Hamdullah Mohib was a graduate student in London when two friends from Kabul came to visit him. One was an American, the other an Afghan like himself.
He took them to Hyde Park and was struck by how differently the two men spent their time: The American walked through the grounds admiring the beautiful flowers. The Afghan barely noticed the gardens as he agonized over whether to stay in England or return to Afghanistan.
Mohib was chastened to realize that he, too, barely registered the world around him.
“I can never appreciate a flower,” he says. “My father did. It’s not a small matter to appreciate life and beauty. My generation, only a very small number can think like that, who are lucky enough to appreciate the small things in life like flowers.”
As a young boy, Mohib lived in refugee camps. As a teenager, he was sent to England to escape the Taliban. As a university graduate, he returned to his native country, even though family and friends tried to talk him out of it.
Now, at the tender age of 32, he is Afghanistan’s new ambassador to the United States, representing a country where 75 percent of the population is younger than 35 — and has never known a day of peace. And is sick of it.
“We’ve lived through conflict all our lives, since the day we’re born,” explains Mohib. “We didn’t choose it; it was imposed war on our generation. How long do we bear this?”
In a nation traditionally ruled by kings and tribal elders, his generation — the young, the tired, the impatient — is trying to reclaim its homeland. Now the first-time ambassador and his 29-year-old American wife have come to Washington to make the case that real change is not only possible, but happening.
It’s not something you can see, he admits. Violence and tragedy still dominate the headlines about Afghanistan. There are no cranes hovering over Kabul. But it’s there, he insists, in every conversation, in the plans and dreams of millions of young Afghans.
“You start to feel that change is coming,” he says. “And that change is peace, is hope.”
No one is more startled to find him in Afghanistan’s beautiful Kalorama embassy than Mohib himself. His boyish optimism, tempered by a lifetime of dashed hopes and unexpected luck, is the result of his improbable journey to Washington.
He was born in 1983, the youngest of 11 children, in a small mountain village north of Jalalabad. His father was a court clerk in Kabul. The Russians had already invaded, and people had started disappearing, including a cousin.
Mohib’s father packed up the family and crossed the border into Pakistan, firmly believing that living in a refugee camp would be temporary — a month, two, tops. The months turned into years, but the family remained convinced that they would return to the home they didn’t realize was gone.
“People were proud of the fact we were refugees, because we’re fighting an invader,” says Mohib. When the Russians left, they finally went home, optimistic because the mujahideen freedom fighters were in control: “This was a moment of complete hope.”
But then civil war broke out, and the family again fled to Pakistan; this time it was not a proud migration, and the refugees were derided and scorned. So it was a relief when the Taliban — strict, religious, respected — brought order to the chaos. Mohib’s father brought the family back home.
Once again, hope turned to fear. The Taliban turned out to be violent extremists, so dangerous that the family decided that their youngest son, now 16, would be safer elsewhere. Boys had started disappearing — recruited by the Taliban or taken to the front lines by force. Mohib was “just the wrong age at the wrong time.” His parents scraped together enough money to pay an agent for papers and put their son on a flight to London.
Mohib ended up at a guest house with other refugees. He knew some English; the biggest adjustment was realizing that he was alone and had no idea what to do next.
“Trying to understand that you’re on your own was very difficult,” he says. “Afghans are a family people.” He requested a move to another guest house with more young Afghans and started to rebuild.
His life changed forever when a volunteer took him to a local community college and paid for his registration. “I still remember the first thing the teacher said: ‘People from refugee backgrounds go off and do wonderful things. They go to universities, and they graduate.’ It looked so far-fetched at the time,” he says. “I thought, ‘Maybe the lucky ones.’ ”
But he was lucky. An adviser steered him from accounting to computers, and he went on to receive a university degree in computer systems engineering. Great Britain gave him his education, a home and eventually citizenship.
Yet he was homesick. At Brunel University, he had founded an Afghan social society where he began giving other Afghan students career advice, convincing them to stay in school. He was poised to become a successful emigré in England, but he was haunted by the problems back home.
“Every time I kept blaming the previous generation for having thrown us in this mess,” he says. After more than seven years away, he decided it was his responsibility to return to Afghanistan and at least try to do something to fix it.
