Tahera Shairzay grew up in Kabul, Afghanistan, and moved to the United States with her husband nearly 40 years ago. Since 2010, they have lived in Northern Virginia, where Tahera volunteers for AARP to help seniors in the local Afghan community. I spoke with her at the Alexandria Pastry Shop in Alexandria, Va. Our conversation has been edited for length.
Where did you grow up and what was your career?
I was born in northern Afghanistan and raised in the capital, Kabul. I went to college in Kabul and then I received a master’s degree in education from the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. I returned to Afghanistan to work, but after I married, my husband and I moved to Saudi Arabia, where he worked as an engineer. It took me a long time to adjust to Saudi Arabia because it was totally different from Beirut and also from Afghanistan, which at that time was very open, like European countries.
In Riyad, the capital of Saudi Arabia, I taught English as a foreign language at various institutions and as a private tutor. But in 1979, when the Russians attacked Afghanistan, we had to leave Saudi Arabia because Saudi Arabia cut political relations with Afghanistan. We had to either go back to Afghanistan or go somewhere else.
We came to the United States in 1980, moving first to Massachusetts where my older brother lived and then to Connecticut where my husband got a job. I stayed home for a while with our small children and then I started working part time, first in local banks and later at other companies as an administrator.
After our children were grown and the United States had entered Afghanistan, my husband and I went back there for an international reconstruction conference. In 2003 my husband started working there, and in 2004 I started working at the Afghan Parliament as its general director of information and public relations.
It was a very challenging job. To begin with, it was difficult to work as a woman in Afghanistan. When I started, I got a warning to watch what you’re doing because, first, you’re a woman, and, second, you came from the United States. I said, “I came for the job. It’s our mother country and I do what I can.” I worked there for about three years and then returned to the United States. I continued to go back and forth, though, because my husband still worked there and I was involved with some charity organizations.
When I returned to the United States, I lived in New York for two years, and then in 2010 my husband and I moved to Northern Virginia.
How did you get involved in volunteering for AARP?
One day I saw AARP Volunteer Suba Saty giving a presentation, in our high-rise building, on how to avoid frauds and scams. I was part of the recreation committee in our building, but I also had some workers in my apartment and I was running back and forth! I was upset that I missed part of the talk, but what I saw, I liked very much. At the end, I introduced myself and asked how I could volunteer.
What do you do as an AARP volunteer?
I’m a Community Ambassador and most of what I do is “tabling” – helping out and providing information at events. I love it! I volunteer at almost every AARP event, especially in my neighborhood, here in Falls Church, Springfield, and Alexandria. I have also arranged two AARP speaking programs for the seniors at the Lincolnia Senior Center in Alexandria, where I volunteer regularly.
For myself, I mainly want to learn all these things and help my local Afghan community, because most of them are not aware of the resources available through AARP. When I learn from AARP about driver safety, brain health, and tax issues, I pass along that information to the seniors I volunteer with. Many of the Afghan seniors don’t speak English, so I translate the information for them.
I didn’t know about many of these resources until I became a volunteer. My mother lived the last two years of her life with me. She had dementia and had a stroke, and I had no idea there was so much help available. I went through these experiences with her. I want to make things easier, if possible, to help other people in the same situation.
How is your life different from the lives of your parents?
It’s a lot different. After my parents moved to the United States, they were very dependent on their children. I’m not dependent on my children.
My father came to the United States for a year, but he could not adjust. He went back to Afghanistan. He did not speak English and all of his children were everywhere – not in one city where he could be with all of us.
Not only that, but one of my brothers was lost during the Afghan war. We did not know what happened to him. Later we heard they were releasing some of the people who had been imprisoned. My father was so worried: “What if my son comes to the house and nobody’s there? I have to go back.” So he went back.
Was your brother ever found?
No. And my father never returned to the United States because he fell down and then passed away in Afghanistan. We couldn’t go back because the Taliban were there. Only my oldest sister was there and she took care of everything. Oh, that was a hard time for all of us.
