The horrific images emerging from Afghanistan today depict a nation in turmoil and its related human tragedy. Just as with most news events of this type, it does not convey the lives and homes that many of those fleeing leave behind. That is both understandable and unfortunate.
Americans may be surprised to learn that quite a few of the allies promised special immigrant visas for working with our troops, embassy, development agencies and contractors are educated professionals with prior careers in engineering, medicine, social services, information technology, construction management and other fields.
They bring skills that help them succeed here (and contribute to our economy). I learned this while helping many with their job searches since 2016. I also learned that these Afghans bring rich cultural traditions that can contribute to our homes and health.
Meeting Afghans in America
My volunteer work as a San Diego chapter team leader with No One Left Behind, one of the organizations helping to evacuate Afghan allies, took me into many of the local apartments rented to these SIV holders, and has given me insights into aspects of their home lives that have strong wellness design potential.
It’s important to note that the furniture and household goods they start out with in the U.S., having left their homes in Afghanistan with nothing more than a suitcase in most instances, is not reflective of their culture, but as they settle into their new lives here, they recreate traditions and living space preferences that reflect their heritage. Here are three that can benefit our lives as well.
A visit to an Afghan home will be accompanied by an offer of tea. “Hospitality and tea play a very important part in the lives of the Afghan people,” wrote Helen Saberi about her time in Afghanistan in an Afghan Culture Unveiled blog post. “Tea will be served. It may be green tea or black.” (Tea sets are a highly-requested item for resettlement agencies and support groups like ours.)
The wellness benefits of tea have been shared by numerous health researchers, including in this post by Penn Medicine: “People all over the world have been drinking tea for thousands of centuries, and for good reason. Numerous studies have shown that a variety of teas may boost your immune system, fight off inflammation, and even ward off cancer and heart disease.”
Tea in an Afghan home will be brewed and served in a manner that encourages slowing down, relaxing and enjoying life, no matter how much business needs to be completed during the visit. It is not microwaved. It is not rushed. It does not contribute to the typical stress of a modern American lifestyle.
Americans are accustomed to couches, loveseats, armchairs and sectionals for our living spaces and social gatherings. Afghans are accustomed to floor sofas that are really floor cushions with separate pillows for backs. These are typically arranged along the walls with space for family-style dining in front. It’s not an arrangement comfortable for many American adults, especially those with flexibility, balance or weight issues.
As the Mayo Clinic notes on its website, though, this discomfort is a potential health risk: “As you age, it’s important to regularly get down to the floor and back up. Why? Because this ability is closely related to your overall fall risk. Some research even suggests that the ability to sit down and stand up from the floor without assistance — dubbed the ‘sitting-rising’ test — can predict mortality.”
Another Afghan home design tradition – and a fairly universal SIV holder’s resettlement request – is the area rug. These richly-patterned floor coverings will extend across entire living rooms, (sometimes in groups to provide full coverage), creating conversation and dining areas. While the pieces furnished by American donors are often affordable synthetic Persian rug knockoffs, original Afghan rugs are typically woven of wool, silk and cotton.
Fine Rug Collection, a Boston area importer of Persian and Oriental rugs, describes them this way: “Afghan rugs are among the finest in the world today. Each is exclusively designed and is a unique work of art with its individual color palette. They cannot be ordered to size, ensuring a one of a kind rug.” This individualized selection allows Afghans to have a signature touch in their homes with vibrant colors expressing their taste and personality.
The rug material itself offers health-related benefits: The dominant fiber, wool, has definite wellness design properties. First, it doesn’t give off harmful toxins, unlike many synthetic rugs and carpets. Second, it is naturally fire resistant. Third, it is hypo-allergenic and fall-friendly (due to its softness).
It’s customary to remove your shoes when you enter an Afghan home to keep the outside elements from the floors, rugs and furniture. This keeps the interiors cleaner and more hygienic, and is a growing practice in American homes embracing wellness design practices.
If ‘wellness’ and ‘design’ are not words that leap to mind when you think about Afghanistan, especially right now, that’s understandable, but consider this: Those soft, cozy throws that add comfort and joy to our chilly hours originated there and are appropriately named… afghans.