For refugees all over the world, Yeldā Ali is a beacon of hope and empowerment – a Brooklyn-based advocate, author, artist and DJ whose work centers around “identity, safety and storytelling.” Ali leads a life that challenges stereotypes, bridges divides and fosters cultural understanding.
Ali’s journey stands as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Ali’s path was shaped by her refugee roots, yet her relentless will to succeed has propelled her far beyond the confines of her past. Born in Germany to Afghan parents and raised in Canada, her life’s tapestry bears witness to the strength and tenacity of refugees who have shaped America’s cultural landscape.
In celebration of World Refugee Day, Epicenter’s Curtis Rowser III sat down with the outspoken, passion-filled Ali to discuss her upbringing, thoughts on activism and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Epicenter: Can you give us a glimpse of your upbringing?
Ali: Well, we’re from Afghanistan – my family escaped in 1985. We ended up settling in Canada. While my mom was pregnant with me, she was smuggled around the world. I was born in Germany, where [my family] landed illegally but safely. So, it was me, my parents and older brother and sister. And there was really no plan once we arrived in Germany. It was like ‘if you see cops, run.’ Something a lot of refugees knew was that if you get to Germany, they won’t send you back.
Even though the German cops were waiting for my family when they arrived, and detained them, they made it out. They got housing, and then I was born. Shortly after, we actually got sponsored to move to Canada by Mennonites. Mennonites were sponsoring refugees from places like Vietnam and Afghanistan so they could convert them to Christianity. My family sat with them and compared their religious books. Once they realized how similar our faiths were, we didn’t have to convert. We actually ended up becoming really close with this Mennonite family. They sort of gave us a second chance at life.
Epicenter: Can you walk us through some of your teenage years and speak about how you began to process all of this as you became more aware of what was going on?
Ali: We ended up spending about 14 years in this city on the west coast of Canada, where the Mennonites sponsored us. I was 15 years old when we moved to Toronto, just a few months before 9/11. My life changed in so many ways after moving. I had parents with dreams to succeed in this new land but they were not assimilative at all. They were very much like ‘go to school, get the skills you need and don’t believe the stories they tell you.’
Up until 9/11, nobody really knew where Afghanistan was. But after 9/11, my life was terrorized by white kids, I was being shoved in lockers, called a terrorist. But I was always empowered to use my voice and use my brain, and be very smart and get educated. My family has always been pro-education, pro-women’s rights and deeply interested in the politics around us.
I don’t look back on my life and think ‘oh my God we were so poor.’ I don’t think about the holes in my shoes or our birthday presents being regifted. My parents really tried to make it the best they could for us, with nothing. People think, ‘these refugees want to come and just be in our system, be on welfare and take, take, take.’ No, these people want their dreams. They want to work their asses off. My dad did everything he could to prove that we’re not here to take from the system but to add to it… constantly trying to prove to people what you could become so that other refugees could have a chance at refuge.
Epicenter: Fast forward a little bit, how did you end up in New York City?
Ali: I would love to say I moved here to follow my dreams, but that’s not true. I moved to New York City as a traditional Muslim woman that got into a modern arranged marriage when I was 22 years old. I was divorced by 25 and really had my life fall apart. I’m the only one in my immediate family who made it to America. They’re still in Canada. I mean, every Afghan could talk about how we’re sort of ripped apart around the world. It’s kind of like you lose access to your people when you’re displaced. But my entire family has always been very family-oriented. I try to keep in touch with everyone as much as I can, especially with technology. My aunts, my uncles, my cousins – they’re all over the world.
Epicenter: Would you say there was a defining moment in your life that led you to activism and community building?
Ali: There was no one thing that happened. There were definitely moments that reassured me, like, ‘yes, this is right for me.’ But my parents can tell you… I wasn’t the little kid that wanted bedtime stories from books; I wanted them to tell me stories about my family in Afghanistan. By 4 years old, I would get in trouble in daycare because I wouldn’t eat lunch; I’d spend all of lunchtime giving speeches. My family would say I speak our mother tongue like I have spent my whole life in Afghanistan. Organizing, mobilizing, speaking – this was natural to me. I was always encouraged to use my voice, to pay attention and to care about other people. I don’t consider myself an activist. It’s such a hard title to take on. I receive it when people call me one, but it’s so difficult to be an activist.
Can you speak to that a little bit?
Last year was a big pivotal moment for me. I realized that I didn’t want to keep fighting. I want to actually create the things I want to see; I don’t want to keep fighting against the things I don’t want to see. I realized that just because people support you when you’re screaming doesn’t mean you need to keep screaming. The generations you actually come from are people that kept screaming, ready to die for a cause. I don’t want to die, I want to live a long healthy life and create a lot of stories around my culture and keep my language alive.
This is my life. This is my identity. I’m 37 years old and 2021 [after Afghanistan was taken by the Taliban] was the first time people wanted to fucking hear from Afghans. Until then it was always like, ‘what are you talking about? We like to make movies about killing you. We can’t humanize you because it’s going to make us feel weird.’ But now people are starting to care and realize maybe there’s a story here that we haven’t seen. The lion is slowly taking the pen from the hunter.
I think it was around March of 2022 when I took a break and it was because I was so physically unwell; I was ruining my life every day. I could no longer get caught up in fighting and screaming for help, especially when [help] is not coming. I saw how people responded, and I realized that people weren’t going to start caring about Afghans through the news. People are going to care about Afghans through Netflix [and other media]. So I want to focus my efforts on storytelling, not on screams that are just swept into history’s dustpan. I’ll always be centered on community. We’ve had so much taken from us, and I believe the only way we take it back is through community, stories and art. I don’t need to see more Afghan trauma. Let’s focus on our songs, our dance, our language, our stories. My dream isn’t to rewrite history but actually bring some accurate literacy to the spectrum of what is historically written. I get to choose what I speak on and how I want to speak on it and how I want to create around it.
A couple of years ago, I would have been like, ‘I want to die by assassination. Like, if I’m not dying by assassination, then I didn’t do shit in this world.’ But now, I’m starting to visualize things that I’d never given myself permission to visualize in the past because I didn’t believe I would live a long life. And that’s all part of the trauma. As I heal, my activism will look more like art, and my art will have meaning because it’s morality-based.
Epicenter: What are some things you’re working on now, and what should we expect from you moving forward?
Ali: I feel like I’m always giving myself the liberty to create in different ways. I see myself focusing a lot on directing, writing, and DJing of course. Definitely stepping into telling stories in different ways. I have dreams to invent a game and make movies and write more books. I’m working on an identity piece right now, coming out this summer. I have the ability to use my privilege to keep some things alive, because 400 years from now, a lot of Afghans in America are not going to know a lot of things about my life right here, my mother’s life, etc. So while I’m alive, I take it very seriously to document what Afghan life is and was. And I’m gonna do that freely in every single format I want to.