Afghan Refugees and The Honor Deficit

By Gerald Wright and Grayson Beemus

Since the United States troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in early 2020, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees have been settled in the United States across various parts of the country and thus far the results have been more than frustrating, both for the refugees and for those tasked with assisting them.

Of course, refugee frustration is nothing new in the United States. People from around the globe have migrated here for decades, indeed centuries, in hopes of realizing the American dream; but their experiences have varied widely and have often proved disappointing. Successful migration is almost always measured in the U.S. as economic self-sufficiency, sometimes with an added caveat of appreciable communal integration. When overall satisfaction with the immigration experience is factored in, deep disappointments are often discernable.   When specific immigrant groups, such as those from Afghanistan, are examined, the level of measurable disappointment tends to spike and in the view of the authors, a principal component in this dissatisfaction revolves issues of honor and shame.

Afghans were forced to flee their homeland due to their involvement in United States military and stabilization efforts and they arrived in this country with an expectation of being honored because of their sacrifice for the U.S. cause. Instead, they have been met with indifference and, in many cases, resentment.

This honor deficiency is exacerbated by the challenge Americans face as they attempt to understand the basics of honor/shame culture. Anthropologists commonly distinguish honor/shame cultures such as those of the Middle East and Central Asia from the guilt/innocence cultures such as those of many western countries and the United States in particular. Failure to understand honor/shame culture most likely contributed significantly to the United States’ lack of success in both Afghanistan and Iraq. When decisions are being made, whether routine or momentous, people in honor/shame cultures ask what course of action would be deemed honorable versus other choices that would result in shame being incurred, whereas those in a guilt/innocence culture typically ask themselves which choice would constitute doing the right thing, most often meaning the choice which would not incur guilt or be seen as a wrong choice. Guilt/innocence cultures could also be described as right/wrong cultures.

The Afghanistan situation is certainly not the first instance in which refugees have fled to the U.S. with an expectation of being honored, only to find themselves the recipients of what they interpret as shameful treatment. Notable among these would be the Hmong refugees who sought refuge in the U.S. following the Vietnam War in which, much like the Afghans who came to the U.S. seeking protection, they had collaborated with the American forces and hence were subject to widespread and lethal reprisals at the hands of  their fellow countrymen in locations such as Vietnam and Laos once the Americans had departed. The Hmong experience was carefully and painfully articulated by Anne Fadiman in her award-winning book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Like present-day Afghans, the Hmong struggled with feelings of being shamed by their new and powerless circumstances and often felt betrayed and resentful.

A key factor in the discussion regarding Afghan refugees in the United States is understanding migration and refugee policies and programs. Although all arriving Afghans are fleeing war and violence in their homeland, they do not have refugee status according to the Immigration and Nationality Act. Under Operation Allies Welcome, they arrived with a two-year Humanitarian Parolee status, though many were in the process of applying for their Special Immigrant Visa. Fortunately, as Humanitarian Parolees, Afghans are eligible for the Reception and Placement (R&P) program that exists within nine resettlement agencies with over 200 affiliates nationwide and can receive State Department funding through the Afghan Placement and Assistance Program (APA). This program lasts up to 90-days, providing housing and school enrollment services, social security, electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, and Medicaid application assistance, as well as providing clothing and food. Afghans who are eligible to work are then referred to the Matching Grant Program (MGP) which can last up to eight months, providing employment and budget training, housing support, and other services to aid Afghans towards financial independence and stability.

Resettlement terminology can easily become confusing, causing a loss of focus on the people involved. To summarize, Afghans are currently holding a two-year parolee status with expectations to apply for asylum status in the near future. As of this writing, Afghans have been in the United States for just under one year and many have already completed the R&P and MG programs, meaning that the services provided by The Department of State and the Office of Refugee Resettlement have ended.

The brevity and financial focus of these programs contribute to the honor deficit. Resettlement programs expect migrants to quickly conform to American culture and live and survive in an individualistic, economic-centered society far from their own cultures.  Outside of services provided by resettlement agencies, Afghans must rely on community aid, generosity, and support to stay afloat in a world unknown to them, while also navigating extreme trauma and loss.

