Afghan expats ready to return

As political talks enter a second week in Germany, exiles organize to address social, economic needs.

Seema Ghani is impatient to return to her native Afghanistan. While Afghan leaders continue to argue over a future government at talks outside Bonn, Germany, the London-based computer specialist is making plans of her own for the devastated country's reconstruction.

"I'm not even going to wait for a government. All I need is security," says Ms. Ghani. "Security means that I can start rebuilding, and that women are able to work." Two years ago, the articulate young professional founded a small charity group for Afghan women and children. Now, after more than a decade in exile, Ghani says that she can imagine moving back to Kabul, the Afghan capital, within six months to expand her work to include women's education.

Two decades of incessant violence have driven millions of Afghans to leave their country. They live in neighboring countries, such as Pakistan and Iran, as well as in the West, from Germany, to Britain, to Washington, DC, and New York. Many have excelled in their chosen professions, building thriving émigré communities. Of the four Afghan delegations at the United Nations-sponsored talks, three are based outside Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's future may hinge on the UN conference, but the success of any agreement forged here will depend on more than just signatures. In the end, expatriates such as Ghani could play a crucial role. They are dedicated to the Afghan cause, and as acquainted with the Internet as they are with traditional networking at home.

At the political talks, in their second week, delegates yesterday sweated over the fine print - in two Afghan languages - of an interim government. Then, they'll tackle the troublesome task of selecting who gets what post.

Nearby, at another UN-initiated conference, future Afghan civic leaders considered how to address the country's dire social and economic needs. On Sunday, they issued a list of recommendations, including the establishment of a ministry of women's affairs, a war-crimes tribunal, and "measures to encourage the return of exiled Afghan experts."

Iqbal Rashidzada, whose family fled in 1980, is ready to go back. Educated in New York and now living in Dubai, the smartly dressed entrepreneur is looking for a degree of political stability and the presence of a multinational force. "My decision depends wholly on these [Bonn] talks," Mr. Rashidzada says in accentless American English. "Basically, I'm taking some risks, but the way I see it, the international community isn't going to abandon Afghanistan again." Among his possible ventures, he says, is the manufacture of much-needed building materials - such as nails - or of hospital supplies.

A combination of homesickness and patriotic duty motivates exiles such as Ghani and Rashidzada, both highly successful, to consider moving back.

Yet Ghani, who wears a conservative but fashionable pantsuit, says she doubts there will be a rush of returning expatriates. The younger ones are too accustomed to life in the West, she says, while many older exiles have concerns about education and other opportunities for their children.

Farahnaz Rashedi, an exuberant Australia-based exile in her twenties, says she plans to travel to Mazar-e Sharif in the coming weeks "to see if anything is left of what I started."

Earlier this year, Ms. Rashedi donned a burqa, the then mandatory all-covering veil for women, and went to the northern Afghan city to found a home-based sewing school where women could learn skills for self-employment. (Under the Taliban, women were prohibited from work outside the home.) The daughter of a wealthy jewelry dealer, Rashedi wears makeup and her hands and neck glitter with gold. But she says covering up under a burqa did not bother her much, except that she tripped and fell down several times.

Despite their Western education and socialization, both Ghani and Rashedi say that for traditional Afghan women, the burqa is less of a burden than the pressing problems of grinding poverty.

"I want to go back and teach those people who want to learn, to help our people, to share their pain - and to put a smile on their faces," says Rashedi, who holds degrees in psychology, business management, and community development.

Rashedi rejects the stereotype of Afghan women as passive and self-effacing. And like Ghani and Rashidzada, she challenges the image of Afghans as warriors incapable of anything constructive. Her struggle, she says, is of a completely different kind. "This is a jihad itself. I don't need to go [to Afghanistan], but I want to. It's not for money or power, but because our people missed out on the things they have a right to."

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