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Afghans Raised Abroad Answer Call to Return Home and Rebuild - 2003-06-18


In 2002, Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a plea to Afghans from the campus of Georgetown University in Washington.

“Those of you who have gone to university and acquired degrees in various fields like medicine, engineering, accounting, computers - we need you very much,” he said. “So do come. In addition to that, work hard, learn well, and make money and bring it to Afghanistan.”

Indeed, many Afghans answered his call and returned to their homeland.

“The primary motivation is the love you have from where you come from and the fact that our county has suffered such drastic losses.”

“I was asked by President Karzai to join his cabinet. He convinced me that it can make a difference.”

“When it was safe enough for me to go back, it didn’t seem like there was any other choice to go. It hurt too much to be here when so much was going on over there.”

“It is my hope that I can help those people in the areas of mental health, in particular post-traumatic stress disorders, which is a prevalent feature of their psychological ordeal.”

Landlocked and mountainous, their country has suffered nearly a quarter century of war. Chronic conflict and instability have left the economy and infrastructure in ruins.

Afghanistan became a Cold War battleground after thousands of Soviet troops invaded in 1979. Through the 1980’s, they fought the Afghan Mujahedin, supplied and armed by the United States, Pakistan, China and others. In the end, they lost. When they withdrew in 1989, more than half of the Afghan population had been displaced by the war.

And more than 5 million Afghans fled the country. After yet another decade of strife including civil war and the oppressive rule of the Taliban many of them are finally returning.

One of them is Tamim Samee, a former manager of a telecommunications company in Washington. His family left Afghanistan when he was 16 years old. Twenty-three years later, he returned to his hometown of Kabul.

“The first impressions are very emotional,” he says. “I was hoping for a catharsis of some kind, but it didn’t come. I was hoping that I would be moved in a way that I would be happy and elated to be here. That really did not happen. I was actually sad because as soon as we touched down, we could only see carcasses of airplanes and debris and complete destruction all around.”

But Mr. Samee says he does have moments of joy - as, when he passes a familiar corner that transports him back to sweet memories of his childhood. He says that pleasure is always tempered with sadness over the physical and psychological devastation he witnesses every day.

He says many of his family and friends were surprised when he decided to pick up and go, leaving a good job and a lively social life in Washington. Despite what he calls the widespread destruction of Kabul, he feels he belongs there.

“I feel completely at home there,” he says. “I can walk about the city. I can talk to the people in the language I grew up with. It’s such a comfort to be in a city where all around you, the happenings of life are occurring in your own tongue, in your own gestures and culture and behaviors.”

Mr. Samee is working with the United Nations to help reintegrate former Afghan soldiers into civilian life. He says the pace of recovery is slow, but he remains optimistic.

Yet he is concerned the international community is losing sight of Afghanistan. Of the $4.5 billion promised by donor nations, still only about $2 billion has reached the country.

Dr. Abdul Wali Wardak, a British-Afghan psychologist, says some of the Afghans feel betrayed by the international community. While living in London, he travels often to Afghanistan to help rebuild schools and water lines in rural areas. He and many of his friends recently established a mental health center at Kabul University with their own funds.

“About 40% of the population is reporting post-traumatic stress disorders,” he says. “I think that is a huge number: almost 10 million people are suffering from some kind of psychological problem. I think the international community, as they are paying attention to the physical reconstruction should also pay attention to the psychological scars created by a prolonged war.”

Afghanistan has virtually no psychologists, laments Dr. Wardak. He hopes his center will raise awareness and encourage psychologists to come to the war-ravaged nation.

Other Afghans, like Ali Jalali, answered a direct request from President Karzai. Mr. Jalali was the chief of the Pashto language service at Voice of America when the call came to join the Afghan government. Now he is Minister of the Interior in Kabul.

“Every day there are challenges, challenges to bring real change,” he says. “It is not easy to re-build after the destruction has affected every aspect of life in this country. It is the common people that give me the courage to keep doing what I am doing.”

It is also the Afghan people who touched Masuda Anna Mohamadi, when she returned to her country after more than a 20-year absence.

“I felt like I had never seen people so beautiful in my life,” she says. “Blue eyes, green eyes -- the color of their faces was vibrant even though everything was crumbling, broken down and congested. But it did not matter. They seemed really alive and awake and not as desperate and defeated like I had thought they would. I was just so hungry for being home and for who they were that we would just look at each other and I felt alive and I felt joy.”

Ms. Mohamadi, a freelance writer, came to Afghanistan to teach English and also support her father, Joma Mohammad Mohamadi, Minister of Mines and Industry. She says President Karzai regarded her father, gentle but firm, as the flower of his cabinet.

But tragedy struck. In February, her father’s airplane crashed into the Arabian Sea. Although she maintains hope he is still alive, officials have given up looking for him. The crash remains a mystery. For her, it was a life-changing event.

“I have always felt like I had choices in life,” she says. “When we came to America, I thought I could do anything I wanted. But when my father disappeared in that plane crash, I never felt so helpless in my life. It was like being an Afghan born in Afghanistan and having no way out. It was like being poor and hungry. Maybe you saw your mother or father die, or your brother starve to death. And you had no choice but to simply bear it and survive and pray. And until my father disappeared, I had never felt that. There was always a choice, someone to help or another option.”

Ms. Mohamadi says she feels connected to her people and, for the first time in her life, did not feel like a foreigner. Although currently back in the United States with her family, she says she will return, as other Afghans find themselves going back and forth between their adopted countries and Afghanistan. Ms. Mohamadi says her students are waiting for her return, when she will visit a school she helped build and named in honor of her father.

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