Healthy resettlement requires a combination of economic and culturally sensitive factors.  In the R&P and MG programs, obtaining employment, receiving appropriate healthcare, attending ESOL (English as a second language) or school classes, acquiring affordable housing, and accessing benefits such as Medicaid, EBT, and SSI are at the forefront of priorities. These services are easy to describe; however, they create infinite challenges for Afghans across the country. Many Afghans have found stable employment opportunities, but due to not speaking English, they are working low-tier service jobs that are shameful to those who are educated and experienced. Healthcare is difficult to access due to long wait times, language and cultural barriers, insurance challenges, and outrageous medical bills. Children cannot be enrolled in school until they receive the mandatory vaccines which requires specific documentation and clinic appointments. The housing market is in crisis and affordable housing is near impossible to find. Afghans were delayed in receiving their food stamps and Medicaid as they waited weeks, even months, to receive their social security cards and employment authorization. The services that Afghans have received are crucial to resettlement, but they all include extensive challenges that increase the honor deficit and do not create an environment that fosters healthy resettlement.

The final goal of resettlement is economic self-sufficiency, but this self-sufficiency cannot be fully accomplished without a commitment to bridging the gap between American and Afghan cultures. The majority of the people working in resettlement agencies recognize the need for cultural sensitivity, but the funding, staff, and time are not available to create a well-rounded resettlement environment. Agencies are required to use their funding to provide specific services and resources and they do not have the luxury of slowing down and providing more in-depth, culturally relatable orientation for Afghans and cultural orientation for the people providing services.   Healthy resettlement requires patience and an understanding that preconceived expectations will not be met for both Afghans resettling and those aiding them. Everyone involved must be willing to adapt and be provided with the resources to holistically understand either the people group they are aiding or the new country they are entering. Healthy resettlement involves stepping back and listening to the Afghans’ stories and their reasons for perhaps quitting a job, not wanting a specific house, or rejecting care from a particular doctor. Afghans have been forced to endure these difficult situations since arriving in the United States and frustrations with the American system and resettlement programs have peaked. Under the façade of aid and humanitarian support, many Afghans have been continually dishonored and are failing in their resettlement by both their own standards and American standards.

Acknowledging the honor/shame deficit and incorporating its enormous importance throughout the resettlement process has the potential to generate more successful and healthier resettlement outcomes for those fleeing danger now and in the future.

Christians have the potential to play a key constructive role in the plight of Afghan refugees. Those who are biblically literate should find it easier than others to comprehend honor/shame dynamics since the Bible was written in the context of cultures steeped in honor/shame issues and is replete itself with honor/shame language. Many episodes in scripture cannot be fully grasped apart from an understanding of these dynamics.

  1. Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brian in their invaluable work, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, demonstrate the prevalence of these issues in the David and Bathsheba saga, showing that Uriah was unwilling to allow David to save face. His refusal to go sleep with his wife reflected his determination to expose David’s shame. Kenneth Bailey does the same for the parable of the prodigal son in his classic study entitled Jacob and the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story. The prodigal son acts with unbelievable shame when he asks his father to act as if he is already deceased and bestow an early inheritance. He brings further shame on himself by squandering his wealth and ending up penniless. Yet, when he returns home his father takes shame upon himself by running out to meet his son, disregarding the cultural expectation that a father maintain his dignity. In running out so as to accompany his son into the village, the father in effect shields the son from the shame he has incurred from his neighbors. Later, when the father celebrates his younger son’s return with a banquet, the elder brother acts shamefully by refusing to join the gathering. Again, the father sets aside the norm of acceptable behavior in order to seek out his older son in the field and beseech him to enter the banquet. Bailey astutely describes the parable as the story of the gracious father and the two lost sons, one who is lost as a law breaker and the other who is lost as a law keeper. There can be little question that the parable as laid out by Jesus is essentially driven by the dynamics of honor and shame.

Certainly, Jesus’ own conduct provides Christians with ample training on approaching people who suffer from an honor deficit. His treatment of the widow with a chronic hemorrhage, of Samaritans, of children, of lepers, and of those with acute disabilities all demonstrate the bestowal of honor upon those on society’s margins who suffer from dishonor at the hands of the larger society. The mere fact that these individuals were acknowledged and addressed by Jesus was a significant bestowal of honor. At the same time, Jesus challenged the honor of many of those who most energetically promoted their own public esteem such as Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin. When Christians reach out to the margins of society to bestow honor on the dishonored and elevate those lacking in esteem, they are following in the footsteps of Jesus.

Of course, if Christians took it upon themselves to reach out to the Afghan community, it might help them understand how honor is reflected in the Afghan cultural context. One of the principal ways in which honor is bestowed is through hospitality. Foreigners traveling in regions such as Afghanistan often remark on the fact that locals invite them into their homes to share food and refreshment even though they are complete strangers. In acts such as these, locals seek to bestow honor on the foreigner. When hospitality is used to express honor, meals are often lavish even when the family is of modest means. Given this understanding of the role of hospitality in showing honor, it is easy to see why Afghans feel shamed in the U.S. when they often go months or years without ever being invited into an American home.

