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The Call of Afghanistan 

Young Afghan-American professionals pledge to return to their homeland to rebuild a war-ravaged nation

Wednesday, Nov 21 2001
It was March 2001, and Ahmad Haya, a civil engineer working on the massive Bay Bridge earthquake retrofit, was sitting at a conference table in his Treasure Island offices, excitedly describing his work.

The Bay Bridge retrofit was Haya's first job out of college, and the fresh-faced, then-22-year-old engineer said he was thrilled to work on such a high-profile project, even though it involved clambering all over the bridge -- 200 feet above water -- to make sure the retrofit work was up to par.

Among civil engineers, bridgework is as glamorous as it gets, so Haya, who is Afghan-American, hesitated a moment before admitting that he had even loftier goals. Haya said that he loved working on bridges, but his life's calling -- what he described as his destiny -- is to return to his war-devastated birth country to rebuild the country one road at a time.

As a member of the Bay Area-based Society of Afghan Professionals, Haya is one of nearly 50 young Afghan-Americans who -- long before the U.S. began dropping bombs in Afghanistan -- have pledged to use their professional expertise to rebuild the Central Asian country.

"Afghanistan is a war-torn country," Haya explained from behind the conference room table in March, before terrorism or the Taliban figured into the thoughts of most Americans. "One of my goals has been to go back and rebuild the roads. That's why I went into civil engineering. Because there has always been war in Afghanistan."

As he leaned back in his chair on that spring afternoon, he had no way of knowing how complicated his noble plans would become when, seven months later, the United States would begin dropping bombs in Afghanistan to combat terrorism.

At noon on a gray Saturday in November, more than a month after the U.S. began its air raids over Afghanistan, Haya and his sister arrive at Fremont's Centerville Junior High School for a blanket drive for Afghan refugees. The crowd at the school has already filled a hallway with hundreds of blankets, some purchased just to be donated.

Haya prepares to box the blankets so they can be shipped to Afghanistan before the freezing winter months. Other members of the Society of Afghan Professionals, who range from college age to early 30s, arrive to volunteer in shifts throughout the day. The members come from all walks of professional life; they are doctors, lawyers, engineers, and technical consultants.

Humanitarian aid and volunteerism is a large component of the society, which was founded in 1999 by two Afghan-Americans who brainstormed and wrote bylaws from a Starbucks coffee shop in Fremont.

Since then, the society has grown to nearly 50 members and has acquired a sister organization in Virginia. Before terrorism came to the forefront of American consciousness, the organization focused on promoting Afghan culture and community in the U.S. and fund-raising for humanitarian aid. But now that Afghanistan makes front-page news -- some of which the organization feels is unbalanced -- the nonpolitical society has organized seminars and lectures to educate the public on Afghanistan.

"A lot of people don't know the basics, like where Afghanistan is, or who we are, so we have to do a lot of educating," says Wali Shaaker, who fled Afghanistan at age 20 so he would not be forced to fight for the Communist army. "We do seminars, telling people about our history and culture, and what war has done to our country. To give them an overall picture."

"People confuse al Qaeda and the Taliban with the people," adds Haya. "People associate Afghans with terrorism, but we say that Afghans have been terrorized by 20 years of war."

Regardless of current events, returning to Afghanistan to rebuild the country has been an underlying tenet of the organization from the beginning.

"Whatever we can do to rebuild the country, whatever it takes we will do," says Humah Bargzie, who is an industrial psychologist but says she will return to Afghanistan to improve the education system there.

"As an organization, we haven't made decisions as to when to go or how to go, because it is too early," says Shaaker, the society's president. "But with everyone I have spoken to individually, they do want to go back."

Many, like Haya, see returning to Afghanistan as a duty. "The only resource Afghanistan has left is in the young people that left Afghanistan -- people with some education or skills to help improve Afghanistan," Haya says. "Here, we have had an opportunity to get an education and make something of ourselves. If we were in Afghanistan, all we could hope for is to hold a gun and fight for freedom."

At the end of the Cold War, just before the Russians began invading Afghanistan, Ahmad Haya was born in the capital city of Kabul. His family endured the military threat for some years, but in 1980, Haya's mother decided it was time to seek safety from wayward Communist bombs and gunfire.

Haya's uncle was an airline pilot, and he helped the Hayas secure a flight to Germany. They left behind Haya's father, who refused to leave his land and home until several years later.

Haya left Kabul when he was 2, and says he doesn't remember Afghanistan, though his mother has described the houses, streets, and the lively bazaars to him so that it still feels like part of who he is.

His sister, Deana, who was 4 when they fled Kabul, has more vivid memories.

"When we left, it was night and we had to run up a hill," she says. "There was fighting -- the government troops against the Communists. My mom was holding onto my hand and dragging my brother behind her. There were sounds of what I thought were fireworks. It was bright lights, and then our shadows on the buildings. The sand was red with light. I stumbled and turned my head and I saw the entire city lit up, like the sun had fallen into the center of the town. There were sirens and whistles of rockets.

"When I see those images [of U.S. bombing] on TV, it brings back those memories."

The Hayas left for Germany that night, moving eventually to West Palm Beach, Fla., and finally to the East Bay, where there is the largest concentration of Afghans in the United States.

Though Haya says he doesn't remember Afghanistan, he says he also can't forget it. Before he left for college, he asked his mother what kind of professionals Afghanistan needed most. She told him the devastation of multiple and unending wars meant the country needed doctors to tend to the people and engineers to rebuild everything that had been bombed.

When Haya enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1996, he decided to major in civil engineering, which he says does not come naturally for him.

"I figured as a civil engineer, I could get out of school as quick as possible, and get involved so I can go back to Afghanistan," he says. "If I studied to be a doctor, I'd still be in school. Civil engineering made sense because it was the quickest way."

Humah Bargzie had been boxing blankets all morning at Centerville Junior High before stopping to chat with Haya's sister in the early afternoon. Bargzie, who joined the Society of Afghan Professionals six months ago, came to America when she was 7.

Born in Kandahar, Bargzie, along with her mother and her three sisters, fled to Pakistan to avoid the Russian invasion when she was 4 years old. Her father -- and almost all the men on both sides of her family -- had been captured by the Russians, and after her father had been imprisoned for nearly a year, Bargzie's mother decided to take her daughters to safety. Soon after arriving in Pakistan, Bargzie's mother received word that her husband had been executed.

At such a young age, Bargzie didn't initially understand what she calls "the reality of war." "I thought he was just in a prison, I didn't know he was dead," Bargzie says of her father. "I kept asking my mom how my dad would find us if we went to a different country. It wasn't until I was 20 that I found out that he had been thrown out of a plane. And it's only recently that I can say all of this without bawling."

Though she has physically escaped the wars of Afghanistan, she says she can never get away from it completely. In early November, she received word that relatives living in Kandahar had died because of the U.S. air attacks.

"My mother's cousins have died from a direct [American] bomb attack," she says. "And they weren't even happy with the Taliban. They were planning to leave, but they got killed.

"Every political move in Afghanistan is a change in our lives."

Society President Shaaker agrees that the bombings have had great impact on him and his community, creating a wrenching ambivalence for many Afghan-Americans.

"Now it is very difficult to live in this country," he says. "I love living here, and you contribute and enjoy the opportunities available to you here, and it's great. But meanwhile, the country that is giving you refuge is the same one bombing the country that you left. Emotionally, it's very difficult to deal with."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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