My brother had been a student in his fourth year of engineering college. There was a demonstration against the presence of Russians in Afghanistan, and all the college students got out. They were not armed or anything, but the soldiers started shooting. And he got hurt among many other people, and from that day on, nobody knew what happened to him.
They looked in every prison, every hospital, everywhere. Later, the list came out of who got killed, who was in prison, and so on. His name wasn’t on any of those lists. So when I started working with the Afghan Parliament, my mother kept sending me messages to ask for help finding my brother. Finally, I talked to somebody. He asked when my brother was lost and I said it was a long, long time ago. He said that if we didn’t find his name on the list, if we didn’t find him anywhere else, just forget. Tell your mother to pray for him and let it go. That’s what my mother finally did. But she was crying day and night all the time, because he was so young.
Was your mother able to adjust to living in the United States?
My mother was very dependent upon others, especially because she did not drive. When she first moved here, we had to drive her everywhere. But she was very much a “people person” and she liked volunteering.
There were many professional women in Afghanistan in my mother’s generation, but my mother got married when she was very young, so she was not formally educated. When I was in Beirut, I encouraged her to take adult education courses, which she did. When she came here, she was in her late fifties or early sixties and she started learning English. She learned the transportation system and she took buses to the classes. For four years, she studied English.
She also participated in a senior program where she crocheted blankets and stuff like that. They sent those blankets to shelters for the poor and she was so happy doing that. She even taught other people to crochet. But when she had a stroke, she forgot everything. I had to teach her step by step even to write her name. And at that time, I didn’t know a lot of things that I have now learned from AARP.
If your family still lived in Afghanistan, would your parents have been dependent upon their children?
Part of the life style in Afghanistan is that families take care of each other. And they stay closer. The relationships are very, very strong there, so nobody feels like they are an outsider or they are alone. So when people came from Afghanistan to the United States a lot of them went through depression and loneliness because of the separation. For the seniors, their families are here, their kids are here, but everybody’s busy and they are left alone. That’s why we organize programs and try to provide a place for the seniors to go and not be alone.
Do you volunteer for other organizations besides AARP?
Wherever we have lived, my husband and I have organized cultural events for the Afghan community. Many of the kids did not know anything about their culture, and the programs also made the seniors happy. Here, I do some of this activity through the non-profit Afghan Academy, where I'm a board member and in charge of the Senior Service Committee. We organize cultural programs, religious programs, take the seniors to different places, bring musicians to perform for them. And at each program, I talk for five or ten minutes about whatever I have learned from AARP that would be beneficial for them.
I also serve as an election officer in Fairfax County. I have learned so much about how elections are run. I wanted to know how they count everything, how it’s done, signing, etcetera. The elections are very well organized and well run.
What’s the most rewarding part of your AARP volunteering?
Helping my community, learning about things, and feeling like you’re useful. I enjoy seeing if I can help somebody, and seeing so many older people who are active at places like the Lincolnia Senior Center. Even when they come for just a few hours for these functions, it’s as if they are recharged. They feel important because somebody cares about them.
What is your philosophy of aging?
We don’t have any choice! We age, no matter what. It’s important to keep yourself happy, active, healthy, and connected, because there is no way to escape from it. You have to be helpful to yourself. Not sitting at home saying “Oh, I’m getting old, what can I do?”
What should younger people know about the positive side of aging?
They will be able to relax and enjoy life without many responsibilities. They will have more time to take care of themselves, to be happy, to do the things they like to do and never had time to do before. And to give back to the community whatever they have learned, without a lot of other obligations.
What do you do for fun?
I have many hobbies. I garden, my husband and I play cards with a group, we love music, we travel because we have family all over. Both of us actually like driving, because you can stop anywhere you like. A few years ago, we rented a very comfortable van and we traveled all the way from here to California. We visited family, we saw some parks, we saw some historic places. It was great.
Interested in joining AARP’s Volunteer Team? Complete an online Interest Form and we’ll be in touch.