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Young Afghan-American Visits His Damaged Roots


Since the ouster of the Taleban from Afghanistan, Afghan expatriates in the United States and Europe have been returning to their homeland. Some of them stay, looking for business opportunities, while others decide to move on. VOA correspondent Gary Thomas talked to one young Afghan-American who went home, and found a reality far different than his dreams.

It is a long, strange trip from California to Kabul. But, even at the age of 17, it was one that one young Afghan-American named Said Hyder Akbar was compelled to make.

"I felt really guilty for having the kind of life that I had, for managing to escape and to get an education," Mr. Akbar says. "And that also kind of drove me to go back to the country because I had this deep passion for it, but had never been there. And I felt like to sort of validate or to sort of back up my interest in Afghanistan with action, I would have to visit there and spend time there."

Now 20 and a student at Yale University, Akbar has penned a memoir of his visits to Afghanistan after the 2001 fall of the Taleban. The book's title conveys his dual heritage. Called Come Back to Afghanistan: A California Teenager's Story, it spins out a tale of adventure and sorrow.

Akbar was not even born when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. His parents fled to neighboring Pakistan, where he was born, and later made their way to the United States, ending up in California. There he grew up as a typical American teenager.

But, as in many expatriate families, Akbar grew up with an intense interest in a homeland he had never seen, but had heard of in stories of Afghanistan's former glory spun by relatives and other Afghan expatriates.

"Afghanistan was definitely painted in my mind, and it gave me images of this place of orchards and gardens and mountains and the beautiful, peaceful countryside," Mr. Akbar says. "I would have these kind of pristine images when I would think of Afghanistan."

His father, Fazel Akbar, was deeply involved in the anti-Soviet resistance from abroad, and was close to key figures in the resistance. So when Fazel Akbar was called to Kabul in 2002 to become President Hamid Karzai's spokesman, and then governor of Kunar province, Hyder Akbar felt he had to go along to offer Americans a different perspective of Afghanistan.

"There was interest in Afghanistan, but I felt like most journalists were reporting on Afghanistan, but not really looking at it in a nuanced way and not really looking at it from all sides," he says. "So I kind of wanted to offer a perspective that sort of looked deeper into Afghanistan and gave explanation to things people here that most people would not understand, and sort of looking at things through more that just the war on terror or post 9/11."

But the destruction, corruption, and political intrigue startled him, and it was a far cry from the idyllic images of his youth.

"It is incredible to go through it and look at it and breathe it. It looked like, for me, a giant wrecking ball had sort of come over the whole country from one end to the other and just broke everything," Mr. Akbar says.

Akbar went for summer of 2002 and two more, filing dispatches for National Public Radio that formed the basis of his book. He saw up close the political machinations. Another family friend, Haji Qadir, was assassinated while he was there.

If there is anything Akbar wants people to know about Afghanistan, he says it is that it is not yet quite the success story proclaimed in some quarters. He says it is still a fragile state that could collapse under the weight of narcotics production and insurgency.

"I see insurgency, I see opium, as being the two main problems facing Afghanistan right now," Mr. Akbar says. "And it is deeply worrisome for me because I do not know how much longer the situation can be in the balance like this."

Fazel Akbar had to leave Afghanistan to return to the United States for heart surgery. But his son plans to go back. For all of his California upbringing, Said Hyder Akbar remains the child of a homeland it took him 17 years to find.

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