`A foreigner in my own country'


Expatriates: Many Afghan-Americans, reluctantly or not, have heeded their homeland's call and returned to help rebuild Afghanistan.

March 11, 2002|By Marcella Bombardieri | Marcella Bombardieri,BOSTON GLOBE

KABUL, Afghanistan - No one called Sharif Faez at his home in Virginia to ask him if he wanted to be appointed Afghanistan's new minister of higher education. They just went ahead and named him. He found out about it from a relative, who heard the news on the BBC.

Only later did someone call him with the official offer, which he was not quick to accept.

"I told him, `It may seem easy to you from there, but here it's not easy for me to decide,'" says Faez, a writer and translator who spent two decades in the United States. "`I have to pay a mortgage. My son is still in college.'

"I wasn't excited at all, because they put me in a very awkward situation between my country and my family," he says. "It was the hardest decision of my life."

Faez, who eventually accepted the invitation, is one of many Afghan-Americans who, reluctantly or not, have heeded the call of their homeland and returned to a liberated Afghanistan. Two exiles returned from the United States to take Cabinet positions, and several others hold high-level posts in the government. Other Afghan-Americans have returned to do humanitarian work or offer their professional expertise where needed.

No one is keeping track of the number of Afghan emigres returning, but the International Organization for Migration says it has been receiving 100 candidates a day in Peshawar, Pakistan, for its program to match well-qualified Afghan expatriates with short- and long-term positions in Afghanistan.

Those who have taken the leap have come to a place where their salaries are, by U.S. standards, almost nonexistent. It is also a place sorely lacking in the most basic creature comforts.

Perhaps most disorienting of all is how their homeland is no longer familiar. Expatriates have been changed by years in the West, and Afghanistan has been changed by two decades of hunger and deprivation.

Yet, despite the loneliness of many returned emigres, there is something uplifting in the task at hand.

"If you can build something in the midst of all this destruction, it is an enormous pleasure," says Faez, 56, nursing a glass of reconstituted powdered milk in the decrepit hotel where he is quartered until his wife joins him from Virginia.

Expatriates are needed desperately here, Faez says, because they make up the bulk of educated Afghans and because "some of us coming from the West have a better vision."

"We have an open mind, a belief in change, a belief in democracy," he says.

They also must have stamina.

Faez arrived in Kabul to find no power, heat or running water in his room at the former Intercontinental Hotel, a once-grand establishment that fell into disrepair under the Taliban, but now houses many of the government officials who have returned from abroad.

He went to his new office the next morning in a suit and tie, eager to meet his staff. Having taught literature at Kabul University for two years in the 1970s, Faez thought he had some idea of what to expect.

In the ministry, he found a collection of weathered men with long beards and turbans, all of them wrapped up in blankets.

"I thought, `There are so many janitors here!' Faez recalls. "I asked who was in charge, and someone came forward and said he was my deputy. I was really stunned."

So Faez told his deputy he wanted to arrange a meeting for the office staff. The deputy protested and said that the professors from Kabul University were waiting to greet their new boss. Faez asked where the professors were. "These are them," the deputy answered, pointing to the men in blankets.

"When I taught at Kabul University [before the Soviet invasion], everyone was well dressed, with neckties," Faez says. "And here I was among a room of bearded janitors."

Faez then launched into a speech about his goals: ridding the university of ideologies and fanaticism, and promoting democracy, independent thinking and the participation of women.

"One old man raised his hand and said: `We haven't been paid in five months, and we need food. You have to start your reconstruction from my empty stomach,'" Faez says. "I realized these people can't even afford to buy a razor to shave their beards."

The elite evaporated from Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Some left because, as intellectuals, they were targeted by the Communists. Others left because they had the financial means to escape the conflict.

Zohra Rasekh was 15 when the Soviets moved in. The invasion separated her father, an intellectual traveling in Germany, from her family in Kabul. Her brother, a medical student in perfect health, died in his sleep one day. It was a chilling, mysterious tragedy that seemed to befall an unusual number of other medical students who, like him, openly opposed the regime.

Like her brother, she, too, "had a big mouth" and stubborn ways, Rasekh says. On days that students were instructed to deck themselves in Communist red, she wore green.

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