Hope amid war: Why some young Afghans refuse to flee

On World Refugee Day, Afghan's chief executive tweeted about the 60,000 refugees who voluntarily repatriated so far this year. Others, from an IT worker to an Afghan Olympic committee official, explain why they're determined to never leave.

John MacDougall/AP/file
Students from Balkh University met German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, in December 2014. Many young people have since fled to Europe, but some are determined to stay.

Karinat Saadat is determined to beat the odds and stay in Afghanistan, even as she witnesses her university-aged peers flee a lack of jobs and prospects, and deepening insecurity.

“It’s up to us, it’s up to human beings to do anything; if we decide, we can do it,” says Ms. Saadat, a student of Pashtun literature, a poet, and a painter, who comes from a largely illiterate family. “There are a lot of chances in Kabul. It’s wrong to say there are no chances.”

Saadat may be in the minority – judging by the sheer volume of young Afghans among the 178,230 of their countrymen who sought asylum in Europe last year – but she is not alone. Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said today, World Refugee Day, that more than 60,000 Afghan refugees had voluntarily repatriated from Iran and Pakistan in the first six months of 2016. “It is a sign of confidence [in] future inside the country,” he tweeted.

It’s not that 19-year-old Saadat or the many other young Afghans who have chosen to stay think the Taliban are going to end their insurgency tomorrow. Nor that scarce jobs will somehow become plentiful. Nor that the Afghan government will improve and corrosive corruption will end.

It’s because they love their country, and wonder who will rebuild it after decades of war, if the very talent to do so simply seeps away.

“The young generation all want to stay in Afghanistan, they love their country,” says Hekmatull Shahbaz, a recent graduate and an official of the Afghan Olympic committee, who edits the weekly Kankash youth magazine. “Young people will work hard. But if I leave my country, if we leave, who will make this country?”

Yet to convince them to stay, he says, “the government needs to pave the way for civil society and job creation.”

'Afghanistan needs you'

That’s becoming increasingly difficult as Western cash and programs dry up, 15 years after US forces first ousted the Taliban in 2001 and, alongside NATO nations, began a vast nation-building exercise that has swallowed billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives. With US and Western forces now far less numerous, Afghan security forces are facing an increasingly potent Taliban insurgency.

Still, some young Afghans are resolute in their decision to stay.

“Going out is not the solution,” says Mohammad Tahir Roshan, a media officer at the Minister of Information and Culture, who declined an offer from two friends already in Germany to pay his way to join them. “If we work hard for our young generation, we will do good work. We want to build their capacity.”

Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan has registered significant demographic improvements, from more widespread education and better health care, to less child mortality and longer lifespans.

But the insurgency – and an economy growing at one-tenth the pace it was in 2013 – are causing many to leave. A grass-roots campaign called “Afghanistan Needs You,” aimed at educated young Afghans to prevent brain drain and stem the exodus, was started last year by a handful of young activists.

Western analysts who have watched the rise and fall of the latest burst of optimism, after the 2014 presidential election, say young Afghans wanting to stay are facing the gravity of a worsening political and economic situation.

The troubled 2014 vote yielded a cumbersome government headed by two leaders, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah. Investment levels are dropping, and many businesses are closing down.

“The push factors are getting worse,” says a Western official in Kabul who asked not to be named, referring to the shrinking economy and security problems.

“There is a sense that the casino is still open, but the odds are getting worse,” says the official. “There may be fewer and fewer opportunities, but they still see, once in a while, the guy beside them becomes a millionaire because he finds a great contract, or the right connections to the palace.”

'Best educated young generation ever'

Every year 400,000 to 500,000 new Afghans enter the labor market, though only a fraction will get jobs.

“The reality is that Afghanistan right now has the best educated young generation it ever has had, and they cannot apply their optimism, their patriotism … and their new developed skills,” says Alexey Yusupov, country director of the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Kabul. “There is a huge gap, the economy can’t fill this gap … so people will leave."

His organization has examined reasons why Afghans are leaving. Among other profiles, one young businessman has expensive mining equipment sitting idle in Kabul, because it is too dangerous to move it and operate it in the provinces.

Another man, who is 38, had fled his home eight times and “started from scratch” each time he returned, after sometimes finding his place looted and burned.

“Afghanistan was only something kept together by foreign support and the military. Now this bubble has burst and it will settle in a much lower place,” says Mr. Yusupov. “At some point this synchronization with reality will begin.”

But for those left behind, like Wahid, a young IT specialist, there are “relatively more chances” of getting a good job, says Yusupov. He makes good money working on a foreign contract in Kabul. He recognizes that the stress and depression in Afghanistan can be unbearable without a job, and although he is critical of those who leave, he says he will join them if he can’t work, or security worsens even more.

“Young people are going to Europe, but by leaving they are making Afghanistan ready for a third war,” he says.

Yet attitudes can change, and Mr. Shahbaz, the young Olympic committee official, saw it happen. He recalls seeing two young men engaged in a “very serious discussion” last year in Kandahar, a conservative former Taliban stronghold. He approached them and asked what they were talking about – and made them swear to tell the truth.

One was a high school graduate who had had no work for three years. They told him they were debating the best way to target a luxury glass office building beside them with a rocket-propelled grenade: Should it be hit from the left or the right to cause maximum damage?

“I asked them to think about how long it took to construct this building. How many engineers and how many workers did it take?” recalls Shahbaz. “They realized it was wrong to attack, and from that time on have thought about how they could build Afghanistan, instead.”

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