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Afghanistan: American-Afghan Returns Home To A Different Country As A Different Man

RFE/RL speaks with an Afghan-American in Kandahar who fled war in his country more than a decade ago, but has returned in his retirement to work with U.S. troops to try to rebuild his homeland.

Kandahar, Afghanistan; 23 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Mohammad Rasul Khoshbin last saw his home in Kandahar nearly 14 years ago. This month, the 60-year-old retired linguist and schoolteacher returned to his native city after several years as a refugee in Pakistan and a decade living in New York City.

Khoshbin fled Afghanistan with his wife and five children in 1991, leaving behind his father, his mother, a brother and sister, and two nephews. Today, all of those who stayed behind in Afghanistan are dead -- killed in the wars and factional militia fighting that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan.

There is little left of Khoshbin's former home that is recognizable.

"I am a citizen of the United States of America, but my place of birth is Afghanistan."
Like many members of the Afghan diaspora who have returned since the fall of the Taliban, Khoshbin says he felt compelled to try to help rebuild his homeland. Khoshbin also says he wants to help the country that helped him in his darkest hour of need.

"To all Afghans who are living in the United States, my message is to come serve in Afghanistan, in your country, and stand with the American government and the American people, because America and Americans have helped all Afghans who are living in the United States. When our country was in a serious condition, while our country was on fire and people were dying, the United States took us in and sheltered us. We Afghans used America's hospitals and schools. They gave us every opportunity. Instead of war, we have to thank the United States of America and take part in reconstruction no matter how difficult the conditions," Khoshbin said.

Khoshbin has taken a job with a U.S. contractor that provides Pashto and Dari translators for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. Like many of the translators working with the U.S. military, Khoshbin has both U.S. and Afghan citizenship.

But Khoshbin is 30 to 35 years older than most of the other translators who ride along on civil affairs missions aimed at assessing humanitarian needs in remote villages. Sometimes, the rides in military vehicles over difficult terrain seem to take their toll on his health. But he says that, at his age, with most of his extended family gone, the most important thing in life is to leave a good name through his deeds.

"I am a citizen of the United States of America, but my place of birth is Afghanistan -- Kandahar. So, of course, I want to help reconstruct Afghanistan. When I left Afghanistan, the country was not in this condition," Khoshbin said.

Despite his career as a linguist and teacher, and his years of living in the United States, Khoshbin says he felt lost when first immersed in the dialect of U.S. soldiers. While waiting for a U.S. military flight from Bagram air field north of Kabul to Kandahar, for example, he was baffled by an announcement that the flight would leave at "1700 Zulu." "Zulu" is a U.S. military term for Greenwich Mean Time.

"Really, I don't understand the U.S. military abbreviations and the military language,” he said. “I am very interested to learn these abbreviations and this [dialect] because this is another world. It is another kind of education."

But while Khoshbin may still be learning on the job, his age and polite manners clearly are a benefit. His presence commands the respect of the Afghans he meets, and he has a cultural understanding of village elders that seems beyond the reach of younger translators, who grew up in the United States.

Deep in his heart, it is clear that Khoshbin remains a teacher.

One of his first missions with a U.S. civil affairs team was to the village of Akhvondzadeh, southeast of Kandahar. The U.S. team walked into a mud-walled courtyard that is serving as an outdoor classroom until a school can be built. They were greeted by the eager faces of about 50 young boys and girls who were sitting cross-legged on a plastic UNICEF tarp.

Khoshbin immediately turned to the U.S. colonel in charge of the mission and explained that he had been a teacher in Afghanistan two decades earlier. He asked the officer if he could speak to the class for a few minutes.

Two female schoolteachers dressed in chadors stood at the head of the class. Khoshbin turned to the teachers to ask permission to speak to their students. Neither woman answered. Instead, they deferred to an elderly male schoolmaster named Shah Wali.

And although the schoolmaster granted permission, Khoshbin insisted on also getting permission from the two women. In doing so, Khoshbin was making a point in front of the children -- that even as women, the schoolteachers had authority over him and deserved his professional respect. Both teachers nodded their agreement without speaking.

Khoshbin asked about the lesson book. He asked whether the children knew how to pray. Then he asked if any of the students could spell the word "bicycle" in Pashto. In a village where only a handful of adults can read, few students were able to spell the word. But Khoshbin praised those students who tried and told everyone they were good students.

"Yeah, it's going to be good because, in the Taliban regime, there were no schools like that. This is co-education. The girls and the boys are sitting together in one class. My idea, my purpose, is that if we help those people, those schools, I'm sure that in the [very near] future, they will be good. They must find a classroom and a chalk board, some chairs and notebooks, some materials -- those things," Khoshbin said.

At the end of the day, however, Khoshbin's optimism about the co-educational nature of the class turned out to be premature. When the schoolmaster was questioned about how reconstruction projects could help the school, Shah Wali revealed that there is a schoolroom where only boys are allowed. Classes for girls are all conducted outside in the courtyard.

The mixture of boys and girls on that day was a special occasion for the foreign visitors, who determine where aid money should be distributed.