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Nation of Immigrants: Bringing Afghan Food to Central Virginia

“I don’t have another home,” Mirahmad Mirzai told the man who threatened him to close his shop in the days after 9/11. “I’m coming back,” the man said. “Your door better be closed.”

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Jan 31 2017, 7:05pm

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This is the first in a series of articles featuring immigrant-owned restaurants in enclaves located outside of major US cities.

As Donald Trump took the oath of office more than 100 miles to the northeast, Mirahmad Mirzai was focused on a college basketball game. The next day, University of Virginia would play Georgia Tech at home in Charlottesville, which is shaded in the eastern base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the edge of Appalachia. His restaurant, Afghan Kabob, would hit a rush just before tip-off.

Mirzai is an American, a practicing Muslim, an immigrant, the product of multiple displacements—abroad and in the United States.

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Mirahmad Mirzai, owner of Afghan Kabob. All photos by Nick Gomer.
afghankabob_DSC02387 Outside Afghan Kabob in Charlottesville.

The first displacement came in 1984, when he was 17 years old. With the Soviet invasion peaking, Mirzai's father, an airline worker, handed the keys of their Kabul home to his brother and flew the family to New York City.

They landed at JFK on Christmas Eve. Everything was closed. Mirzai's first memory of America was of a hunt for food. A member of the Tolstoy Foundation, who greeted them at the airport, was trying to find them halal meat.

"I can have steak," Mirzai's father cut in. "I can have anything. Food is food."

They went to a buffet.

"I said, 'Dad, what is this thing?'" Mirzai recalled. "He said, 'seafood: shrimp.' It was the first time I ever had shrimp in my life. I loved it. I love American food."

Within three weeks, Mirzai got a job an Afghan-owned Rockaway Beach restaurant, serving burgers, pizza, and ice cream. He took ESL classes and saved his money, opening his first kabob shop in Hell's Kitchen in 1987. He made dishes he learned from his mother. He hired a chef, Khan, an Afghan refugee who had lived in Peshawar, Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border. Mirzai watched him, learning the marinades special to Khan's border region—a process that Mirzai wouldn't share with me. By the 1990s, they moved the big smoky grill from the front of the house to the back to make room for extra seating and the growing lines of customers.

On September 11, 2001, he turned on his television to see the plane strike the second tower and began to cry.

"I love New York City," he said in his soft voice, his gray-blue eyes immediately watering a decade and a half later. This was the beginning of his second displacement.

No one stopped by the restaurant for days. As regular customers returned, there were new faces. One guy spit on his window. Another refused to leave the restaurant until one of Mirzai's cooks, a Mexican immigrant, came out of the kitchen with a butcher knife.

"It was unheard of to see things like that," Mirzai said. "Everybody's a Muslim or Jew or something in New York. It's tangled."

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Today, several Charlottesville-adjacent neighborhoods have some of the country's densest per capita populations of Afghans.
afghankabob_DSC02395 A painting of buzkashi, the equestrian sport of Afghanistan.

On the way out, the man told him to close his shop and go home.

"I don't have another home," Mirzai responded. "I'm already displaced once."

"Well, I'm coming back," the man said. "Your door better be closed."

Business dropped 60 percent—his loyal Jewish customers kept him afloat for a few months—and by February, he sold his gear and left the city.

He moved his family south of the Mason-Dixon Line, to Virginia. A friend suggested he come to Charlottesville—an Afghan community was growing in western Virginia, he said. At the time of his move, the county had voted for a Republican in every presidential election for decades but the margins were thinning.

"It was very quiet," Mirzai said. "It was a big change for me. I drove a cab for a while. When we came here at first, not knowing anybody, it was just a couple of people here."

Today, several Charlottesville-adjacent neighborhoods have some of the country's densest per capita populations of residents who were born in Afghanistan, according to the 2010 Census.

None of the dozens of individuals and organizations I reached out to could explain what brought the first Afghans to the area. In 1998, the International Rescue Committee, an organization that supports refugees, opened one of its 29 offices in Charlottesville but, said Charlottesville IRC executive director Harriet Kuhr, Afghan families preceded the IRC. The region does not have a large manufacturing sector—a typical draw for immigrant workforces—and most Afghans work in the service or hospitality industries, she said. (Donald Trump's Charlottesville vineyard sought six temporary visas for foreign workers in December.)

Dr. Wali Ahmadi, an associate professor at Berkeley who runs a magazine focused on Afghan politics and culture, taught at UVA from 1997 to 2000 and remembers there being only a few Afghan families in the city when he arrived. He, too, was unclear on how they wound up there.

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A tapestry depicting a map of Afghanistan.

Whatever the catalyst, between the draw of the existing population and the help of the IRC, the community has seen an Afghan refugee boom in recent years. The city is now home to more than 200 Afghan families holding Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), available to those who worked as translators for the US Armed Forces, said Kari Miller, who founded International Neighbors, a nonprofit that helps refugees. They are typically placed in public housing and work for low wages, she said. Some are moving west, to cities in Ohio and beyond, for a lower cost of living or to avoid bigoted roadblocks, Millers said. Some of the SIVs—heros, as Miller called them—have been denied housing or employment opportunities after white residents lodged complaints, she said. Her organization has helped fight three such cases in court.

Mirzai started cooking again in 2009. The backbone of his business was the growing Muslim community. The feeling of home, which he'd found and lost in New York City, returned in Virginia.

"The minute the Muslim community found out that we were opening a kabob restaurant, we were very welcome," he said.

Afghan Kabob is an upscale tablecloth restaurant, scattered with private seating nooks and artwork from his home country. The first thing you see when you walk in the door is the famous National Geographic photo portrait of the Afghan girl with the starburst green eyes. It's unlikely that the recent wave of Afghan refugees can regularly afford the $14 chicken tandoori with the Khans' popular marinade—and Mirzai says that now most of his customers are native Virginians or students—but when refugees arrive in the city, the IRC calls on Mirzai to cater their first meal. He also caters monthly dinners for the local fire department. Police officers and sheriff's deputies are some of his most frequent regulars. His older son is serving in the Navy. His favorite restaurant is Applebee's.

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A vintage ad for Ariana Afghan Airlines.

The county has been blue since 2004 but Mirzai didn't vote in this past election—he called Trump "completely unqualified" but says he couldn't trust Clinton. He hoped that Inauguration Day would bring an end to a recent downturn: While he hasn't experienced the aggression of post-9/11 New York City, business has been down 20 percent since Trump won the Republican Party nomination.

Every item on Mirzai's menu is a traditional Afghan dish except one: shrimp kabobs.

"There's no shrimp in Afghanistan," he said. "We have lakes but we're a landlocked country."

One day an American regular suggested the shrimp kabobs. He tried it. Now he goes through a case of shrimp a week.

Isn't it amazing, I suggested, that one of your most popular items is the only one not native to Afghanistan and the thing you ate on your first day in America?

This did not seem amazing to Mirzai.

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