Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Ahmad Latifi

Ahmad Latifi is an Afghan immigrant, student, and avid soccer player. He and his family live along Columbia Pike at Gilliam Place.

“I came to the US from Afghanistan when I was twelve and have been here in Arlington for three years, since 2019. It was a new experience moving from Alexandria to Arlington. During my first two months we were still trying to figure out schools and stuff and once I got into school –Wakefield High School – COVID hit. It messed up my experience as I missed half a year of my 10th grade, and my whole 11th grade I was at home. I didn't get to go outside, to meet with people, make new friends and connections. I'm not saying it was just me, I feel like everybody’s life got messed up, including their social skills, because everybody was just at home on their phones.
Those one and a half years were bad, but once I got into senior year and school started, I got to meet a lot of people and everything changed. It just changes your whole perspective of Arlington. We recently bought a house in Stafford, Virginia, but I told my dad even if you buy a house in Los Angeles I don't want to move out of here. This past one year I just enjoyed it so much and I'm like, whatever, you buy the house, but I'm not gonna move out of Columbia Pike. I want to stay here. 

A messed-up experience
This past year for me was great. But the one and half year before that wasn't really good for me mentally. It messed up everything, like all the excitement and expectations I had about moving here. What happened was that you're at home, and you're on TikTok and it’s just booming. Everybody is on TikTok and Instagram and then you see all these people with their good lifestyles, and cars, and everything. So, I feel like for people of my age especially, most of their mental health issues come from social media. They look at all the stuff people with the fancy cars do and they compare their own lives to those. Then they feel they are no good. The crazy part is they don’t understand that those people have already been through all the stuff that we're going through right now and then they have that lifestyle. But we are still young. Some people don't understand that there's going to be some difficulties to get to where those people are. Or you have to work hard to get there. 

I feel like I was a victim of it too. I was on social media the whole time. When I turned off my phone it said my screen time was like nine or ten hours a day. I was doing just nothing for a while, and then virtual school started. Even with school sometimes, I would wake up late, turn on my computer, and go back to sleep. And when the classes were done, I would eat something and then play video games. That's how school just went. Most of my friends are on social media and playing video games. I didn't talk to my parents for a while because I was just keeping it all in. You go through the pain and you don't want to tell them.

But after one and a half years I was just sitting one day in my room and I started crying. I was like why is my life like this and blah blah blah. Then I talked to my mom and she gave me a speech. It changed my whole life and my perspective of everything. Since then, I limited my social media, and I recovered.
I started to get better. In our senior year when we went back to school, I started to meet new people and I got out of that social media world. I went into the real life which is completely different. I started to get closer to God too. I'm Muslim so it’s not like I wasn't really close to God, but not as much as I am right now. I'm focused on myself. I'm starting to read more books and I've learned more from books than social media. On social media you can see somebody happy but they're maybe not happy in real life. 

Speaking up about mental health
I was thinking about this mental health awareness thing and whether I should talk about it or not. But then I thought about how a lot of people are going through it so it's good for me to share–it's very important. It is teaching everybody and they're free to speak up about it. And when they speak up about it, it's really incredible. We have the chance, we have the freedom. From what I know in the past it was difficult to speak up, but now everybody has opportunities. Whatever it is that you want to do, you have the opportunity to do it. You can speak up and nobody's going to judge you. I wasn't scared of being judged because I knew everybody was going through the same thing. If it was just me I would be scared to speak up, but from what I saw, my peers and everybody else were going through it. I talked to a friend who I didn’t think was going to have all these mental health issues, but he was the one with the worst issues. When I found that out then I understood that people look happy on the outside but in the inside, they're not feeling happy with themselves. When I thought that it's not just me or my friend it is everybody, they're going through the same thing, that's why I wanted to talk about it.

Learning from the Past
My mother, she's from Afghanistan. She came here so she also has that cultural experience. Her speech to me was about what it was like in her teenage years. Her father, my grandpa, he was head of the ministry of defense in our country. At that time our country was in good hands. Then when she got to my age and was in university, the Soviet Union invaded the country. The country was in turmoil with civil war. Then it got better for a while, but then the Taliban came. Dr. Najeeb, our president at that time, was a really good president, but there were a lot of people in the government that didn't like him because he had his own ideas and he wanted to bring peace and prosperity. He had enemies.

So my mom said everything was fine and there was nothing for them to worry about. Her life was good. Then when she was attending university she met my dad. He was a pilot at that time and then they got together, and they got married. My dad's mother knew my grandpa. They were close friends as their families knew each other since they were kids. Unfortunately, before their wedding, the Taliban killed my grandpa. When she was in university, my mother said sometimes she wouldn't even have a chance to go to the school because there were rockets and bombs going off every day. Imagine going through that to school everyday! When she told me that, she said, “I'm not trying to compare your generation to my generation. I'm not saying mental health issues are minor but if it's a physical health problem you can see it. Mental health nobody can see it.” She was trying to compare those two and then once she got an idea of how I was, she talked to me again to see how I was feeling.

When she told me all this I just broke down in tears. I was like, look at them and look at our generation. We have social media, we have all this technology, and everything, but we're still kind of ungrateful for our life. That's when I changed my perspective. To compare this to what they were going through with my grandpa being killed and all the grief and seeing my grandpa’s enemies in the government threatening our family. My dad was also getting threatened by the Taliban. Imagine the trauma she went through. My trauma was just trying to compare my life to that of other people. I'm not trying to compare those two things, but they've been through all that and they still made it here. 
I'm still young, I was 17 when my mom talked to me, and I still have my whole life ahead so I just kind of changed my perspective. It made the whole experience easier.

