Afghan students in US reach out to homeland

Farhad Ahad was 9 years old when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Soviet troops surrounded his school and threatened his family.

His mother shepherded his five sisters to safety in Pakistan and then came back for him and his father. They fled under the cover of darkness, drinking foul-tasting soup, sleeping in mud huts, and bumping across the country in the scoop of a bulldozer to safety.

Mr. Ahad had close calls along the way. Soviets launched flares that lit up the night sky in hopes of finding his caravan of people. Ahad happened to be in a shadow of the lone mountain in the area. Another time, a Soviet attack helicopter circled them. They froze. For some unexplained reason, it moved on.

His story is not unique. Thousands of Afghan students in the United States have dim memories of a homeland that's always been at war. For this reason, many have had little desire to give money or time to Afghanistan.

Slowly, however, after years of lukewarm commitment, a small student movement has started to help fellow Afghans, including refugees, relatives, and complete strangers. Spurred by humanitarian concerns and evolving views of their homeland, some students are reaching out with concrete assistance.

Hussee Rasul, an Afghan student in Texas, is one example. The master's candidate at Southern Methodist University in Dallas started Young Afghans of Texas, a group that links Afghan students together. She collected $1,600 for schools in Kandahar and Peshawar, Afghanistan. In addition, she raised around $1,000 this winter, which she used to buy $4 blankets that were distributed to refugee camps.

But the bureaucracy and difficulty of the process forced her to abandon the projects. Problems especially cropped up when soliciting money - a chronic problem among students.

"They're so caught up in the world of America," Ms. Rasul says. Many think: "I'm an American now; [Afghanistan] is in my past."

Other obstacles also prevent a more-concerted effort:

* Afghanistan has no central banking system.

* The Taliban imposes strict rules on entrants into the country (men must grow out their beards, for example).

* Afghans are never sure how much of every dollar makes it to refugees when they give to large humanitarian aid agencies because of hefty overhead costs.

Still, as money and time become more available, students' views toward their homeland have evolved.

Donations trickle in. In 1999, Save the Afghan Children, an aid agency, says student associations donated $1,500. And many students gave individually, to the tune of $228,000 in 1999.

But a war far removed from their - and America's - minds has further distanced some Afghan students from their homeland.

"It wasn't real for me. I don't feel this connection with [Afghanistan]," says Louna Amin, a recent philosophy major and Afghan graduate of the University of California at Davis. "You heard it, but I was not facing the reality of it." Besides, she says, "other causes were more accessible."

Ahad agrees. "We came here with zero, and I was too focused on myself. I feel guilty, but I don't blame myself," says Ahad, who now works as a manager for Enron Broadband Services in Texas.

Students point out that the donor fatigue that some aid agencies are experiencing isn't applicable to students. Donating time and money become a lower priority amid time constraints and college life.

Political and social conditions also work against students. The Taliban have banned the employment of female Afghans and complicated aid workers' roles. In recent weeks, they said foreign visitors must sign a guarantee to accept Taliban interpretations of Sharia Islamic law.

Given these challenges, many students opt to give money straight to relatives.

Walid Majid, an Afghan living in California, sees small donations to relatives as a "Band-Aid" solution, helping relatives survive a month at a time.

This money, he says, has an indirect, trickle-down effect on the economy - if relatives spend the money on local goods. However, long-term aid for schools, irrigation systems, and infrastructure still suffers.

Some students and expatriates, Rasul says, are skeptical because some in the Afghan community have skimmed money from donated funds.

Perhaps as a result, she no longer asks for money; she asks for shoes. People are willing to donate them, and she doesn't have to spend money on shipping or distribution.

When her parents went back last month, for example, she sent along a box of 40 pairs, collected just from family and friends. The only requirement for those on the receiving end: bare feet. "If they don't have shoes, just give them to them," she instructed them. "It doesn't matter who. Just give them shoes."

The mixed feelings in the Afghan student community stems partly from a disaffection with the Taliban rule (although some students say it has helped stabilize the country).

"There has not been a government in Afghanistan that has received the support of the general Afghan student population," says Kawun Kakar, an Afghan who returned to work in Pakistan and Afghanistan. "There is not a government that represents their views or values."

"A lot of Afghans are ambivalent [about giving]. If I go back and help out, am I helping the Taliban?" Majid says.

Given such questions, Ms. Amin decided to take matters into her own hands: she brought the Taliban to her. A representative from the Taliban came to the University of California at Davis to give students a better understanding of the current regime.

"He did a very good presentation, but I didn't believe him," Amin says. But it made her think more seriously about the issue. She now says her efforts for the country "come from more of a sense of humanity." She knows she easily could have been one of those that are in the Pakistan refugee camps. "We take so much for granted," she says.

Ahad has similar feelings. But when he has tried to help, roadblocks have sprung up. "I wanted to send money to build a playground, but the director said it would be looted," he says about Save the Afghan Children, a respected outlet for many US-based Afghans.

Mr. Kakar also knows what it's like to be baffled by the situation there. "I knew, though, that no matter how much I read about Afghanistan, I would not be able to understand the present situation unless I visited myself."

For graduation, his aunt gave him a round-trip ticket to his home country. One of the few expatriate students to return, he also worked in Pakistan for the United Nations, touring refugee camps and translating documents.

Kakar says efforts are being made to help Afghan students return and help their country. The International Organization for Migration is working to connect Afghan students abroad with nongovernmental organizations in Pakistan where they may work in their areas of interest.

But Majid remains realistic. "We try to be hopeful about this, but in reality, it looks bad," Majid says.


Slowly, after years of lukewarm commitment, a small student movement has started to assist fellow Afghans, including refugees, relatives, and complete strangers.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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