Ceremony is another way in which honor is bestowed and received. Americans visiting the cultures of the Middle East and Central Asia may feel there is too much pomp and ceremony, especially since most cultures in the U.S. tend towards informality. Even hospitality shown in one’s home in honor/shame cultures may seem overly formal to foreigners, especially in the early stages of a relationship. Over time, the formality is replaced by more intimate and casual behavior, but the initial formality is itself a form of honor.

Titles and places of honor are also important in honor/shame cultures. Certificates and other forms of honor are awarded, and awarded ceremonially. The importance of a title or recognition should be matched by the manner in which such a recognition is bestowed. When Afghans come to the United States, they are placed in the most affordable housing available, often provided with used furniture and clothing, finding themselves in a lifestyle completely lacking in what they would perceive as honor. Their resentment over these circumstances and their response toward those assisting them leads to behaviors often interpreted as arrogant, self-righteous, entitled, or unappreciative.

How are Christians able to minister in ways that meet the physical needs of their Afghan neighbors but also meet their social/emotional need for honor? Several possibilities emerge, the most obvious of which is hospitality. Inviting your Afghan neighbors into your home and providing them with a bountiful, if not lavish, meal is a language they will understand. It is helpful in this regard to know some of the basics of Afghan diet such as avoiding pork and incorporating fruits, nuts, flatbread, and halal meats which are sold in most major grocery stores.

One of the most honoring behaviors available to those seeking to serve Afghans is the simple process of listening to their stories and acknowledging their trauma and loss. Listening to them share their experiences is an important form of showing esteem. Individual Afghans could be invited to share their story with small groups, classes, or even congregations. This would serve the dual purpose of bestowing honor and educating the community.

Formal portraits are an important part life for many non-westerners; so providing an Afghan family with a photo session with a professional photographer and providing them with nicely framed family portraits will generally be seen as highly honoring, especially if it was done as an act of appreciation for their sacrifice on behalf of the United States. This is all the truer for the countless families who had to leave behind their family picture albums. Similarly, a church could supply a family with shopping money for new clothes, not as an act of charity, but as one of appreciation. It would even be possible to invite a group of Afghans to a church service in which they were recognized for their sacrifice and presented with gifts of appreciation and perhaps even certificates of appreciation. Another form of bestowing honor is the provision of respectable employment that includes opportunity for advancement.

Christians are also in a position to provide love and support for the people working tirelessly to provide the resettlement program services. From an Afghan’s perspective, these people are bestowing dishonor but, in reality, resettlement workers are overworked, underpaid, and prevented from providing the time and services that would constitute bestowing honor. People working most intimately with refugees understand the different cultures they experience every day; however, they cannot invite clients into their homes; they cannot provide gifts or awards to one without providing to all; and they are working within tight budgets and time frames.    Resettlement workers themselves make great sacrifices to devote themselves to this field and are often chastised by both clients and volunteers for not doing enough. Recognizing that resettlement workers are doing what they can within the program constraints and loving and supporting them in the process reminds workers their efforts are not done in vain. Simply altering tone to ask why something is the way it is rather than implying mistreatment of clients, can go a long way. In this way workers can become familiar with grievances expressed by clients and community members can learn more about the stringent resettlement process. The work is heart-wrenching and challenging, but the reminder that they are not forgotten allows resettlement employees to continue in their work with servants’ hearts and to continue providing the existing resettlement program services while also seeking to enact effective change to improve the process of resettlement within the United States overall.

To summarize, many Afghans made significant sacrifices on behalf of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. To their surprise, their sacrifice has not been appreciated or recognized by their new host country. To the contrary, they interpret their experiences here as shameful. Christians are uniquely poised to minister in this situation by reaching out to the Afghan community in ways that elevate and bestow honor.

Christ himself has demonstrated this art in his own dealings with those lacking in honor. One need not approve of the war in Afghanistan to recognize the obligation owed by the U.S. to the Afghans who survived their collaboration efforts and have arrived in our midst. The honor deficit has been with us for a while already in our dealings with Afghans; but it is never too late to bestow honor and elevate our Afghan neighbors. Below are some helpful sites for obtaining information and becoming better informed. In addition to books already cited in this article, the chapters on honor and shame in David DeSilva’s book Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity are invaluable. The following websites provide invaluable information.

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