“We Were Like Birds in Cages”

Introducing one of Kent’s Newest Residents: Robika Noori
Written by Sofia Jarvis – AmeriCorps Employment Specialist

“When I want to do something, I will do it,” Robika Noori says.  At thirty-three years old, Robika has moved further away from home and done more to advance women’s rights than most of us will in a lifetime. She agreed to let me spend some time speaking with her at the Green River College library, about her past, her career advocating for women’s rights in Afghanistan, and what her transition to life in the U.S. has been like.

Robika at work out in the community back in Afghanistan

Robika at work out in the community back in Afghanistan

Robika was twelve when she and her family moved from their home in Kabul to a smaller village in the North of Afghanistan because of the war. Despite the increasingly dangerous situation in Afghanistan, Robika finished high school and graduated with top grades in her class. Her plan was to continue on to university and pursue a degree in engineering, but at the time, the Taliban had gained power in Afghanistan. During this time, Robika explains, it was nearly impossible for both men and women to study because of the increased restrictions on universities in Afghanistan. As security decreased in the North, Robika and her family moved back to Kabul. She looks back on this as a difficult time. “We were like birds in cages,” she says. Women were required to wear a burka, and could not leave the house to go to school, to work, or to go shopping.

In 2003, there was a change in government and it was once again possible for women to be active outside the home. When she began looking into attending university, she found that the records of her high school education had been destroyed, making it impossible for her to continue her studies in Afghanistan. Because of this, Robika decided to take a job at a local NGO instead.  Robika continued on to work for several different projects focused on increasing women’s equality.  She worked as a gender auditor for local NGO’s to ensure that women had access to the resources they needed to work there. She explains, “You should have, for example, day care for them. You should have restrooms for them. What should you do if a woman has, for example, pregnancy, holidays, these things. We had a special gender plan for them.”  In all her positions she worked closely with municipalities, communities, and local elders to design projects with a vision of gender equality in mind.

Robika giving a presentation back in Afghanistan

Robika giving a presentation back in Afghanistan

Robika’s determination and courage helped her to quickly work her way up within the world of NGOs in Afghanistan. Yet, security remained a constant concern for her and her family because of the work she was doing. She explains that there were many people who were against her work, and she had to take precautions to keep herself and her family safe. “Every time we moved to a province, we changed our car. I wore the burka, I wore different clothes than I do now. The same [clothes] like the women who lived in the village. For [each] different province I had different clothes.”

As a result of these many precautions, Robika and her family were able to remain safe in Afghanistan for several years. One day though, Robika stepped into a taxi and the driver recognized her. He said that he knew her, and named the organization she had been working for, where her house was, and what her salary was. Though the organization where Robika was working at the time took measures to keep her safe, Robika did not feel comfortable knowing that the taxi driver, and possibly others, knew about her and her family and where they lived. In January 2014, Robika and her family once again moved back to Kabul, this time to begin the application process for a visa to the United States.

In September 2014, Robika, her husband, and their three young children were able to come to the U.S. They first moved to California where Robika’s aunt lives, but after a few months the high rent, lack of jobs, and distance from the local resettlement agency lead them to make another move, this time to Kent, WA, where Robika became connected to World Relief. Through World Relief, Robika was able to get help with problems like health insurance and finding a job. During the time she spent at English and job classes at World Relief, she met a network of Afghan women. Robika enrolled as a student at Green River College. “College was a dream [I had] when I was in school,” she says. After enrolling at Green River College, she quickly found a work study job as an office assistant. Her days are now filled with both working and studying at Green River. She is currently taking prerequisites and will continue on to major in Business Management.

Robika and her family now living in Kent, WA

Robika and her family now living in Kent, WA

Though Robika likes the Seattle area, she hopes to eventually move back to Afghanistan to continue the work she left there. She says that, “If the security of Afghanistan is good, I will go and I will start work for women again. It is my dream to work for women.” Laughing, she adds that, “my kids, they say, ‘If you go back, we will not go with you, because here is very good.’ “ If Robika is unable to return to Afghanistan (or if her children convince her to stay), she hopes to work as an advisor for a health and human service organization such as DSHS or World Relief to help them better serve the new demographic of Afghans arriving in the area.

Wherever Robika Noori may find herself, it is clear that what she is dedicated to advancing the rights of women. Because of the lack of gender equality and opportunities that exist for women in Afghanistan, Robika says that it is sometimes difficult for Afghan women who have recently come to the U.S. “They think…we can’t,” she says, and continues on to express the need for vocational training for women so that they can play a role in the economy of their families.

Though Robika hopes to someday return home to Afghanistan and continue working for women there, it is clear that she is doing her best– and succeeding– at making a home for herself in the United States as well. She speaks confidently and quickly in English, and her schedule is fully booked with school, work, and interpreting. She helps fellow Afghans whenever she can, and is quick to respond with advice or explanations when asked questions about the Afghan culture. We can count ourselves lucky to have a confident and community-oriented woman like Robika Noori as a resident of Kent.

If you would like to join Robika in empowering Afghan woman toward equality and self-sufficiency, we encourage you to help out in an evening ESL talk time program providing one-on-one tutors for Afghan mothers who are looking to improve the language and cultural competency skills.  For more information please email volunteerseattle@wr.org

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