Q&A with… Shekaiba Bennett, a New Canaan resident by way of Afghanistan
NEW CANAAN — Shekaiba Bennett saw Russian tanks rolling into her street in Kabul in 1979 when she was 9 years old.
The following year, Bennett moved from Afghanistan to Long Island, N.Y., along with her immediate family.
As an immigrant to the United States, she developed an avid interest in advocacy and political activism, something that continued after moving to New Canaan. Bennett, now 48, is co-chairwoman of New Canaan’s United Nations Committee and coordinator of the International Ladies Group.
Q: How did your
interest in advocacy come about?
A: I’ve been doing advocacy all my life, especially more since 9/11. I’ve been very involved with interfaith community advocacy and I’ve also been involved recently in the last three years with the resettlement of refugees in the area.
There are a couple of families who have been settled in Stamford.
Being an immigrant child — I came to this country when I was 10 years old from Afghanistan — just by virtue of being here, you’re forced to be an advocate.
By background I’m a teacher, and that started out from the day I came here. I was always teaching people about my background, where I’m from, with the hopes of breaking down stereotypes — whether those stereotypes were about my country or my religion, culture or food — that, to me, is advocacy.
Q: When did you come to the United States?
A: I came in 1980 with my immediate family after the Russians invaded Afghanistan in 1979. I remember the Russian tanks going down our streets. We were very privileged and lucky that we got on a plane from Kabul to Paris and then took the next flight to New York.
My dad worked for UNICEF; I’ve come from a long family of people with an education and humanitarian background.
When the invasion happened, my father saw his colleagues either being killed or disappeared by the Afghan Communist Party and other political groups. As someone who worked for a Western organization, he knew he was going to be a target.
That realization really hit home when, in the middle of the night, the secret police came to our house. There was a knock on the door and my father was convinced that it was for him, but it was actually for his younger brother, a recent graduate of a law school in Kabul. He was doing political advocacy for people who were being jailed without due process. We never saw him again.
Q: Have you been back to Afghanistan since?
A: I did make a trip in 1996 to the border of Pakistan as my family members were leaving, just as the Taliban was taking over the country. My family members were trying to get out and I went to help them with paperwork along with the United States Embassy, which was the closest one at the time. My family secured their visas and are all here in the country now.
Q: How did your interest in photography start out? Any current projects?
A: As an advocate, I’ve always been interested in people, their background, their stories. When I was at school, my major was art and I focused on photography and continued with that throughout graduate school.
At the moment there is an ongoing project. I’ve taken some photos here and there. One day I would love to see what could come to fruition. I’m very interested in documenting Muslims in America. What I mean by Muslims — a religion, not an ethnicity — is that I would love to show the diversity of who Muslims are. That, to me, has not been captured and that’s a small ongoing project for me.
Q: You were on the New Canaan Democratic Town Committee?
A: Yes, for 10 years. I’m now doing work with them but I’m not on the board. I’ve alway been politically active and it seemed the right time when I was here to start to join a political organization and learn about the town.
From helping out with campaigns to making phone calls to being out in front of the polls at 5 a.m., I’m politically involved. I’ve been a lifelong Democrat and I consider myself in the Bernie Sanders camp of the Democratic Party.
Q: How is it being co-chair of the U.N. Committee of New Canaan?
A: I have been so for about eight years. It’s a grassroots organization that promotes awareness of worldly issues in this town. Our mission is to put on two lectures a year, and those two lectures are about current or world events.
Our new mission for the next few years is climate change. We’re having a series of speakers who will come to educate our town, not only about how climate change is affecting the world, but how it affects us here locally and in the state of Connecticut.
Q: Why did the committee choose this topic?
A: We’re not a political group, but we really felt that with the political climate going on, we saw climate change as something important to educate people about.
Q: What other kinds of community outreach have you been doing?
A: What I’ve been doing since 9/11 is a lot of community outreach. What I mean by that — I’m not a religious scholar — but I find myself in a position where I can help educate, especially after the last presidential campaign, where there was so much Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
It’s interesting because once you have that level of of hatred, people really want to know why. The pendulum really swings and you ask, “Why is this a thing? Why is Islamophobia going on?”
For me, community outreach is wherever people have invited me, like the Rotary Club, the Lapham Center and the Presbyterian church. I take it seriously as part of my civic duty. If I can educate one person or if one person can come meet someone from “that part of the world” to have that human touch, maybe they’ll learn.
Feedback from those events has been very positive. I’m always surprised that some people come after the lectures and say they’re surprised to learn that Islam is an Abrahamic religion.
The other part that I find, since 9/11, is that over and over again it’s the same question. It surprises me. Have we not moved on? I feel like there has been enough Islam 101 through community outreach, but some of the questions remain the same.
Q: Is education a pathway to help bridge these divides?
A: Education is definitely the No. 1 thing to help bridge communities.