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Afghanistan: International Program Draws On Diaspora Brain Trust

  • Alexandra Poolos

Afghanistan has one of the largest diaspora communities in the world, second only to the Palestinians. Estimates range from 5 million to 6 million Afghans spread across the globe from Europe and Australia to Iran and Pakistan. Many of these exiles developed work skills and professional expertise that is now in high demand back in their native country. A new program by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is recruiting these Afghans to return home to help rebuild the country. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos speaks with the director of the program and an Afghan emigre who is about to return home.

Prague, 8 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Gulma Kay Shah, a 51-year-old hairdresser in Washington, D.C., still remembers wearing a mini-skirt in Kabul.

A prominent theater professional in the 1970s, Shah traveled throughout Afghanistan performing traditional plays and leading acting workshops. She had every reason to think she would lead a fulfilling professional life in Afghanistan, perhaps one day even teaching theater techniques to new generations of actors.

Now, after living in exile for more than two decades, Shah may get her chance. In one week, Shah will board a plane bound for Kabul after living in the United States for 23 years. A recruit for the IOM's Return of Qualified Afghans (RQA) program, Shah is one of a thousand expatriate Afghans making the long journey back to her homeland.

"I was hoping that one day I would hear about the freedom, prosperity and peace for the Afghan people so that I could go back to my country and serve my people. This day has come," Shah says. "Fortunately, today, the conditions are appropriate so that I, the first woman to be involved in theater and radio [in my country, can return to] establish theater there again because our people need it. Theater can be important for them to learn about their past."

Shah grew up in the capital, completed a university degree, and enjoyed an active life in the theater throughout her 20s. But the Soviet invasion in late 1979 ended all that. Shah and her husband happened to be visiting her brother in Germany at the time. Watching events in Afghanistan from afar, Shah and her husband predicted years of chaos in the country and opted to resettle in Queens, New York, leaving behind their young daughter in Kabul with relatives.

Twelve years passed before Shah was reunited with her only child. The family then moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked as a hairdresser. Shah says that little ties her to the United States now that her husband is no longer alive and her daughter is grown with children of her own.

"My daughter is very wise and polite. But she's experienced Afghan issues first-hand, and she really doesn't want to lose me. She cannot bear me being away from her because she doesn't have any sisters or brothers," Shah says. "No one else is here. But when she knew about my decision, she said, 'Mom, I understand your feelings even though it's very hard for me to have you leave. I'm your only child, but I know you have other children in Afghanistan [that you must help now].'"

The IOM program is recruiting Afghans from every field to work in the ministries of the interim government. Exiles will be paid a local wage, supplemented by $400 a month from the IOM. Contracts will range from three months to, in some cases, permanent settlements.

So far, the organization says it has had a tremendous response to its call for applicants. In just two months, at least 1,000 people have asked to take part in the program.

Daiva Vilkelyte, the director of the RQA program, just returned from a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan, where she assessed the needs of the interim government's ministries. Vilkelyte says that with some $4.5 billion in reconstruction aid pledged, Afghanistan will need the help of its diaspora community to put the money to good use.

"I met with nine ministers, and they all were telling me one story: They need not only money. They need the money, and they need brains," Vilkelyte says. "And actually I was very proud to admit to myself that humanitarian action -- people who in their field are distributing tents or mud bricks or clothes or food to Afghan people, the humanitarian agencies -- do not necessarily think that IOM is doing a similar humanitarian work. This program tries to distribute brains, where brains are needed."

Vilkelyte says the spectrum of returning Afghans in the IOM program ranges from secretaries who speak English and can use computers, to history professors, to advisers who will help build the foundations for civil agencies that will deal with such needs as sanitation and education.

"On one hand, we are applying a very strict criteria, criteria which says university [degrees] and above. We are not really involved with looking for people with basic skills like carpet-weaving, because we believe that those skills are presently available in Afghanistan," Vilkelyte says. "The intention of this program is not to replace the knowledge which is already there, but to import something [that] is not available."

But Vilkelyte says returning Afghans will bring more than their intellects and work experiences. Their desire to return home, she says, will encourage an atmosphere of reconciliation in the country.

"Rebuilding Afghanistan is not only rebuilding the houses which [were] destroyed," Vilkelyte says. "It's rebuilding the nation, because somebody will have to come with the message of reconciliation rather than [the current trend of emphasizing ethnicity first] -- to come with a slogan of one people, one nation."

Vilkelyte is cautious in predicting the kinds of experiences returning Afghans will have once they arrive in the country. She says many of them will suffer severe culture shock and may not recognize the country of their youth.

"I believe that their warm feelings toward their country will have to have a reality check because living in Kabul means living without electricity, without heating, in dust and dirt and in extreme circumstances, even if security is there," Vilkelyte says. "It is quite hard for a person who has not lived in such conditions for the last 25 years. So let's say diaspora patriotism will be checked there. And we shall see how many of them will stay and how many of them will try to go back."

Shah may be unusual in that she hopes to stay permanently. She says that after living comfortably in the U.S. for years, she now feels she must commit herself to giving something back to the Afghans who lived through decades of war and chaos.

"After many years, I still have the hope and the desire to see Afghanistan. I am thirsty to meet my people. And I really hope that I will be able to spend a long time in Afghanistan, if my people will accept me," Shah says. "If the people of Afghanistan and the children of Afghanistan will let me be with them and to work with them, possibly I will stay in Afghanistan for a long time. Or I'll stay there for good."