was such a normal life for me, but very different. Here, things are different and I like that—I like both versions of my life. I’m at peace.

—Melissa Nyman