A city attorney writes Afghanistan laws

Lawyer, an Afghan native, helps international group aiding new democracies

January 02, 2003|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Enayat Qasimi was an Afghan refugee in Pakistan, a teen-ager with a seventh-grade education and dim prospects for more schooling, when an injury to his hand derailed his dream of owning an auto body shop.

A decade later, he is a lawyer at one of Baltimore's most prestigious firms, a polished professional with a master's of business administration as well as a law degree, who in between bond deals, mergers and acquisitions is busy writing laws for his native Afghanistan.

"Life takes some very strange turns," Qasimi, 29, said recently at the downtown offices of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston.

Qasimi is drafting laws for nongovernmental organizations - nonprofit and community groups known as NGOs - operating in Afghanistan.

He is doing so at the request of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, a Washington-based group that helps develop NGO laws for developing and "transitional" countries, the latter meaning former communist nations or others moving from authoritarian to more democratic governments.

The International Center's mission is twofold: to make it easier for NGOs to do good works in countries that sorely need help, and, by paving the way for locals to take an active role in their society, to encourage democracy.

"The idea is to allow local organizations particularly to form so people can do things to help themselves, so they can have a stake in society," said Stephan Klingelhofer, president of the International Center. "If people are used to working together to solve problems, that translates into political activity. What we're trying to do is create a safe legal space for people to organize and be active."

It's that political side effect, along with fraud perpetrated by some NGOs, that makes many governments wary of the organizations, even if their people desperately need the food aid or other help they're offering, Klingelhofer said. Some leaders consider NGOs a threat to their power because they give citizens a source beyond the government to seek help, he said.

"[Afghan President Hamid] Karzai was recently quoted saying they've had three invaders over the last 20 or 30 years: `First there were the Communists, then there were the terrorists and now there are the NGOists,'" Klingelhofer said. "He's suspicious."

The delicate task of drafting NGO laws and persuading the Afghan government to adopt them has fallen to Qasimi, who not long ago would have seemed an unlikely source of legal scholarship and international diplomacy.

Before the Soviet invasion and occupation forced his family to flee Afghanistan in the early 1980s, Qasimi was something of an outsider in his homeland. He is a Shia, a minority sect of Islam that has long faced discrimination in that country. Thousands were reportedly slaughtered under the Taliban.

With two siblings and both parents - a construction worker and housewife - Qasimi moved to Iran and later Pakistan. Unable to enroll in school because his family was suffering financially, Qasimi worked in a bakery and then a body shop.

He hoped to open a body shop, a lofty goal for a refugee with little education, but had to put those plans on hold after he burned his hand on the job.

Unable to work while the burn healed, he enrolled in an English class. He soon discovered he had a facility for the language, and it wasn't long before he had a job teaching English to fellow refugees. His employer was the International Rescue Committee - an NGO.

Many of those Qasimi taught were educated Afghans who needed English skills to gain admission to American colleges. Since he knew English, Qasimi figured he could follow the same path if he could somehow make up for his lack of formal education. He plowed through books on math, physics and history.

The chaos of refugee life worked in Qasimi's favor.

Because student records were not available from war-torn Afghanistan, a board of college professors was set up in Pakistan to evaluate refugee students' educational credentials. Board members quizzed students on academic subjects and issued letters vouching for their knowledge.

The self-taught Qasimi impressed the board and won a full scholarship for a year at the Lawrenceville School, a New Jersey prep school. He went on to Bard College, earning an undergraduate degree in economics.

Next came law school at the University of Maryland and business school at the University of Baltimore. He enrolled in both at the same time, completing degrees in three years. He joined Whiteford, Taylor in 2001.

Qasimi goes by "Yat" and lives in Mount Vernon, a short walk from Helmand, an Afghan restaurant where he dines once or twice a week. The restaurant is owned by the brother of Afghan President Karzai.

Dinner at Helmand was Qasimi's closest link to the Afghan government until last January, when a friend who serves on the International Center's board asked him to help draft NGO laws.

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