Afghan exiles get mixed homecoming welcome

Since February the United Nations has repatriated 231 Afghans from abroad.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

After years in the West, hundreds of exiles are returning to Afghanistan and embracing a home country that some have known only through their parents. But while Afghans here have welcomed many of the returnees, tension is building in the workplace between the locals and the homecoming exiles.

Diaspora Afghans return with their degrees and multilingual skills, taking high-powered, high-paid jobs that locals say should go to Afghans who didn't flee when the going got tough. Exiles reply that they are more qualified for the jobs, and that they have given up Western luxuries to serve Afghanistan.

United Nations and nongovernmental organizations in particular are being criticized for contributing to the problem by sometimes paying exiles much more than locals. The gap in monthly paychecks can be as wide as $200 for a local, compared with $2,000 for a returned exile.

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Rina Amiri, an Afghan-American who gave up a position at Harvard University to work with the UN on the loya jirga, (grand assembly), which met this month to choose Afghanistan's next government, says locals were initially grateful that professionals like her were returning. But as more exiles come back, she says locals are feeling threatened.

"I'm trying, but the diaspora hasn't really connected with Afghans yet. There's an arrogance [among the exiles]," says Ms. Amiri. "They take out their wads of money at the dinner table and talk down to Afghans."

The UN International Organization for Migration has repatriated 231 Afghan professionals from 35 different countries since February. They are placed in various organizations and ministries that pay their salaries, which are supplemented by a $100 monthly stipend from the IOM. Another 5,300 who have applied under the agency's Returning Qualified Afghans program will be placed as soon as IOM receives funding. Ahmed Dizdarevic, the head of the program, says that so far, the returnees in the program have not complained about tensions at work.

But in the new Ministry of Women's Affairs, locals and exiles have confronted one another on the issue.

Shahla Mayhandost, who persevered in the often dangerous work of women's issues during 22 years of war in Afghanistan, is now a liaison between the 30 Afghan provinces and the women's ministry. She believes she was passed up for a higher position in the ministry because she is a local hire. "When women come from the West, we're not saying, 'Don't come and work with us' but our problem is that they don't know the pain we have suffered," she says.

"My expectation from my exiled sisters is to come back and work on an equal level with us," she adds. "We'll be very happy if they do that, but in the same spirit as us, not the West."

Mayhandost says local Afghan women working in all government ministries are unhappy that exiles are held above the locals and have approached international organizations to address the issue.

Afghan locals say they felt abandoned by those abroad and it's unfair for the exiles to reap the benefits of reconstruction. The diaspora may not be entirely prepared for the backlash they may face.

Safia Siddiqui, director of planning and foreign relations in the women's ministry, arrived two weeks ago from Canada. She is also a delegate of the loya jirga. Ms. Siddiqui left Afghanistan in 1988 but has worked on women's rights in Pakistan and Canada ever since. She speaks English, Pashto, and Dari. But local women still tell her that she's not aware of Afghan conditions and cast doubt on what she can contribute.

Siddiqui, however, is clear on what contribution she can make: "We could change the administrative and management system because we have learned from abroad," Siddiqui says.

Patricia Omidian, an American aid worker and academic who has worked with Afghans and Afghan refugees for more than a decade, says cultural differences have also played a role in the tension among the women. A number of exiles returning from the US and Britain come with expectations of a liberal Afghanistan which existed during Mohammad Zahir Shah's time 30 years ago, when women went out with bare heads and miniskirts and mingled freely with men at school and work.

"Afghanistan isn't what it was then, and the people have changed and the needs have changed," says Ms. Omidian. The majority of Afghanistan is rural, and local women tend to be more in touch with rural women than the newcomers, she says.

Not all locals feel resentment toward the returning Afghans. Says Jeena Haidari, who works as a general manager with non-governmental organizations: "Anyone who can serve the nation the best, whether inside Afghanistan or outside of it, I prefer them."

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