Getting to Know Afghan Newcomers: Recognizing Diversity, Ethnic Tensions, and Social Values

In the global public sphere, Afghanistan is consistently characterized by its long periods of conflict and war, civil unrest, and mass migrations. From these challenges, a culture of resilience has emerged among many Afghans—a characteristic essential to their survival. Keeping this complex history in mind, it’s important to understand that Afghans have unique customs, traditions, and beliefs that migrate with them as they begin to integrate into life in the United States. Service providers can use a culturally informed approach to create a collaborative relationship with clients. With contributions from Afghan subject matter experts Farid Saydee, PhD, and Madina Masumi, MEd, this blog post provides tips on some key aspects of cultural awareness: diversity, ethnic tensions, and social values. 

Diversity and Ethnic Tensions

The unique traditions and beliefs of Afghans are usually reflected by their ethnicity and tribal groups. It is arguable that historically, Afghans have often given primary loyalty to their tribal group and secondary loyalty to their country. This has resulted in hundreds of years of ethnic tension and violence among the various ethnic groups over political power, as well as cultural and religious practices and beliefs.  

Ethnic tensions are often exacerbated by groups who may view themselves as superior or believe they authoritatively know who can and cannot be considered Afghan. This type of rhetoric can still exist among newcomers from Afghanistan. As a result, some people may be hesitant or fearful to interact with certain groups, and ethnic fragmentation could persist. These tensions could also diminish after resettlement, but it’s important to remain aware of them. 

Article 4 of the Afghan Constitution lists over 30 languages in the country and 14 recognized ethnic groups: Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkman, Baluch, Pashawi/Pashaee, Nuristani, Aymaq, Arab, Qirghiz, Qizilbash, Gujur, and Brahwui. There are also small residual communities of faiths other than Islam, including Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, and Baha’is.   

The Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, followed by the Tajiks. The main languages spoken are Pashto and Dari, which are entirely different languages. Some Afghans may speak both languages to an extent, but they typically communicate more effectively in one language than the other. In some cases, newcomers will choose to socially interact or build communities only with those who share a common language or ethnicity. 

Service Provider Tip: Stay informed about inter-ethnic tensions. If possible, team up with Dari and Pashto interpreters who share the same ethnicity, language, and culture as the Afghan client you are working with to avoid potential discrimination. 

Religious Practices

Despite the ethnic diversity among Afghans, there are common guiding principles that shape Afghan culture based on Islamic values and traditions. About 90% of the population are Sunni Muslim, while about 10% are Shia Muslim. While there are varying levels of practice among all Muslims, religion remains a strong foundation for many Afghan families. However, the Taliban’s radical religious practices and their intermittent stronghold over the country for the past three decades have caused some Afghans to endure adverse experiences with religion, including religious persecution.   

Values and Family Dynamics

Hospitality, loyalty, honor, and modesty are highly valued by many Afghans regardless of tribe, religion, or ethnicity. Afghans are known widely for their warm hospitality. Hosting a guest is often considered an honor, and guests will likely be offered the best of everything, regardless of the host’s socio-economic status. Afghans may not take refusal lightly and may insist that their guest eat something. There is a well-known Afghan proverb that says, “Nan o pyaz, peshani waz.” This translates to, “If there is only bread and onion, still have a happy face.” This proverb speaks to the fact that many Afghans don’t always have the means to have lavish meals, but they often make the best of what is available to them and offer all they have to their guests.  

Loyalty and honor to one’s family and community are also essential Afghan values. Afghans tend to focus on their community’s perception and opinion of them, because Afghanistan is a collectivist society. Many individuals will regularly put their family’s and community’s needs above their own. Family matters are typically kept strictly private, so it may be a challenge for some Afghans to openly discuss personal struggles or problems. Afghans who have witnessed the loss of their family, friends, and property experience a high occurrence of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But discussions about mental health or domestic disputes are often stigmatized, perceived to bring shame to the household.  

Service Provider Tip: Be sensitive to the adverse experiences that Afghan newcomers have endured, and actively support them to work through the stigmas against mental health and domestic disputes, with the hope that they can advocate for themselves or seek resources and support for their concerns. 

Gender Norms

In terms of gender norms, women are traditionally expected to maintain modesty and behave in a manner that is considered honorable to their family name. Many traditional households in Afghanistan are set up for women to work in the home and oversee domestic duties, while men are responsible for providing financially for their family and supporting them throughout their lives. It is a common practice in Afghanistan for married men to be responsible for caring not only for their wife and children, but also their parents and younger siblings. If service providers keep these factors in mind, they will be better prepared to support the unique needs and familial practices of Afghan clients.  

Service Provider Tip: Remain cognizant of and sensitive to Afghan gender norms. Female Afghan clients may not feel as comfortable with a male service provider. Afghan men may prefer to have a male service provider or interpreter. It’s important to ask beforehand. 

Additional Tips: Service providers can best support Afghan women by providing information about how to access child care, mobile ESL class offerings, home-based employment options, and sexual and reproductive healthcare, including family planning with access to contraception. For more information on gender considerations, read more here

Other Social Considerations

In Afghan culture, views of punctuality are often a lot more flexible than in the West. Afghans tend to be generous with their time. There is a widely held belief that a person will arrive or something will occur “Inshallah,” which means “if God wills it.” This is a difference from the fast-paced Western life. Service providers can help clients understand and adapt to the concept of time in the West if it becomes a challenge.

Recommended Resources

To learn more about Afghan newcomers, explore these videos from the “Who are the Afghan Newcomers?” series presented by Switchboard: 

  1. Key Events in Recent Afghan History 
  2. Social and Cultural Characteristics 
  3. Transitioning to a U.S. Culture 

You can also complete our self-paced e-learning course Cultural and Practical Considerations for Working with Afghan Clients. 

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