The Exiles Return - Afghans want to come home
But will they be welcomed by those who never left
By Babak Dehghanpisheh
Fawad Muslim knows how tough a life in exile can be. In 1984, at the height of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, he fled his homeland on horseback with his mother and older brother. The group traveled at night and hid by day, surviving mostly on green tea and bread.
FROM PAKISTAN THEY eventually made their way to America, where Muslim faced the equally daunting challenge of being a teenager in America. He took a job at Roy Rogers and played videogames on his home computer. He also went to mosque on Fridays, didn?t date and dreamed of returning to Afghanistan. "It was tough fasting [during Ramadan] at Roy Rogers," says the 28-year-old. "It was really hot in the kitchen, and I would get dehydrated."
Going home may prove even tougher. Like many of the 5 million other Afghans who abandoned their violence-racked homeland over the past two decades, Muslim returned after the U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban last fall. Also like a growing number of Western returnees, he landed himself a good job: with the help of Afghan connections in the Washington, D.C., area, Muslim?who earned a bachelor?s degree in computer science from George Mason University?was appointed director of technology at the Foreign Ministry in Kabul. Other exiles from the West have been hired as doctors and engineers, bureaucrats and teachers.
The country desperately needs such skilled professionals; most of its educated classes either were killed or fled from the Soviets, the mujahedin or the Taliban. Yet their return is breeding resentment among those Afghans who stayed behind during the country?s dark years. "Local Afghans don't understand why Afghans coming from abroad, who didn't suffer all these years, should be rewarded with jobs," says Daiva Vilkelyte, a program coordinator for the International Organization for Migration.
More than 1 million Afghans have returned to their homeland since March, shattering the United Nations, 12-month projection in only four months. The Ministry of Repatriation and Refugee Affairs, dormant under the Taliban, is buzzing. Teachers, doctors and engineers were the first to heed President Hamid Karzai's call for skilled help. Many boarded planes in the United States, Germany or Australia "the top three hubs for the diaspora in the West" and came back to Kabul for the first time since the 1970s. But these Afghans are the minority, perhaps fewer than 1,000 in all. The vast majority have traveled from Pakistan over treacherous mountain passes in the back of open trucks. Many believe they have nothing to lose, leaving behind dismal refugee-camp existence and the resentment of their hosts. But their fate is decidedly different from those returning from the West: without credentials or connections, many have become Kabul?s newest squatters, resorting to panhandling to make a living.
Western exiles have already amassed a remarkable degree of political power. Karzai, who himself spent most of the last decade in Pakistan, recently appointed several foreign returnees to posts in his new cabinet. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who lived most recently in Maryland, was named Finance minister, replacing Hedayat Amin Arsala, another returnee from the United States. Taj Mohammad Wardak, an American citizen and longtime resident of southern California, was named Interior minister. Sharif Fayez and Seyed Makhdoom Rahin, both returnees from Virginia, retained their positions from the interim government as ministers of Higher Education and Culture, respectively. Jahed Hamrah, once a D.C. cabdriver, has been posted as the consul general to Toronto.
Many former mujahedin resent the fact that these Afghans have laid claim to the fruits of a victory they did not win. Although some exiles struggled in menial jobs in the West, they at least enjoyed the benefits of a peaceful society. Mir Jan, 42, who heads the foreign-relations office of the Department of Defense, points out that nearly 300 fighters from his small district in the Panjshir Valley were killed in the past two decades. In recent years, some even died of hunger. "When I saw these Western Afghans raise their hands in the Loya Jirga [National Assembly] to make demands and speak arrogantly, it made me break out in a sweat," he says. "These Afghans were washing cars, washing dogs or washing dishes abroad. They were making fun of us when we were fighting for our country, and now they come to enjoy the peace we secured."
Even ordinary Afghans worry that they, too, will miss out on the benefits of peace. Fazlullah Jalal, 43, a law professor at Kabul University, rails against Afghans who return from abroad drinking bottled water and spending the equivalent of his monthly salary on hotels and food in a single night. He argues that many of the newcomers seem more qualified only because of their experience in the West. According to him, he was passed over for the top post at the Ministry of Higher Education because Fayez had more worldly credentials as a Ph.D. in comparative literature and Oriental studies. "I was surprised that an intellectual from abroad can come in and quickly outrank an intellectual who never left the country," says Jalal. "I was a thousand times more qualified for the job."
Those who return are also finding that even with good jobs, they are less at ease in their homeland than they expected. The years abroad have altered their cultural mores?or at least that?s what their countrymen suspect. Returning exiles are often accused of being improper Muslims. Some have even been labeled mulhideen, or nonbelievers.
Nasrullah Stanikzai, 44, a Kabul University professor, says that a female professor returning from France was accused by her colleagues of having AIDS for refusing to wear a full veil. "These are supposed to be the enlightened members of our society," says Stanikzai. "What reaction can we expect from people in the provinces". Halima Kazem, 24, recently left Manhattan to take a job with Karzai's press office. She wore makeup to work and found that many men, particularly soldiers, were staring at her. Only later did she discover that talking to the men disarmed them and made them act like shy boys. "I'm just getting used to it now," she says.
The danger is that other returnees will not stick around long enough to do the same. Many religious conservatives in the government fear that a shift toward a more secular-minded civil society will undermine their power. They are only too eager to make things uncomfortable for the newcomers. "These fundamentalist accusations are a way of arousing people against you," says Higher Education Minister Fayez. "Unfortunately, it works. It worked in Iran, and it works here." If it's not careful, Afghanistan may find itself once again losing out on its citizens who want to come home.
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