The Afghan expat's dilemma: Should I stay or should I go?

Thousands of Afghans who returned from abroad after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 now face the dilemma of once again having to flee and bear the resentment of Afghans left behind.

By , Correspondent

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    A family enjoys a day off in Babur Gardens in Kabul, Afghanistan, in April. Afghans who returned to the country after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, now face the dilemma of once again having to flee and bear the resentment of those left behind.
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In a 12 x 12 windowless room hang hundreds of oil paintings, Islamic calligraphy, and other fine art pieces created by Afghan artists trying to preserve traditional art forms, as well as push local boundaries in an effort to create new ones.

The room is in The Galleria, a small arts gallery tucked away in the corner of a busy Kabul city neighborhood. The owner of the gallery is Rameen Javid, a clean cut, fast talking Afghan-American from New York City.

Mr. Javid is one of thousands of Afghans who fled in late 1970s and '80s because of a communist takeover of the country and ensuing violence and then returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. And like many other Afghan returnees, he now faces the dilemma of once again having to flee Afghanistan if the security worsens and bear the resentment of the Afghans he leaves behind.

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“We have no plans of leaving anytime soon. There has to be an extreme security situation for me to leave,” Mr. Javid says referring to his 1-year-old daughter and his wife Nadima, who was born and raised in Afghanistan.

While going to high school and college in New York, the 40-something said he dreamed of returning to Afghanistan and working with the local artists to market their work. He says he’s not going to give up his dream so quickly even if it means sticking it out through random insurgent attacks, fighting, and increasing crime in Kabul City. 

“I am helping to change the lives of these artists. I’ve increased their profit margins from 25 percent to 200 percent. I want to make art a part of life in Afghanistan,” Javid says, pointing to paintings by a master artist from the western province of Herat.

In order to cover the cost of running The Galleria, Javid takes anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of the sale price of a piece of art and gives the rest to the artist.

“When we have a surplus, we either reinvest in more stock or a different variety of goods, or give advances to artists for their personal and professional needs,” Javid says.

Other Afghan Americans are also holding on to hope that the security situation in Afghanistan won’t force them out again.

Helena Malikyar, an Afghan-American from Arizona lives in Kabul with her husband and son. She says that despite the bleak forecast that many Afghan experts are predicting for Afghanistan after international forces completely withdraw in 2014, she still thinks young Afghans will rise to the occasion.

“I count on the young generation. I think they have developed a sense of awareness that gives them the potential to pull their act together to protect the gains of the recent years and work for progress and prosperity. I am aware that this may not be achieved during my lifetime, but I still hope that my son sees the Afghanistan that his parents dream of,” says Ms. Malikyar.

‘I felt like I was failing’

Other Afghan-Americans aren’t as hopeful as Moshref and Malikyar. Many have packed up and returned back to the US, leaving behind lucrative jobs, friends, and any hopes of seeing a responsible and capable government in Afghanistan.

“For a very long time, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment in every little thing I did while living in Afghanistan, but toward the last few months, no matter what I did, I felt like I was failing. The security situation was getting worse. Attacks were becoming more random and a sense of mistrust was building all around me,” says Nilufar Shuja, an Afghan-American from California.

Ms. Shuja first returned to Afghanistan in March 2002 and has lived on and off in Kabul since then, working as a business development consultant for Afghan and international organizations. She returned to the US for good in July because she says she was seeing how quickly the security and the economy in Afghanistan were deteriorating.

“It seemed like everyone, from the international community to the ordinary Afghan citizens, were giving up. I was starting to develop a bitterness toward Afghanistan and I decided it was time to leave before I let the bitterness wash away all the positive memories and experiences I had over the last decade,” she says.

Shuja, Javid, and Malikyar all had high hopes when returning to their homeland for the first time. They all say it was a chance for them to help in their own way, big or small, to change Afghanistan’s future.

Malikyar currently owns her own translation company in Kabul. She started the company in 2007 because she noticed that a lot of development projects were failing because of miscommunication between Afghan government officials and their international advisers.

“There are a lot of translation firms here [in Afghanistan] but the translations of very important documents are very poor because the people who are translating are not fully proficient in Afghanistan’s native languages [Dari and Pashtu] and in English,” says Malikyar, who was schooled in Kabul until the 10th grade but went to college and graduate school in the US.

She says that accurate translations are just one way she has been able to serve Afghanistan’s efforts to rebuild. However, trying to find ways to help has come at a high personal cost for many Afghan expatriates.

“Living in Afghanistan as a single woman had its unique share of issues. Everyone wanted to take advantage of the fact that I had no male chaperon. I had to constantly move homes … relinquish any sense of personal space and privacy and develop a very thick layer of skin to tolerate the sensitive questions and comments that came my way,” says Shuja.

The struggles continued even after the novelty wore off.

“I realized that the biggest challenge for me, was to deal with the moral damage of a protracted war. Afghans had become survivalists. That meant they had learned to lie, cheat, and use others to their own benefit,” says Malikyar.

How locals feel about returned Afghans

However, local Afghans have expressed the same concerns about Afghan expatriates who have come back to Afghanistan in recent years.

“Most of the Afghan-Americans who came back [to Afghanistan] came to make money or for their own personal benefit, now they have the luxury of leaving when things are getting bad,” says Esmatullah a governmental employee who, like many Afghans, only goes by one name.

Mr. Esmatullah’s sentiment is echoed in a lot of offices and businesses, where Afghan-Americans have used their Western credentials and experiences to take high paying consultancy jobs, positions as diplomats and ministers, and to open up businesses.

The fact that Afghans-Americans can leave when things get bad in Afghanistan has left some local Afghans resentful and others envious.

“I want to leave Afghanistan. I see very little hope for most of the Afghan youth, the streets are not safe anymore, and you can’t even get the basic job without paying someone a big bribe or having a connection to get you in, says Sher Mohmad an unemployed high school graduate. Mr. Mohmad is referring to the deeply entrenched system of patronage and impunity for corrupt officials that prevail in Afghanistan.

Mohmad said many of his friends are willing to pay human traffickers $5,000 to $10,000 to take them to Turkey, Greece, and eventually to Europe or the United States.

“A lot of young Afghans these days believe this is their last hope before a worse government takes over here in Afghanistan. They would rather die trying to leave then stay here and be killed by the criminals on the street or the insurgent attacks,” says Mohmad.

Javid says the youth is exactly why he is staying. Some of his most popular artists are young and just getting to the peak of their careers.

“I am under no illusion that there may be a day that I will have to leave, that is why I am teaching the artists how to market and sell their own art. I am teaching them about sustainability,” Javid says.

And if the Taliban take control of Afghanistan again, Javid says he will work with the Afghan artists from abroad and keep selling for them all over the world.

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