Immigrant Stories: Escaping family problems in Afghanistan
Intro: Zalmai “Dominic” Salehi owns and operates Milano’s Italian Restaurant in Rifle, Colorado.
Gallacher: What was life for you, growing up in Afghanistan ?
Salehi: Very good because I was in a military family. My father was a four-star general for many years. So we had a very comfortable life. But I never got along with my step-mom. So that was my main reason for leaving the country. That’s when my father said, “This the best for you to do.”
Gallacher: Really? So one of the main reasons that you left the country was because your stepmother had problems with you?
Salehi: Exactly. And also a couple of times I’d run away from the house and my father, because he was a high-ranking general, I guess my behavior was hurting his credibility.
Gallacher: Oh, you were bringing disrespect to his position?
Salehi: Basically, I was his first-born son.
Gallacher: What happened to your mother?
Salehi: My real mother passed away when I was two months old. She died of breast cancer. That’s as far as I know. I know her name, and I knew where she was buried. Unfortunately, today there are highways built over her grave. That’s what I heard.
Gallacher: You lost your mom so early, so you don’t have any memories of her.
Salehi: No, not at all, because I was a child. I was a baby. Two months old or so. My uncle, bless his soul, he told me a lot of stories about my mom and how he used to take me to the hospital and pick me up behind the window so she could just greet me. I wasn’t allowed to go inside the room. I was a baby.
Gallacher: Yeah, you were left with stories of what your mother was like. She was losing her life and losing you at the same time.
Salehi: Yes. And my father, I didn’t know how to bond with him because he was in and out of the country. His position in the Afghan military required him to do training in Russia because Russia was controlling Afghanistan at the time. So my father was there for 12 years.
Gallacher: So you didn’t see much of him?
Salehi: Not much. He was home maybe a couple of years but most of the time he was in Afghanistan.
Gallacher: So you had to spend most of your childhood in the care of a woman who didn’t like you?
Salehi: Part with her and part with my uncle. I was 10 years old before I knew that she wasn’t my real mother. I was playing outside at my step-grandma’s house, one day, and this sweet old lady came up to me and started telling me what a good woman my mother was. So that’s when I realized she wasn’t my real mom. It was then that I understood why we didn’t get along.
Gallacher: So, all of this time, you were wondering why she didn’t like you.
Salehi: Yeah, of course. Because sometimes when I called her mom, she’d get upset. I used to get hit a lot. Often, when my brothers and sisters did something bad, I’m the one who got hit for it.
When I found out about my real mom I wanted to go visit her family, but she wouldn’t let me go. It’s hard for me to forget stuff like that. I used to sneak off sometimes and ride my bike to my mother’s grave and sit with her.
Gallacher: Sorry. It sounds like you didn’t have anybody to rely on. Your step-mom didn’t like you and your father was gone for most of your childhood. What was he like when he was around?
Salehi: Very strict military, I didn’t talk to him or say anything. When we got up in the morning we had to dress in a suit and tie.
Gallacher: So how did you find out you were going to the United States?
Salehi: I didn’t. It was a surprise, just out of nowhere. My dad came and said, “You need to move on and make life for yourself. We’re going to send you to America.” So that was it. They just put me on a plane and sent me off. The only English words I knew were “yes” and “no.”
Gallacher: Who was your contact in the United States when you landed?
Salehi: There was a gentleman in New York City that was a friend of my father. I stayed at his house for a bit while he found me a room and a job. That’s when I started my new life, my journey by myself in a tiny little room in Stony Brook, Long Island.
I worked in the Smith Haven Mall at Expressive Pizza. It was a very busy place. I stayed in the back and washed dishes and cleaned. I learned English from the manager mostly through sign language.
He gave me my nickname “Dominic” because when I came to this country my nickname was Muhammad, and my boss told me that he didn’t want to call me that because they served some other religious people.
Gallacher: What was he like?
Salehi: He was good to me, but later I found out he was taking $40 a week out of my pay. So I got a lot of people taking advantage of me because I didn’t speak English. I didn’t know the culture, religion, rules and laws and stuff.
But honestly, I’m the type of person that if I lose something like that, I don’t sit and dwell on it. I just look at it as a lesson. I guess the man deserved to take that $40 because he taught me how to speak English. That’s how I look at it.
I worked 72 hours a week, six days a week. The manager picked me up at nine in the morning and dropped me off at nine at night. That was my life for years.
Gallacher: So you were living on $80 a week?
Salehi: Yeah, at the time I was paying $22.50 a week for rent. It was a hundred bucks a month, and I saved money from all the rest because I barely ate anything and I didn’t go anywhere.
Gallacher: Were you afraid?
Salehi: Yeah, I had a lot of fears, but then in time I overcame the fears because life has to move on and there was no other choices for me. I had to get comfortable and stabilize my life.
Gallacher: Well, in a way you were raised for that situation, weren’t you? Your stepmother didn’t treat you well, and your father wasn’t around. So you had to depend on yourself from the beginning.
Salehi: Exactly. I can say I raised myself since I was 10 years old basically.
Gallacher: So how did you turn out so well? How did you learn to value and respect people when you weren’t valued and respected?
Salehi: I was lost for a while, confused, very scared. I was in a different country, a different language, different culture, different food, different everything. But I got adjusted to it, and I’m a very self-taught, self-motivated person. I learned a lot of stuff with audio books, and I tried to apply all the principles in my life and move on.
Gallacher: What audio books did you listen to?
Salehi: Well, my number one hero is a Napoleon Hill, “Think and Grow Rich” and “The Law of Success.” I started to listen to books when I was in my 20s when I had learned English. By that time, I was moving from spot to spot and my life wasn’t comfortable because I didn’t want to get caught by immigration and thrown out.
Gallacher: So what was your immigration status?
Salehi: I was basically an illegal immigrant. I could’ve been caught at anytime and sent out, because I came to the United States on a one-month tourist visa.
Gallacher: Did you ever hear from your father?
Salehi: I didn’t hear from him. I learned later that he had to leave Afghanistan because they were after him to get him out of power.
He and my step-mom, my two brothers and my sister all escaped with the help of the Red Cross. The medics wrapped them all in bandages so they couldn’t be recognized and took them out of the country and into Iran. Then from Iran, they moved to Singapore and from Singapore to Germany and from Germany to the United States.
He arrived in the United States in 1989. I remember because I went to visit him, in New Jersey for the first time. He had been through a lot, and it showed.
Gallacher: Was he a more gentle person?
Salehi: Oh yeah, definitely. He was very pleased to see me, and I was pleased to see him, too. When I saw my step-mom, she asked me to forgive her. I forgave her, but I told her that the one she really needed to ask was God.
My father made a beautiful life for himself in California. He helped fund a Muslim mosque in Fremont, California, where many Afghans like him fled the war.
When he passed away in 2014, we held his funeral in that mosque, and many people came to honor him. My father was a very giving person who went out of his way to help people. That’s the way we were brought up.
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