Khadija Hemmati still remembers her first Eid al-Fitr, the end of the holy month of Ramadan, in the U.S.. She started cooking before sunrise as the sky turned indigo blue just as she would have in Mazar-i-Sharif, her hometown in Northern Afghanistan.
She spread the sofreh—a cloth laid on the floor for eating—with Afghan dishes, like manto (dumplings), kabuli palao (lamb with rice), bamia (stewed okra), sabzi (curried spinach), gholpi (stewed cauliflower), and a whole fish her visiting sister traveled with from Canada. “It was so big, most of it was sticking out of the pan while it cooked,” she recalls. Her efforts were a labor of love and a routine she started after marrying her father’s relative when she was in 11th grade. The sofreh had to be abundant.
After all, Eid in Arabic means “feast” and “festival,” and Khadija was celebrating the way she did back in Afghanistan, with the entire country sitting cross-legged on a sofreh dotted with platters of food and laughter echoing from house to house. Eid is a holiday that’s about celebration and connection with others on the sofreh.
“I don’t eat breakfast at home. I get coffee at work,” said Khajida’s mother and sister as they stood over the sofreh she had laid out. They had immigrated to America a few years before Khajida, and stopped celebrating Eid on the actual day it falls on. They waited until a day off work, usually the weekend, to gather with Afghans in the community for a potluck under a gazebo at a local park. Their practice of celebrating a holiday as important to Muslims as Eid had changed.
"Eid is a holiday that’s about celebration and connection with others on the sofreh."
On that too-quiet morning, Khadija learned that her family had to rush to work, and there would be no visitors coming by to celebrate Eid. In fact, no one expected her to continue living the life she left behind in Afghanistan. But rather than feeling disheartened, Khadija mustered up all her energy and aspirations along with the gift of time and opportunity to focus on her new life.
In 2016, Khadija, her now former husband, and their five children landed in Charlottesville, Virginia. They were seven of the 406 Afghans that were granted permanent residency in the U.S. through a Diversity Visa Program. Khadija immediately got a job at the University of Virginia’s dining hall and signed up to learn English. Her children enrolled in a local public school and, as she describes it, “transferred their lives into the American style.”
In a world completely divorced from the one she’d known living in Afghanistan, one in which she was not allowed to finish her schooling or work outside her home, Khadija jumped right into her new life with gusto. She eventually landed a job as a chef at Marigold by Jean-Georges, ran a business selling Afghan food at a farmers market, and rented an apartment with her name on the lease.
“When I think about my life here, I see that I am independent. I pay my own rent. I support all five of my kids. For the first time in my life, I went to Best Buy and bought a TV. I wanted the biggest one. It was on discount because it was an open box. Now I have a theater in my house, and I love it. I did it by myself.”
This year marks Khadija’s sixth Eid in America. To celebrate, she still wears a misty teal Afghan stitched with golden embroideries and beading—it’s a traditional dress from Kandahar, her father’s hometown. Kabuli palao, tender lamb and rice bejeweled with vibrant pistachios, almonds, sultanas, and carrots, will forever remind her of home and will always show up on her sofreh for Eid.
"In defying some traditions and expectations, she got the freedom to explore her dreams."
But halal lamb is hard to source and is too expensive for feeding many mouths, and “chicken breast is too dry, so these days we grill chicken thighs for Eid,” Khadija explains. “And if Eid is on a Wednesday, we meet on a Saturday or Sunday morning to celebrate because we work on Wednesdays.” It’s not the same as it was back in Afghanistan—the change was immediate and Khadija has come to love it slowly but deeply. Because in defying some traditions and expectations, she got the freedom to explore her dreams.
Maybe years later, when life here feels more permanent, Khadija will look back and know that her exuberance, kind-heartedness, and generosity transcended land and sea to keep her rooted. And that while Eid celebrations are no longer traditional, they are her own, and its spirit of joy remains the same. Khadija teaches her children to sit cross-legged because stretched-out legs disregard your companion’s need to walk around to pass through. That says everything about the way she sees the world whether here in America or in Afghanistan.