Life & Culture

Vermont Afghans celebrate Nowruz, hope for a sweet future

Men dance as Afghan families from around the state gather in Burlington on Sunday, March 19, 2023, to celebrate Nowruz, a holiday that marks the start of spring and new year in Afghanistan. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — A melange of nuts and raisins suspended in pale syrup signified hope and new beginnings for Afghans in Vermont on Sunday. Called “haft mewa” — literally, seven fruits — the colorful compote is a traditional marker of Nowruz, or the new year, in Afghanistan and Iran.

Of Persian origin, Nowruz means “new day” in Farsi and is celebrated by more than 300 million people around the world, according to the United Nations, as “a time for family and friends to come together, reflect on the past and look forward to a brighter future.”

For Colchester resident Sama Pardis, 23, it is a touching reminder of a life left behind and the promise of the one ahead.

“When I see what’s happening (in Afghanistan) on TV, I feel so unhappy. Especially the condition of women who are not allowed to go out,” said Pardis who came to Vermont a year ago as part of the state’s refugee resettlement efforts. “It’s hard for anyone to leave their country and start a life from scratch. But it is a good place, people have been so nice and now I love it.”

Pardis, who speaks Persian, Pashto and English, was working to be a dentist but had to leave college to emigrate from Afghanistan to the United States with her mother and her three siblings. She is studying to be a dental assistant at the Essex Center for Technology and hopes to graduate and get a job in June.

Pardis was among about 150 Afghans who attended the first community-wide Nowruz celebration Sunday at the O.N.E Community Center on Allen Street in Burlington. Organized by the Vermont Afghan Alliance and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, it showcased the culture, food and music of a community displaced by war and adjusting to a new life in the Green Mountain State.

Pardis said one of her favorite memories of Nowruz was of driving with friends and family a few years ago to Qargha — a popular, scenic lakeside spot in Afghanistan — and spending what she recalled as a perfect day there.

“I went there with my mother, father, cousins and friends — about 12-15 of us,” she said. “We wore new clothes, flew kites.”

While Sunday’s gathering was a far cry from the 13-day celebration that makes up the annual event back home, it was her first time celebrating with the Afghan community in Vermont. That made it special, she said.

House Speaker Jill Krowinski and former lieutenant governor Molly Gray both attended the event and welcomed the new Afghans. Wazir Hashimi, president and founder of the Vermont Afghan Alliance, which organized it, thanked those who attended from a stage flanked by the American stars and stripes and the flags of Vermont and Afghanistan. Green, black and red balloons dotted the hall in the colors of the Afghan flag. 

“This is such an important moment for Vermont to make the Afghan community feel welcomed,” Gray told VTDigger. “I hope this is the first of many Nowruz celebrations here. It is wonderful to see so many people, women and children celebrating.”

About 246 Afghans have been resettled in Vermont since the Taliban seized control of the country in August 2021, according to the USCRI office in Vermont. 

The community is growing and adding to the cultural tapestry of Vermont, and festivities such as this one help them belong while helping other Vermonters know more about them, said Sayed Khalilullah Anwari, a case manager for USCRI in Vermont. 

Originally from Parwan province in Afghanistan, Anwari came to visit family in Vermont several years ago and decided to live and work here. “I was enamored by the Green Mountain State,” he said.

His memories of Nowruz revolve around visiting family, especially elders; wearing new clothes; and home-cooked feasts. The holiday also involves cleaning the house and the mind, he said, to “let go of grudges, negative energy and start the new year fresh.”

“As Mother Earth renews itself, so should you,” Anwari said.

Many at the event mentioned the kite-flying contests that mark this time of year. Anwar had a special memory to share. He said he was a notoriously bad kite flier — a skill much valued in Afghanistan — until one Nowruz when he succeeded in tangling threads with and cutting off at least 12 other kites in the sky, a high achievement.

The well-loved pastime has been memorialized by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini in “The Kite Runner,” a 2003 novel, made into a film in 2006 and adapted to a Broadway show last year

The author was so torn by the news of the rising Taliban outlawing kite flying in 1996 that he wrote a short story that later became the basis of the best-selling book. The book and movie have since been banned in Afghanistan.

A year after the country fell to Taliban rule, kites were flown in several countries last August in a show of solidarity for Afghanistan.

There were no kites flown Sunday, but spirits were high as strangers and friends greeted each other with hugs, saying “Nowruz mobarak,” or have a blessed Nowruz.

Some men sported the perahan tunban — the traditional Afghan dress consisting of a tunic and pants — along with turbans and wool caps. Some women wore the gandi Afghani — a long, traditional dress over loose pants — or just Western wear with colorful head scarves. Pardis sported a sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers and a pink and blue plaid scarf around her neck, looking very much like a longtime Vermonter. 

“I want to finish my studies and become a dentist. I know it’s not easy but I can do it,” she said confidently.

Abroad for 16 years, this is the first time Auran Hashimi, Wazir Hashimi’s brother, has celebrated Nowruz with the Afghan community in Vermont. In the past he attended similar events in larger cities such as Washington, D.C., he said.

Auran Hashimi, the owner of Bamiyan Kitchen, an Afghan restaurant in Winooski, supplied much of the food. He said it was important for Vermont Afghans to keep up traditions such as Nowruz and to teach their children the culture.

He said he was grateful that the Alliance and the state have helped to create a local celebration “for people to come together, feel close, especially after what happened back home.”

The United Nations has designated March 21 as International Nowruz Day. But based on the Persian solar Hijri calendar, Nowruz falls on the spring equinox and starts this year on March 20. It is a largely secular festival celebrated by many faiths around the world, including Muslims, Jews, Christians, Baha'is and Zoroastrians, according to the U.N.

Between speeches and dancing, attendees enjoyed a spread of fragrant food reminiscent of home cooking at Nowruz. They included rice dishes such as qabli palaw, korma chelo or puff pastries, various kebabs, a lamb curry, Afghani salad, sabzi or vegetables, followed by trays of cookies and sweets.

Three jugs of “haft mewa,” a festive compote of seven fruits, awaited guests at a Nowruz celebration in Burlington on Sunday, March 19, 2023. Photo by Auditi Guha/VTDigger

For many, the Afghan New Year is all about forgiveness, acceptance, exchanging messages of peace and hope of a sweet future ahead — themes central to immigrant life. 

This is symbolized by the fruits soaking in the sweet haft mewa — a medley of various raisins, peeled nuts like pistachio and almonds, dried fruit such as apricot and apple, each representing different elements of nature. Guests are offered ladlefuls to symbolize prosperity for the New Year.

As the festivities wound down Sunday afternoon, Gray fished out a spoonful of the mixture into a plastic bowl. “Am I doing it right?” she asked a watching child dressed in bright red who sagely nodded. 

Auditi Guha

About Auditi

Auditi is Chittenden County editor at VTDigger. Originally from Calcutta, India, she graduated from Emerson College with an MA in journalism. She has worked as an editor and reporter for several newspapers, and in various beats. Most recently, she covered race and justice at Rewire.News, and higher education at the New Bedford Standard-Times. She previously worked at several Massachusetts newsrooms. She is a mentor for young reporters through the Report For America program, founded the Boston chapter of the South Asian Journalists Association, and is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.


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