The well-educated, 20-year-old woman did not want to leave Afghanistan, but she said she had no choice.
After receiving death threats because of her work on women’s rights, she feared for her life and left in 2013 — feeling guilty, but intending to return after a few months when the security situation at home improved.
Three years later, the young woman, now 24, lives in the United States and does not know when she will go back to Afghanistan. She told her story on the condition that her name not be used because of concern that her family in Afghanistan could be in danger.
“I left because I didn’t feel safe anywhere,” she said. “Afghanistan doesn’t need another dead body or another dead woman.”
She is one of a growing number of educated young people who, frustrated by their country’s growing insecurity and lack of job opportunities, have been leaving Afghanistan in record numbers.
The woman, who earned her master’s degree in the United States, said that growing violence against women contributed to her decision to leave Afghanistan. Her parents agreed and told her not to return. In recent years, many of her friends have also left Afghanistan — partly because of the violence and the country’s depressed economy. “I know a lot of people who are leaving because they don’t have jobs and they are scared they can’t feed their children,” she said.
As a result of unemployment and the insecurity that has followed a resurgence of the Taliban after the withdrawal of U.S. and international forces at the end of 2014, Afghanistan’s economy showed minimal growth in 2015 — about 1.5 percent, according to the World Bank. Combined with increased fighting between government troops and insurgents, that instability is causing some of Afghanistan’s brightest young minds to flee the country.
“Everybody anticipated that this was going to be a problem because of the drop-off in the economic opportunity after the bulk of international forces were transiting out,” said James Cunningham, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2014. “Unfortunately, the government effort to reorganize itself to deal with the economy didn’t materialize as they had hoped.”
Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that a large part of Afghanistan’s economy in recent years was built around the war, so brain drain was inevitable because a lot of jobs disappeared after the foreign troops left.
Although there are no reliable figures for the number of Afghans who leave each year, there was a mass exodus in 2015. Afghans accounted for 20 percent of the more than 1 million refugees who reached Europe’s shores in 2015, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and nearly half of them were young adults.
As more educated young people pack up and leave Afghanistan, government officials, who are depending on the younger generation to rebuild the country, are becoming increasingly concerned.
Cunningham said it is important to find ways to encourage Afghans to remain in their country. “There are many people who are staying and continue to tough it out, and what they can do is quite noteworthy, actually,” Cunningham said. “My last year and a half in Afghanistan, I kept telling Afghan leaders that this was a really unique opportunity . . . and that they should take advantage of it,” he said of the country’s talented youth.
Shaharzad Akbar returned to Afghanistan after finishing her studies at the University of Oxford in 2010 and works in the project-management sector in Kabul. The 28-year-old says that even though she studied abroad and has relatives who left the country, she always planned to return to Afghanistan.
“We feel a sense of responsibility as people who are privileged with an education,” she said. “If we give up, who can we expect to stay behind?”
But she also understands the fears and frustrations of many of her peers. “Every morning when I leave the house, I don’t know if I’ll come back,” she said. “Every time I’m stuck in a traffic jam, I’m nervous about what could happen.”
Feroz Masjidi, an assistant professor of economics at Kabul University, also decided to return to Afghanistan after studying abroad. After finishing his studies in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship, Masjidi returned to Afghanistan in 2011. The 31-year-old said that he encourages his students to stay but that the government also needs to come up with more long-term solutions and help build confidence in the country so that Afghans will invest in it.
President Ashraf Ghani has made stemming the brain drain a priority. Last year, Afghanistan’s National Unity Government started a program called Jobs for Peace to stimulate more employment and restore faith in the economy. However, a lack of funding may limit the impact of this initiative, according to the World Bank.
The Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations started a social-media campaign to discourage people from making the trip to Europe, warning of the potential life-threatening dangers involved on the journey there.
Even if the government promises to create jobs for young people, it cannot change the fact that the economic outlook in Afghanistan is not promising in the near future, Felbab-Brown says. The World Bank estimates that gross domestic product growth will be 1.9 percent in 2016, which would mark the third year in a row it would be below 2 percent.
About 55 percent of the population is under age 20, according to the World Bank, and unemployment is hovering around 22 percent.
Bolstering the private sector and encouraging entrepreneurship are important steps toward lessening the brain drain, says Laurence Hart, the International Organization for Migration’s head of mission and special envoy for Afghanistan.
Young Afghans also have been involved in creating initiatives to motivate people to invest in the country. Omaid Sharifi, co-founder of ArtLords — a group that paints murals on blast walls around prominent buildings in Afghanistan — said that he wants to restore hope through the arts. Some of the group’s most popular murals feature giant eyes with the slogan “I See You” written near them, designed to fight government corruption and encourage transparency. Sharifi’s most recent project is aimed at tackling the brain drain problem.
“Thousands of young Afghans are leaving the country,” he said. “So I want to do an art activation day, where we paint nine to 10 murals in one day, have street art and also show a movie about immigration.”
Even for those like the young woman who left in 2013, Afghanistan is still home.
“I want to help out, and I want to participate in rebuilding [my country],” she said. “But I want to make sure if I die, it won’t be in vain. And right now, I’m not sure it won’t be in vain.”