Afghan Expatriates Weigh A Return Home

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It's been two decades since Weis Sherdel and his family fled Afghanistan.

He's now 35 years old. He's got an MBA from Georgetown University, a strong connection to his homeland — and a big decision to make.

"I'm seriously considering giving back to Afghanistan," he says. "It's something that has never left me. I need to deliver on that promise."

Sherdel's roots in Afghanistan run deep. His grandfather was the mayor of the capital city of Kandahar province before the Soviet invasion, and he says he feels a moral responsibility to go home to help rebuild the country. But he has some major reservations.

"First of all, security," he says. "Would I be safe in that environment? And then the second thing is really financial compensation — would I be able to make enough money to support my family back in the United States?"

These are the kinds of concerns that keep many Afghans living abroad from coming back.

The Tipping Point

Clare Lockhart, is the director of the Institute for State Effectiveness, an organization focused on rebuilding Afghanistan. She lived there for five years after the U.S. overthrew the Taliban. Back then, she says, she saw a steady stream of Afghan expatriates coming home.

"Between 2001 to 2005, there was a trajectory of hope and working towards a better future and institution building and progress," she says. "And then something tipped in 2005."

Security started to get worse. There were more suicide attacks and a general feeling of unease everywhere. And many of the Afghans who had come from Europe, Canada and the United States started to believe Afghanistan was getting worse, not better.

"The impact of that is that the people who might have joined in the moment of hope have begun to leave," Lockhart says.

Tamim Samee is one of them. He moved back to Afghanistan in 2003 and started an information technology company, committed to trying to build a new future in Afghanistan. But after more than six years in Kabul, he's packed his bags and left with a lot of regrets. He now lives in Beirut with his wife and baby daughter.

"So many things could have been better," he says. "So many things could have been done better. For me, to leave the country at this point is very sad."

Samee says doing business in Afghanistan was hard enough, but working for the Afghan government would have demanded moral compromises that he wasn't willing to make.

"Corruption is rife throughout the system, and you either become part of the system or you're spat out very, very quickly," he says. "And I just didn't want to go through that ordeal."

Investing In The Next Generation

Lockhart says Afghans from abroad can make a difference for a while, but they get frustrated and leave. A more lasting solution, she says, is to rely on the Afghan workforce already in the country, by investing in the country's high schools and universities. She says more than 70 percent of the population is under the age of 25.

Since 2001, she says, the international community and the Afghan government have given secondary education short shrift. The Taliban suffocated the development of an entire professional generation, and Lockhart says Afghanistan is now at risk of losing another.

"It seems that the country really is at a turning point and that the opportunity rests with the people of Afghanistan — and particularly with the next generation," she says. "And the key opportunity for the country is finding ways to make them stakeholders in their future."

It is a future Sherdel, the Georgetown graduate, thinks he wants to be part of.

"I'm aware of the frustration, of the corruption, of the inefficacy of things," he says. "But I'm not so discouraged that I would say I don't want to go. So I still have hope. I still am optimistic."

And he still has to make a decision.

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