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Next generation: Afghan-born woman helps immigrants cross cultural, legal bridges in St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 11, 2010 - Aziza Siddiqui was born in Afghanistan, but she left when she was 8 years old.

In 2003, two years after the United States went into Afghanistan, she returned to her home country from Pakistan to work with women and girls. Four years later, she left for the United States to receive an award from the State Department as an International Woman of Courage.

Then, she called home.

Don't come back, her family both here and there told her after watching her on TV. You've been broadcast everywhere now, everyone knows your name. It's not safe.

So again, at 24 years old, 7 months pregnant, Siddiqui sought asylum in a country that wasn't her own.

She misses her home, her culture, her family and her food.

But Siddiqui understands what it is to leave one place and make a life in another. Now, she uses that understanding to help other new Americans in St. Louis cross the bridge from there to here.

Memories of home -- only war

Because of ongoing war, Siddiqui left Afghanistan with her mother, father, sister and two brothers for Pakistan. She was old enough to remember some things.

"Only bad memories," she says. "War. Attacks. Bombing. There was not any happy memories that I remember."

Siddiqui grew up in Pakistan and got her master's of social work. In 2003, Siddiqui's father returned to establish an organization for women that offered micro financing.

She joined him.

Siddiqui found herself home, but recognizing nothing. War changed Afghanistan, left buildings gutted, homes chipped away.

She began traveling to each province on fact-finding missions for an international nonprofit. Siddiqui would request to speak with women in the households to gather information on education, local governance and women's rights. And often, the men didn't allow it. They suspected she was corrupting the women. But slowly, she worked her way into the communities with her skills at language and her ability to blend in rather than stand out. Slowly, she convinced the men to bring the women into the decision-making processes, at least on some levels, using funding as an incentive.

Villages would get $50 if they had a male council member to make decisions. If they also had a female council member, they'd get $100.

In 2006, Siddiqui came to the U.S. for the first time for an international exchange program focusing on women's leadership in private and public sectors.

Siddiqui was married, but by 2007, she had separated from her husband, whose family disapproved of her work. She was already pregnant.

That year for the first time, the U.S. State Department nominated 180 women for the Women of Courage Award. They chose 10, and Siddiqui was one of them.

In March of that year, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the award from then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Siddiqui then came to St. Louis to visit her sister and grandmother, who both live here. They told her, as did her parents back in Pakistan, that it was no longer safe for her to return to Afghanistan.

Siddiqui decided to seek asylum, if not for herself, she says, for the child she'd soon have. Siddiqui delivered her daughter at Barnes Jewish Hospital. She named her Diwa.

"Diwa means light," Siddiqui says. "Brightness."

Bridging different worlds

Once, on a work trip, Julia Ostropolsky watched Siddiqui answer her cell phone several times during the day. Each time, she spoke in a different language.

In 2008, Siddiqui began working as a case worker for BIAS, Bi-lingual International Assistant Services, which works with elderly and disabled immigrants, asylees and refugees. She works to help clients obtain citizenship, helps them understand the system, fill out paper work, get counseling and find services they need.

"She gains their trust so easily," says Ostropolsky, the CEO of BIAS. "She's able to learn a lot because she's so young. She's able to learn a lot about the U.S."

And through what she's learned, Ostropolsky says, Siddiqui can be a bridge between two very different worlds.

Siddiqui speaks five languages: Pashto, Dari, Urdu, Hindi and English. She deals mostly with Asian communities, including people from Nepal, Korea, China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.

"She's been able to open our services to the communities that she represents with the languages she speaks," Ostropolsky says.

Siddiqui's work with immigrant women earned her 2009's "Extraordinary Ordinary Person of the Year" Award from Gitana Productions, a local non-profit that promotes diversity through the arts and arts education.

"She's an incredible person," says founder Cecilia Nadal.

Through her work, Siddiqui helped bridge the gap between refugees and immigrants and the rest of St. Louis, Nadal says, both in working with them to get social services and acting as an ambassador for her own culture.

"She's a person who helps us to understand people like her," Nadal says.

To Nadal, Siddiqui's work is even more significant considering she speaks several languages and has a master's degree. She's chosen to work in the non-profit field, Nadal says, and help her community.

That help spans many areas, from dealing with domestic violence in the Asian community, to tutoring people for citizenship.

Siddiqui also works as an interpreter for the International Institute. It's important work, she's realized, not just bridging languages but also cultures.

Once, she accompanied an Afghan woman to the doctor. For two years, the woman had been to the same doctor with a male interpreter. When Siddiqui came along, the doctor heard something different from his patient.

That's can't be right, he said, surprised, that's not what she's been saying.

It is right, the woman said through Aziza. She couldn't open up because of the male interpreter.

That day, the Afghan woman got the right diagnosis and the treatment she needed.

Building new memories of home

Now, Siddiqui lives in St. Louis with her daughter, her grandmother, her sister and niece.

She misses the food she loves but can make it herself at home.

She misses her culture, and works hard to keep it alive for herself and her daughter.

She misses family, but after being granted asylum, Siddiqui has a resident card and has been able to travel to Pakistan to visit her family there. After five years in the country, she can apply for citizenship, which she plans on doing.

St. Louis is a great place for immigrants, she thinks, with lots of services and cultures. Like many immigrants, Siddiqui seems uncomfortable talking about discrimination and doesn't go into detail.

"I would say it's normal," she says. "It's OK."

As someone who has sought asylum, though, Siddiqui does think other asylees face unnecessary challenges once in the U.S. Her status was approved in eight months, a very short time, she says. Her sister, who has also sought asylee status, has been waiting to be approved for five years.

For people coming from countries where there's war, they shouldn't be treated like they're in jail in the U.S., Siddiqui thinks, unable to work and travel.

"Make the process shorter for the worker's permit," she says. "It's like 150 days, it's too much for people who have no one here to support them."

Things in Afghanistan are still bad, especially for women. Though some strides were made early on with educating girls, now few send their girls to school because it's unsafe, she says.

Siddiqui won't return to Afghanistan anytime soon for that same reason.

"I'm afraid," she says. "I cannot. But if any day I get an opportunity again to go, probably for the U.S., to help my country, I would."

So her work here continues, helping people learn what they need, from English to cultural norms to becoming citizens and understanding their rights.

It's delicate work, respecting one culture while explaining another, and Siddiqui does it on both sides, in many places, in many tongues, just like she has for most of her life.