[The Stories of America editors: This article is part of the Week One Pairing. To read the other story, click here.]
Three days after the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election, Shabnam Arora Afsah took an evening walk with her big, white poodle named Dopey in her neighborhood in Bethesda, Maryland.
It’s a neighborhood where everyone knows her, as her family had been living there for more than 20 years.
She was walking and listening to a podcast when she saw something whiz by her.
Then again — and this time Dopey jumped as well.
It didn’t immediately occur to her what had happened. She thought it was a prank or perhaps the fall’s falling acorns.
But then she turned around and saw two adults behind her, who were lit up by a streetlight at the end of the shadowy path and ran upon being seen.
When she heard about the swastikas that were drawn in a Bethesda middle school bathroom days later, it occurred to her that those two people were most likely throwing stones at her.
She wasn’t hurt — she had been wearing a thick coat — but the event impacted her. She has never experienced anything similar in the decades she has lived in the neighborhood, which she said is diverse, consisting of families of Indian, Iranian, Korean, German, Italian-French and other descent.
“It shook me up,” she said. “I walk my dogs at midnight without ever feeling threatened.”
After what happened, she didn’t leave the house for days.
The incident reflected another unsettling experience she’d had while phone-banking for Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before the election. She was calling registered Democrats in Maryland, and while most of the calls were standard, she said a few of the people she contacted caught her off guard:
“What’s your name?”
“Are you Muslim?”
“Go back to where you come from.”
Where she comes from is New Delhi, India. She’s from a Hindu family, and she’s married to a man from a Muslim family.
Where she comes from, people looked down upon Hindus marrying Muslims, and her father was no exception.
Where she comes from, being a working 25-year-old woman meant you couldn’t live on your own. It also meant her father couldn’t kick her out unless she was married.
So he made her get married. With only six hours’ notice, she married her boyfriend so she could leave the family home in the 1980s.
Afterward, Afsah and her husband decided to apply to graduate schools in the United States. She got accepted into Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and her husband to Harvard University. They sold everything, and on July 31, 1989, they left India to start a new life.
“I left home because I felt like I didn’t belong,” she said. “We were scared for our lives.”
Things weren’t immediately easier in the U.S. With her husband in Boston, she was in Chicago alone. She said she felt isolated when she first arrived in the city. School had not started yet, and even the cafeteria was closed. So she would sit in the dorm room by herself.
The city felt strange to her compared to New Delhi. She’d never seen buildings so tall, and there were so few flowers and trees. She’d heard about crime in Chicago and worried the area around her might be unsafe.
Shortly after, Afsah’s mother-in-law in India died of a brain hemorrhage. She said she remembers blaming herself and her husband, thinking his mother died because of them leaving India.
After two days of not eating, secluded and filled with worry, Afsah called a friend in Cleveland from a nearby payphone.
He asked how she was, and she said she was hungry. He asked what was wrong, and she started to cry. She said she was scared.
Her friend told her to get food from a vending machine, which was located in her dorm building. But there were no vending machines where she had lived in New Delhi, so she wasn’t sure how to use them.
After hanging up the phone, Afsah looked around for help and saw a security guard inside a bulletproof glass booth who monitored people entering and exiting the campus.
She tapped on the glass, but he said he wasn’t allowed to come out.
She said, “Please, I come from a country where there are no vending machines.”
So he came out and showed her how to use the machine. Although she didn’t eat anything for 48 hours, she only asked the guard to help her get a cup of coffee. She knew it required coins but didn’t know where to get the cup. It turned out the cup appeared in the machine.
“It was like magic to me,” she said. “I felt so dumb. It’s been a long road.”
Over the next years, Afsah’s life journey was punctured with uncertainty about who she is and where she belongs. She never felt strongly about religion or the Indian traditions she’d left behind. After being born in one culture, leaving for another, traveling the world, raising two children and living 20 years in this country, she finally decided to apply for the U.S. citizenship a few years ago before the 2008 Election, because she wanted to vote for Barack Obama, a candidate she saw as inclusive, idealistic and cerebral.
She had thought she wouldn’t get emotional — that it would just be filling out paperwork. But she cried while giving the oath at the citizenship ceremony, finally feeling at home in the states. After 50 years of her life, she felt comfortable with herself.
The election of President-elect Donald Trump has shaken her sense of security. When Trump mentioned things like a Muslim registry, Afsah said she thought: “Does that include me? My husband? My children?”
“It rattles people like us,” she said.
Afsah plans to be more active on the local level, attending protests, signing petitions and calling anyone and everyone in Congress.
“It’s my only way of keeping sane,” she said. “I’m scared, but I won’t give in.”