Staying in Arlington
I like the diversity and the people here, how nice they are and how helpful they are. There are opportunities and all the resources, especially, that I have around me. It’s just awesome. When you go on Columbia Pike there's a lot of shopping and stores and when we lived in Alexandria it was all a bit far away from us. But here everything is just around us. Especially in my building, at Gilliam Place, where we have a program for kids. There is Miss Donna, and she runs programs for kids like Environmental Club, Girls on the Run, and Boys on the Run. They take them to participate in races. They took my little brother, who is obsessed with soccer like I am, to a practice yesterday. They have an after-school program where every day the kids like my little brother get help with their homework, and with their exams. Also, whenever there's an opportunity for a job they put it in a flyer and let people know. They put flyers in the elevator and on a big bulletin board on the first floor. They have all the information there. When I came to Arlington some of the opportunities that I saw at school were also better, so it was cool.

I want to stay back but it kind of depends how. My parents are not just going to let me stay here, but the other day my mom said we gave the house for rent in Stafford for one year because my mom didn't want to move either. My dad wanted to move there, so he refurnished everything–the inside and the outside of the house. The only thing left was the grass and then the people that moved in said they will take care of it. So, my mom she's like 70%, me I'm 50%. It's a big house and it would be my first time living in a big house because my whole life I have lived in an apartment. So I was excited about that. But I don't want to leave Arlington and the friends that I have. I went to that area and it’s really nice but I don't know, I just have that connection with Arlington.

And even if I move up there, I'm going to NoVA (Northern Virginia Community College) here for two years in their Alexandria campus, so I'm going to be closer if I live here and then I might tell my dad I can just get a room. I'm also gonna try to support myself so I got a job. It's a suit shop at the mall. My mom helped me out because she works at Zara and she saw there was a hiring sign. When I first got in, I was a bit scared because the last time I wore a suit was in my uncle’s wedding when I was twelve or eleven. They said that before COVID messed up everything, they had a two-week training where they would explain to you how all this works. But now they straight up put you on the job. When I got in there, I had no idea what was going on, and I'd just help out the customers. Some of the customers were from the Pentagon. Sometimes there are VIP customers which I did not know about. They spend like $4000-$5000 on suits. My first week was a challenge but I learned the basics. After one or two months I got the whole idea of how things work, and how there are different sizes and color codes and everything. It was a bit difficult at first but now I got it, thankfully.

The Road Ahead
Everybody has their own idea of work. Right now, I'm just supporting myself–it's a good starting point for me at my age. Working at a suit shop and dealing with customers improves your social skills and I enjoy that. Also, you make connections as there are high-profile people who come in like from the military or FBI, or Secret Service and you might give them good service and they're probably a connection for the future. So I'm just looking at everything as an opportunity. 

People that have their own ideas, like business ideas, they can go on with that too. Right now, the generation that I live in, you can make money out of everything–literally. Twenty years ago, I would say you had to have a degree from a university to get a job. But now I see some people that just got a six-month training for something and they're making more money than people who have a Master’s degree. So that's why sometimes I think about am I gonna waste four years of my life getting a degree while there are other people making money? Of course, it's a great achievement to go through university and make connections with people and get a degree. You make yourself happy, your parents happy. But the stuff that you learn in university is basically all online. Whatever you want is online. I know a lot of students they cheat online because all the resources are literally online right now. Then there's people making so much money just from working from home and they didn't even have to go anywhere. I'm not saying you don't have to go to college or university. You can go get your education, your degree, and then whatever idea or business you have, you can do that.

People have their own dreams. I have plans too. I'm playing soccer right now which is my biggest passion. I tried out for the Arlington travel team, and I made the team but at that time I didn't have a job and I didn't wanna put pressure on my parents for the payments. It was too much, like $2000. So I'm just gonna leave it for now and just play pickup soccer with my friends. And then three months ago, a coach scouted me for a semi-pro team, so I'm in the process there. The guys over there are like twenty-five, twenty-six. I'm the second youngest in the team so it's kind of hard for me because they're all in a different place physically. I have to get there. And obviously, mentally too. But I'm looking at this path maybe for a professional career. Sometimes we practice at Lorton but it's Fairfax and the DMV area where they are picking up all these people that are good at soccer. They are all good players competing for a spot on the team. I like challenges, so when I saw the opportunity I had to take it. There is a tournament coming up and we're gonna go to Pennsylvania, North Carolina, all these places, so let's see if there's like a scout from Europe or MLS [Major League Soccer]… why not? You just go for the opportunity you know. This place is central, Washington D. C. is right there, and all these things are close to me. Which is why I like this area of Arlington.

If soccer doesn't work out then I have my own ideas for a business. I'm always looking at the opportunities. You can just go on your phone and there's a bunch of stuff you can do online so those are the two options. Obviously, I'm going to college right now. I'm studying IT and there's another resource for me, so I have three things going on. If one doesn't work out, I have another and if that doesn't work, I'll try this. I was thinking about doing business administration but I chose IT because the market for it is really good. I mean for business you have to learn something about business but it's mostly social skills and marketing skills and how you sell your product and how you communicate with the person that's buying your products. You can be born a businessman and have that mentality. But with IT its different. You have to learn coding and you have to learn different software. When people get out of high school, like a lot of my friends, they say you just chose the majors but they're not sure about it. That's kind of a big factor in people’s lives. Sometimes you choose a major and you don't like it. Then you spend your whole life doing something you don't like. It's always good to have your options open and find something that you like. It's good to make money but you wanna be happy at the same time. Everything just connects with everything, you know?

If people were thinking about a city with opportunities and resources they should consider Arlington, definitely."

Interview by Sushmita Mazumdar, photography by Lloyd Wolf. Thanks to Garrett Jackson of APAH for his kind referral to Ahmad.

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