TOPICS > Politics

Afghan-Americans Look Homeward

January 7, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: In the largest Afghan community in America, centered in Fremont, California, near San Francisco, many Afghans say they are thinking about returning to their former homeland to help that devastated country get back on its feet. Most of the Afghan-Americans came here in the late-’70s or early-’80s fleeing the Soviet invasion, though some came more recently. About 200,000 now live in the U.S.; 60,000 of them in the Bay area. At an Afghan food store that also sells recorded music– until recently banned in Afghanistan– a trip to a home that owner Sophia Ahmadzai knew only as a child now seems possible.

SOPHIA AHMADZAI, Store Owner: At least right now to visit. But everything is for sure, 100% of it’s good, then I can go and stay there.

SPENCER MICHELS: But everything is not good. There is widespread hunger because of a long drought and war, food shipments are just beginning, winter has arrived, impoverished refugees are returning, housing is in short supply, agriculture needs to resume, roads and communications are in bad shape, landmines must be removed, and personal safety remains unsure. These three sisters, who were child television stars when they lived in Afghanistan, want to return and help. Tania Farzana, a full-time student who has been in America since she was a child, feels a strong pull to return to Afghanistan. Living in America, she says, is like being on vacation.

TANIA FARZANA: Despite the luxuries of the vacation, you still can’t wait to go home. And it’s, it’s basically that’s what it is. It’s… For me personally, it’s like a quest. I have to go, just to see, if nothing else, to see if what I’ve been holding on to is still there. And I got to make it… At least give it a chance to make it a reality.

SPENCER MICHELS: Tania and her sister Najla, divorced mother of three children, are both ready to leave their San Francisco Bay Area homes and return to Afghanistan. Najla says her experience tutoring Afghan American children at the Fremont Library with her sisters could be useful in Afghanistan.

NAJLA FARZANA: To help educate my fellow Afghans and also help with the children as I’m doing here, I’d like to be involved in that. But again, like I said, I would like to be involved in mine sweeping process.

SPENCER MICHELS: Najla has already applied for a job as a translator for the U.S. State Department. Her oldest child, 13-year-old American-born Batool, wants to go too, to learn her culture; but not right away.

SPENCER MICHELS: Would you be a little bit afraid, maybe?

BATOOL TAHERI: Yes, I would be a little afraid. I don’t want anything bad to go on.

SPENCER MICHELS: Like what? What are you afraid of?

BATOOL TAHERI: Like, you know, how the Taliban came in and took over. I don’t want anything like that to happen. I want it to be… I want peace there. I want everybody to get along with each other.

SPENCER MICHELS: So if your mom goes, are you going to go with her?

BATOOL TAHERI: I want her to go and make sure everything’s alright. But I would miss her.

SPENCER MICHELS: While individual Afghan-American have personal hopes and plans, others are trying to organize the return of expatriates. These three, meeting at a home, want to insure that returning Afghans don’t waste their efforts. Afzal Rashid is a director of the Afghan Development Association, a non government organization operating in Afghanistan.

AFZAL RASHID, Afghan Development Association: You know, different Afghans will have different ways of helping. Some might want to volunteer for specific projects, others might want to donate money, others might want to move in and actually reconstruct the country, maybe permanently or maybe for a short period of time.

SPENCER MICHELS: He maintains there is some infrastructure left in Afghanistan, and that will help businesses get started.

AFZAL RASHID: There are tremendous business opportunities in the capitals, in big cities, in small cities. One thing I should insist that, we should encourage businesses that are labor intensive because we have massive, you know, we have large human population that are unemployed.

SPENCER MICHELS: Rona Popal, of the Afghan Women’s Association, recently attended a conference in Belgium, which stressed the need to help schools and women.

RONA POPAL, Afghan Women’s Association: If they’re illiterate we’re not going to see any future or any light for Afghanistan. So… And especially for the women. For the past 20 years they’ve deprived from the schooling and they are illiterate. And we wanted the school should be start as soon as possible.

SPENCER MICHELS: Waheed Momand, a laid off engineer, is back in Fremont from a meeting in Germany to organize expatriate Afghans worldwide. He is starting up a hot line for specialists like doctors and engineers who want to return.

WAHEED MOMAND, Afghan Coalition: Everybody wants to go there and do something. So this is why we come here and say, “Okay, no, better do the things in an organized way.” You know? So how to do that because just getting and jumping and going there, while you don’t know what’s the real need for you there, it doesn’t make that much sense, you know.

SPENCER MICHELS: Like many Afghans who have established roots in America, Momand might not be a candidate for return.

WAHEED MOMAND: Personally, I wanted to go there. But, you know, how about the rest of the family? How about my son, how my daughter, how about my wife? So I cannot be just so selfish then say ” Okay, because of me you all have to go there.” You know?

SPENCER MICHELS: These Afghan community leaders are making plans, but nobody’s buying a ticket just yet. They want to make sure it’s safe to return and that their efforts will be coordinated. But some think the country is in such bad shape, anything will help. At a meeting of the Society of Afghan Professionals, a group of young Afghan Americans– many in high tech– Khwaga Kakar doesn’t want to discourage anyone.

KHWAGA KAKAR, Society of Afghan Professionals: Even if you finished your high school degree here, you can still contribute a lot. I mean, it’s a country that needs help in any form, which we’re all capable of doing it.

FARHAD AZAD, Society of Afghan Professionals: Culture has been banished, and I think that I would want to go back and reconstruct the museums and the galleries that… To show to the world that Afghanistan before the war has culture, has art, and has a great history.

HADI AZIMI, Society of Afghan Professionals: I’m ready to go and I am actually have made my passport ready. So I’m one of those people that would go in a month or two.

SPENCER MICHELS: Various organizations and governments– including the United Nations, NATO allies and the U.S.– Are planning for Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Afghan expatriates want to carve out their own role in that process, and they are moving quickly in that direction.