Experience is the best teacher. At least according Hussain Zhakfer, a McGill alumni since 2017. When his family moved countries, it was to escape war in their native Afghanistan and build a life somewhere new. Ending up in neighboring Pakistan had initial social and financial hardships, but Zhakfer remembers their perseverance, especially his fathers’, as entirely formative of who he is today.
“My dad started his own business, and within a year or two we got our life back together. He worked really hard, 11-12 hours a day, to send us to the best schools available, I think because he regretted not having the opportunity to finish his education. He would say to us “Even if I have to beg I will do it, so I can send you to school.” Our opportunity was his philosophy. I get emotional when I think about it… I am very, very grateful for that. What he did for us made us who I am.”
Years later, after starting his undergraduate studies at McGill, Zhakfer realized this had become his philosophy as well. The opportunity of studying at McGill, and the exposure to different perspectives had impacted him in a way that not only nuanced his way of thinking, but had literally added layers to his individuality.
“There’s always two sides to my personality that I have to take into consideration. There’s the Afghan side of me, and this person who’s living in a western society. It’s not a bad thing, I’m glad I have it. In the process of changing, especially in a different society, there are parts of you that disappear, because they’re not as crucial, or as important/significant as they used to be. But I didn’t have to let go of anything completely.”
Zhakfer’s way of oscillation began long before he encountered Montreal – he was a year old when his family immigrated to the area geographically bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan, known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Though he describes cultural similarities, there were also reasons to be aware he had an ‘outsider’ status.
“My life in Pakistan was quite normal. A lot of refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan were there too, and they did not have good means of living. Relatively, we were good. Living in a different society, you begin to understand the other. Historically, Afghanistan and Pakistan don’t have a very peaceful relationship. But living there with all the difficulties that were there, and exposure to the people we had, it was enriching for my perspective”.
Zhakfer was a teenager when the family returned to Kabul, following relatives and loved ones around them who were doing the same. Zhakfer explains it as “the Afghan perspective”, to do everything based on your community.
“Afghans are very social. There, time is not as important as people are. Of course, people have jobs and things going on, but at least they would make time to talk for a minute, even in a rush. When I came here I missed that. I also didn’t see it anywhere”.
When coupling self-awareness with homesickness, losing access to a lifelong community is overwhelming. The solution is not as simple as alleviating the sense of displacement, but is more existential: Who are you when you become anonymous?
“It felt like I was starting from zero. In a community, you are somebody, and to many others. But when you move someplace where you don’t know anyone, you’re not that someone you used to be. At least until you build relations, you’re not really anybody to anyone.”
Zhakfer realized starting from scratch was an opportunity to solidify who he was, not through the safe confines within a community who understood his background, but in conversations and settings where none of that was, by default, recognized.
“You will always meet close-minded people no matter where you are. It used to bother me, but not anymore because I understand them. They are living in a bubble and have not broken the boundaries of it yet. They can’t see the bigger picture, often not because they don’t want to, but because they are lacking information which they should have. Understanding that has made my life much easier in a way that it no longer affects me mentally or psychologically.”
There are moments where one needs to take action after listening, he makes sure to clarify.
“Except for important things where you must take a stand. If it’s a social cause, or someone is intentionally causing hurt, I do react. At the very least, I try to understand the other perspective and engage in a dialogue.”
Though he says he doesn’t feel the need to be involved in an Afghan community in Canada, his “Afghan” side will always be invaluable – for reasons larger than himself.
“From a Canadian perspective, it’s not that privileged to go to university. But as an Afghan, coming here and studying at McGill, that’s a big privilege that many Afghans don’t have. So while I have these opportunities that many don’t– including my siblings, why should I waste it? That Afghan part of my life experience, remembering that, leads me to doing better things with my time.”
Making the most of his opportunities had him rounding out his McGill experience. Majoring in Economics with a double minor in Arabic and Political Science, Zhakfer also worked entirely through his undergraduate.
“That was another opportunity, being able to study and work at the same time. It enriched my academic standing. Most people you interact with are from your same faculty or program, but working outside gives you both sides – I got insight into what’s ahead in work life, what I want to do, and in academics.”
Overall, Zhakfer celebrates McGill as “a place that did change me, and will define a part of my future.” It was a productive experience that included “some tough times, but that is a part of life”. Though a degree from McGill is an exceptional achievement, the opportunity of new experiences is something he cherishes from McGill as much as his academic learning.
“In the process of learning about others, you learn about yourself. And for me learning yourself is the most valuable thing in life: your interests, what you want to be in the future, and what defines you. It enriches your perspective of everything and, quite honestly, you have a much happier life.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.