10 years on, Afghan Americans see lost opportunities
By Ernesto Londoño,
KABUL — When U.S. bombs started pounding Afghanistan a decade ago, Farid Maqsudi, an Afghan American, was busy turning the ghosts of a largely forgotten childhood in Kabul into business plans.
Weeks earlier, the Sept. 11 attacks had made a U.S. assault on Afghanistan feel all but inevitable. By the time the air campaign began Oct. 7, 2001, the New Jersey businessman had started thinking about how he could contribute as the nation that had welcomed him at age 10 went to war in the land of his birth. Within months of the Taliban’s fall, he was on the ground in Afghanistan.
“A lot of Afghan Americans came in to help out with that sense of responsibility as an American and as an Afghan,” he said. “I came back to rebuild.”
Rebuild he did. Maqsudi, fluent in Dari and sage in the ways of corporate America, soon landed contracts to build the new U.S. Embassy in Kabul and a major road. During the first three years of the war, he was involved in 17 major business ventures.
Yet, looking back, he and other Afghan Americans who returned to their native land see a decade of mistakes, missed opportunities and miscalculations. The hope is gone, replaced by disillusionment.
Even Maqsudi, who did exceptionally well in a war economy flush with cash, said he and other Afghan Americans have little to be proud of. They say that the benefits of what was rebuilt have not trickled down to average Afghans, that the money they have amassed has largely been sent overseas, and that today’s Afghanistan is in many ways worse off than it was when they came to help.
“Sadly,” Maqsudi said on a recent morning, sitting in the shaded patio of a Kabul restaurant, “I would say I was not successful.”
The motives of Afghan Americans who returned were as varied as the reasons they left. There were those who embarked on short visits to see old neighborhoods and relatives. Some came hoping to get a slice of the bonanza of foreign aid that was pouring in. Others arrived with dog-eared land deeds, seeking to reclaim a physical part of their past.
Gina Hamrah, a salon owner from Virginia, returned with a sink — an improbable donation in a war-wrecked capital. She hoped it would help a fellow beautician.
“I felt so guilty for such a long time that we couldn’t do anything for people living under the Taliban,” said Hamrah, 48, who is married to another Afghan who had spent years out of the country, Jahed. “We decided that as soon as the opportunity came, we had to go back. We wanted to show our children where our blood is from and show our Afghan friends and family that there is hope.”
Gina Hamrah’s first visit was emotionally devastating. The streets of Kabul were filthy. Much of the capital had been reduced to ruins. The scores of orphans and amputees transported her to the years of war she had dodged.
“I was crying nonstop,” she recalled of her trip, which was the subject of a Washington Post article in 2002. “I thought I could have been one of those people.”
As draining as the homecoming was, the Hamrahs felt an obligation to stay connected. Jahed Hamrah, a physician assistant who had driven a taxi in the Washington area to support himself, accepted a posting as Afghanistan’s consul general in Toronto.
Gina Hamrah and the couple’s sons, who were then teenagers, stayed in Virginia. The suburban mother started raising money to send containers of humanitarian aid and established a nonprofit organization to help Afghan widows. Even though her advocacy work got her as far as “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” her ambitions were stymied by lack of funding.
“It was very difficult to raise money,” she said. “I tried USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development], the Pentagon, the State Department, asking for a small donation. But I was too small, and they would only give grants to big contractors, where 90 percent gets pocketed.”
After four years in the Foreign Ministry, Jahed Hamrah said, he concluded that the Kabul government was hopelessly corrupt and incompetent.
“Everything became political and for financial gain instead of working for the people,” he said.
He turned to the private sector in Kabul, where Afghans who are dual nationals can still make good money. But he said he sees this phase of his work in Afghanistan not as a chance to resurrect the country, but rather as an opportunity to make money to offset the income he lost while working for the government.
“I gave up on this,” he said, with resignation. “This is not going to work. This is not fixable. It’s on the verge of collapse and civil war.”
Some Afghan Americans, though, remain cautiously hopeful.
Arezo Kohistany, 23, who was raised in Fairfax County, chose to return two years ago, as the conflict was worsening. Having left in 1997, a year after the Taliban seized control of Kabul, Kohistany was stunned by the poverty and the state of infrastructure in the Afghan capital when she landed.
“You could see how badly the policy had failed,” said Kohistany, who was an economics major in college. “How could so much money be coming into a place and not much happening? It hasn’t trickled down.”
She briefly worked at the American Chamber of Commerce in Kabul, where the underlying problem came into sharp focus. The vast majority of the dual citizens who were working in the country were skimming off the war economy, she said, and very few people wanted to invest in sustainable industries in a country bedeviled by corruption, arbitrary justice and cronyism.
“There wasn’t a lot of support for the private sector,” she said. “I don’t think the government sees a long-term benefit to this.”
The mining sector, in which she now works, is among the few showing promise. Chinese entrepreneurs are pumping money into what she sees as Afghanistan’s best bet for self-sufficiency after the United States and its NATO allies disengage in the years ahead.
“I want to be a part of that,” she said. “I really would like to stay here long term.”
Maqsudi, the wealthy businessman, is not rushing out the door. But the 49-year-old is gradually drawing down his business holdings in Kabul and spending more time in New Jersey. His initial goal, he said, was to be a “transitional figure” who would leave Afghans with a foundation on which to build.
“The Afghan expatriates, in general, made off better than the Afghans themselves,” he said. “That’s what I consider my failure.”