His English friends told him he was throwing away his future. His Afghan friends told him, “When everyone is trying to get out, are you crazy?” Even his family said, “Don’t come. What’s the point?” But he went back anyway.
“The minute I landed in Kabul,” he says, “it felt like a big weight off my shoulder was lifted.”
Mohib’s computer skills landed him at the American University of Afghanistan, where he worked on computer and video conferences with other universities.
He also reconnected with former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, whom he’d first met at a London conference. He spent many nights with other young Afghans at Ghani’s home, arguing about the country’s future. When Ghani ran for president in 2009, Mohib headed up the campaign’s communications and social media team. In a crowded field, Ghani came in fourth; Hamid Karzai was reelected to another five-year term.
The defeat was disappointing but opened another door: Mohib returned to England with a scholarship to earn a PhD. This time he wasn’t alone. In Kabul, he had met Lael Adams, a young American working for Afghanistan’s rural development program.
As a student at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, Adams had become best friends with an Afghan American down the hall. For her master’s degree in international relations at Boston University, she studied with an expert on Afghanistan, became fascinated with the country and landed an internship there. “I absolutely fell in love with the place,” she says. “I can’t describe it in words.”
She was introduced to Mohib at a party, and the two became friends. Just friends.
“I had my whole life planned out,” she says. “I thought I would travel all over the world doing whatever kind of work I was doing until I was about 30, then I’d settle down and get married and have kids.”
As the saying goes: Man plans, God laughs. She was just 24 when the two decided to marry. Adams converted to Islam; the couple celebrated their fifth anniversary this month. They have a 3-year-old daughter and another baby due in July.
“Now I share the same sense of urgency that a lot of Afghans do, because it’s the country I’ll build a life in,” Lael says. “It’s my country now. We have to make it a better place to live.”
The road to Washington started in Kabul, just as Mohib was finishing his PhD in the summer of 2014. Ghani had decided to run for president again and reassembled his 2009 team. This time, he won the election, promising peace to young voters sick of war.
He took office as the head of a national unity government and asked Mohib to become his deputy chief of staff. One year into the job, Ghani made him an irresistible offer: ambassador to the United States, despite his lack of diplomatic experience.
“I was totally shocked,” says Mohib. Ambassadors were traditionally much older. The president assured him: “I think the American people need to know what the new Afghanistan looks like.”
It is, in many ways, an impossible job. Afghanistan’s economy is shrinking, thanks to the withdrawal of U.S. troops and contractors. Unemployment is high, and institutional corruption is still a huge problem. Ghani’s approval ratings are sinking; Afghans are fleeing to Europe by the thousands. And the Taliban is once again on the offensive, launching more deadly attacks, such as this week’s car bomb in Kabul.
All true, says Mohib, but that’s just part of the story. “That’s the toughest part: changing the narrative about Afghanistan,” he says. His goal for the three-year posting is that Americans “have a real picture of what Afghanistan is like.”
To that end, he has launched an ambitious agenda to rebrand his country. He presented his credentials to President Obama in September and spent his first six months in Washington meeting with politicians, the military, corporations, trade groups, NGOs and Afghans living in the United States.
The embassy has already teamed up with the Freer/Sackler for an eight-month exhibition called “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan.” The exhibit showcases the artisans who renovated a section of Old Kabul with carved wood, calligraphy, ceramics and other crafts.
Last month, the embassy hosted a benefit for the Aschiana Foundation, a charity that assists Afghan war orphans. Elham Fanous, a young musician trained at the first post-Taliban music school in Afghanistan, performed a piano recital. Next week, the ambassador will spend a day with a father-son team bicycling around the world on a peace ride.
In one way, he’s very fortunate. There are thousands of Americans, including hundreds in Washington, who served in Afghanistan and developed a real affection for the people and the place.
“Afghanistan has this thing about it: It really captures you,” says Mohib. “Once you’re there, you want to stay engaged. A lot of people I meet still want to do something.”
What he yearns for most, he says, is being normal, the boring routine of day-to-day life. He likes to quote Ghani’s address to Congress in 2015: “Ordinary has escaped us, but it’s what we desperately want.”
“We just want to be ordinary,” says Mohib, although he acknowledges that this is a distant dream. “It’s not an ordinary country. And I’m not an ordinary ambassador.”