One Year Later: Afghan-Americans
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
SPENCER MICHELS: Last year, when we met with several groups of Afghan-Americans in the San Francisco Bay area, many said they wanted to go home to look at the damage from the war, to help the country, and to find their families. There are about 200,000 Afghans living in the U.S., and many said they feared that American bombing– in the war to wipe out al-Qaida and the Taliban– would kill civilians. 27-year-old Basheer Ranjber, who today sells Hondas near San Francisco, left Afghanistan at age 11. He has gone back twice since 9/11, looking for his uncle without success.
BASHEER RANJBER: One of the greatest failing in my life that I have is not finding him in Afghanistan. I don’t want to give up on him because my dad doesn’t want me to give up on him.
SPENCER MICHELS: Ranjber decided to videotape his journey. Because he didn’t have a visa, he had to smuggle himself and his camera over the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan. He found Kabul totally devastated from years of war.
BASHEER RANJBER: It wasn’t as extreme as I heard about it, but yet, it was still a big devastation. Theaters that we used to go as a kid was all demolished. Our school, basically, was a pile of dirt where I was standing on top and asking my friend, “is this the school we went to?” He’s like, “yeah, that’s it.”
SPENCER MICHELS: Leaving Afghanistan, Ranjber had to sneak out because he didn’t have proper documents. He found the border extremely porous.
BASHEER RANJBER: I had to take a smuggler’s way. You hear the news that the borders of Pakistan is so tight, no Taliban can ever leave that portion, they’re back to a solid wall. Well, me with a bunch of my cameras and a couple of my friends and everything, we walk under their noses.
SPENCER MICHELS: Ranjber is now showing his video to hundreds of Afghan-Americans, urging them to return to help the country of their birth. Tamim Ansary, an American writer born in Afghanistan, had been worried about the impact of American bombing even before it began. Right after the 9/11 attacks, he wrote an e-mail to some friends, which was forwarded to thousands of Americans and quoted widely.
It said: “We come now to the question of bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Trouble is, that’s been done. Make the Afghans suffer? They’re already suffering. Level their houses? Done.” Ansary added: “We’re flirting with a world war between Islam and the West. And guess what? That’s Bin Laden’s program. That’s exactly what he wants.”
SPOKESPERSON: Please welcome Tamim Ansary. ( Applause )
SPENCER MICHELS: Because of the e- mail, Ansary became a celebrated figure, taking part in public seminars on the war.
TAMIM ANSARY: The war against terrorism is not a battle for territory, but for hearts and minds. And the hearts and minds at stake are not in the secular West, but in the Islamic world.
SPENCER MICHELS: When he returned to Afghanistan this summer for the first time since he was 16, he was surprised.
TAMIM ANSARY: What I found was the destruction, yes. You know, a terrible holocaust has occurred there. But man, those people are just… you know, they’re sprouting up again like weeds, and their mood is good. So, I really like that.
SPENCER MICHELS: You found that the United States’ involvement didn’t do quite what you feared it would?
TAMIM ANSARY: American involvement, so far, has been in tune with what I think a lot of Afghans would have wanted and did want, and they didn’t feel invaded by America. As time goes on, that could change. It all depends on how America, you know, moves forward from this, from this time.
SPENCER MICHELS: Ansary, who wrote a memoir of his heritage, “West of Kabul, East of New York,” would like America to do more than root out terrorists.
TAMIM ANSARY: We have to address the underlying social structure, grievances, social situation, economic problems. That’s where the battle has to go, in my opinion.
SPENCER MICHELS: Zemar Achikzai, a 34-year-old California mortgage lender, wants to help Afghan widows. He took this video on a very recent trip to Afghanistan, where he arranged to set up small businesses, like copy centers, for women whose husbands were killed during the past decade.
ZEMAR ACHIKZAI: I tried to find these widows and find the location and built these little businesses for them. And I’ve just come back to send the machines, all these copy machines for them so they can start doing their business.
SPENCER MICHELS: Back in Fremont, near San Francisco, Achikzai helped organize a meeting to recruit fellow Afghan-Americans and others to manage state-owned businesses in Afghanistan. The recruiter for the Afghan government was a Californian now living in Kabul.
SPOKESPERSON: The salary, starting salary would be around $16,000 a year, plus profit sharing.
SPENCER MICHELS: Several of the attendees actually applied for Afghan management jobs, not for the small salary, but for the love of country. Among those at the meeting was Zarlasht Fakiri, a medical student who just returned from Afghanistan.
ZARLASHT FAKIRI: That’s why I wanted to be a doctor, was to be able to go back and to be able to work as a doctor in Afghanistan.
SPENCER MICHELS: On her trip, Fakiri observed devastation, but also the elimination of the Taliban. She wrestled with her own conflicted feelings about America’s role in Afghanistan.
ZARLASHT FAKIRI: You meet the people whose homes were bombed because America was there. They lost family, they lost husbands. You meet widows and kids. Yes, there’s resentment, you know, but… and it’s hard because, you know, I’m very much loyal to Afghanistan. It’s where I was… I was born. It’s very much a part of me. But I was… I’m very loyal to America, too, because this is where I was raised. So it’s… it’s still a battle.
SPENCER MICHELS: In recent months, relative peace and increased flights have made it easier for Afghan Americans to go home, but it is unclear whether the latest violence will deter some from making that trip in the coming days.