Afghan Sikh battled mental health while at Harvard

Sikh community has a long way to go in understanding issues like depression and anxiety – Harvard Uni graduate Awnit Singh Marta

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Awnit Singh Marta – Photo: Danu Mudannayake
By Asia Samachar Team | UNITED STATES |

Many were delighted to read the news of an Afghan Sikh making it good at one of the top universities in the United States. Landing a degree from the Harvard University was no mean feat, more so for someone from a community that have lived through a challenging period. So, when Afghan-born Awnit Singh Marta graduated, everyone rejoiced.

But the journey has been far from smooth sailing.

When asked what was the toughest nut to crack during your university days, he bluntly told Asia Samachar: “Mental health without a doubt. This was one of those things I never expected to have to ever worry about and I think part of the reason is the lack of exposure to these issues growing up.”

You heard right: mental health! And this is not something that you hear very often in the community circles. Awnit himself was very much aware of it, and it took him some time to get a handle on it.

“Our community has a long way to go in understanding issues like depression and anxiety – not only is it important to know about them but also how to help someone who is going through them as saying, ‘Don’t stress yourself,’ or ‘Don’t worry too much,’ does nothing to help,” he told Asia Samachar in an interview after passing through Harvard.

“The way I got help for this was by seeking mental health counselling. I remember when I finally went with much convincing from my close friend and I do not regret going at all.”

At the end, he emerged as the first generation student from his family to graduate from a university.

“I am a Sikh. I am an Afghan. I am a refugee. I am a first gen student. And from today, I am a graduate of Harvard,” he shared on his social media accounts last month upon his big day at the university.

While it’s a new beginning, it comes after much trial and tribulations for him and his family. His parents left Afghanistan when he was less than a month old, seeking refuge in the Netherlands. They then moved from one country to another – finally ending up in England – so that their children could get the education that they never received.

“I worked three jobs freshman fall, my mental health tumbling alongside my GPA. I’ve delivered laundry, flipped burgers, cleaned dorms, stocked shelves, ushered for events,” he had said in his social media update.

That caught the attention of Asia Samachar which reported on his success in a story earlier. We then interviewed him.

How was it in the early days in the Netherlands, we asked.

“My family was the only Sikh family in the neighbourhood and despite it being the early 2000s, we received nothing but love from our town. My parents were often invited to speak at schools about our faith and were received with curiosity and kindness everywhere,” he said.

After some time, they family moved to England where they could plug into a wider Afghan Sikh community. They now live in Southall.

“I believe it was the pursuit of us having access to our community,” he said when asked what made the family move again. “The UK has been blessed with an incredible mass of Sangat – especially Afghani Sikhs. We still remember The Netherlands very fondly and are grateful for both places for what they have given to us.”

Awnit Singh Marta at Harvard University – Photo: Danu Mudannayake

Here are Awnit’s responses to our questions.

You seem to have done quite a few things during your study stint at Harvard. What is the biggest lesson you picked up?

I think the biggest lesson I picked up during my four years is the importance of time. This struck me very early on. Harvard students have it ingrained in their culture to be involved in multiple extra curricular activities, putting on a lot of pressure that comes with taking classes that demand so much from us. Though at times it was very stressful, I’ve come out with a new appreciation for what it means to be productive. We all have the ability to do so much, we’ve just come to the realisation of what we can do and how much time we have in a day to work towards those abilities.

What was the toughest nut to crack during your uni days? What did you do?

Mental health without a doubt. This was one of those things I never expected to have to ever worry about and I think part of the reason is the lack of exposure to these issues growing up. Our community has a long way to go in understanding issues like depression and anxiety – not only is it important to know about them but also how to help someone who is going through them as saying, ‘Don’t stress yourself,’ or ‘Don’t worry too much,’ does nothing to help.

The way I got help for this was by seeking mental health counselling. I remember when I finally went with much convincing from my close friend and I do not regret going at all.

What would you like to tell Sikhs who enter universities, whichever and wherever, in the world?

Keep your Sikhi close to you. Always. For much of my first two to three years at university, what kept me grounded and brought some peace to my hectic time was going to the Gurdwara every Friday evening. It would allow me to unplug, and gather with beautiful Sangat. We would do some Seva at the end and then head out to get ice cream or go bowling. These ‘Gurdwara Gangsters’, as I started calling them, remain close to my heart. I would also tell these Sikhs to speak in Panjabi wherever and whenever possible or learn if you haven’t had the chance to. Knowing your own language is a blessing.

Have you ever been back to Afghanistan?

Unfortunately not.

What comes to mind when you think of Afghanistan?

What comes to mind is a beautiful country, especially from what my parents have told me. I hope I am able to experience it one day.

What did the wider Afghan Sikh community say when you graduated form Harvard?

I think both my family and I were overwhelmed by the love and grace we received from people all around the world when I graduated. They were immensely proud of me. Their dream was for us to pursue the education they never received. I don’t think any of us had ever thought it would be at one of the best institutions in the world.

How do you see the situation of Afghan Sikhs today – those abroad and those still in Afghanistan?

There are many perspectives to look from on Afghan Sikhs. On the one hand, many youngsters are graduating from universities and going on to bring more prosperity for the community; our institution in Southall, Gurdwara Guru Nanak Darbar, has helped thousands of young Sikhs learn Gurmukhi and connected them to Sikhi. On the other hand, the struggle for Sikhs continues in Afghanistan – I hope that they are able to find peace, whether it is by leaving Afghanistan or with the end to violence in Afghanistan.
My urge to all Sikhs would be to realise how much power their voice has and to make full use of it. Run for office or put pressure on those with power. This is the only way we will achieve justice.

#BlackLivesMatter is the talk at the moment. Would you like to say something about it?

I, the Sikh community, and the entire south asian community should always stand with the oppressed. For centuries, systemic racism has targeted black lives and I stand in solidarity – Black Lives Matter.

RELATED STORY:

From flipping burgers to Harvard. A story of an Afghan Sikh refugee (Asia Samachar, 29 May 2020)

First Afghan Sikh lawyer in England chose law. Here’s why. (Asia Samachar, 12 March 2020)

 

ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs / Punjabis in Southeast Asia and beyond. Facebook | WhatsApp +6017-335-1399 | Email: editor@asiasamachar.com | Twitter | Instagram | Obituary announcements, click here |

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