As teens, we could have sought asylum in America. Instead, we came home to Afghanistan.

As teens, we could have sought asylum in America. Instead, we came home to Afghanistan.

September 5, 2019

Exactly 10 years ago, we were among 40 high school students from across Afghanistan to visit the United States for a year of high school exchange program — Youth Exchange and Study (YES) — funded by the U.S. Department of State.

YES participants in America faced two choices: to seek asylum either in the USA or cross the border into Canada and secure a “better” future for themselves, or to come back to Afghanistan and face the unknown future. Over the course of the seven years the YES program ran, many students chose to seek asylum, forcing the Department of State to end the program for Afghan students. We were among the few who chose to come back home.

When we returned to Afghanistan in 2010, the future looked very uncertain. Everyone wanted to know why we would come back. From Afghans who saw groups of us in similar blue YES T-shirts at the Dubai Airport to our high school teachers, fellow classmates and principal, everyone wanted to know, “Why did you come back?” 

Why did we gave up such a good opportunity for a better life abroad?

Not once were we asked what we learned in the United States, or whether the trip helped us explain the reality of Afghanistan to Americans, or what did Americans think of Afghanistan and Afghans, let alone whether we missed anything from Afghanistan when we were away.

Building a better future for back home

We struggled to come up with an answer to the question of why we came back. Eventually, we stopped telling people about the exchange program and we began to work on ideas that could make small positive changes to the things around us in our communities.

We became part of and led a nonprofit youth engagement organization and a for-profit strategic communications and media production firm. Our priority in both organizations has been to bring about positive change at a grassroots level in a community. We kept Afghanistan’s prosperity at the heart of our every initiative.

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Inspired by the generosity of our host families to value the importance of helping youth excel in their lives from an early age, we started a program where more than 30 street children got the opportunity to attend school instead of working on the streets for minimum pay. We are proud to say they are in high school now — the same level we were when we went to America. We have worked with hundreds of youth in different corners of the country to promote a sense of civic activism in their communities — a concept we brought from the USA. We aimed to promote a friendlier picture of Afghanistan. We campaigned to instill hope among youth at times of despair.

In Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2019. (Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

During this time, we weren’t alone, the country moved forward with us:

►A free press with hundreds of media stations and publications makes Afghanistan one of the most open and free countries for the news media in the region. 

►Afghan women are at the forefront of development now. We have more Afghan female members of Parliament than America has female lawmakers in Congress.

►Music is a new pastime although it was once banned in Afghanistan. Our young boys and girls play music at place the likes of Carnegie Hall all over the world.

►Afghanistan now nurtures young experts with degrees from world-renowned schools and encourages them to run the government.

►90% of the country has access to telecommunications. We are now a young country, connected with the world through social media and able to freely discuss and debate anything we wish to.

Violence, destruction never far behind

This has not been easy, and it didn’t come free. We witnessed very dark days in the country too.

When in 2011 we decided to celebrate Afghanistan’s Independence Day by rallying around the capital, an explosion rocked the city, targeting the British Council in Kabul. Years later, on an evening of August 2016, we had to rush out of our office and drive toward the American University of Afghanistan to pick up our friends and colleagues who made it out of the university while the insurgents carried an attack. We sat the whole night worried because many of the students, including one of our colleagues, were taken hostage inside the university.

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We have lost count of how many days we had to take cover and stop the entire office from working due to a nearby attack or explosion, and later talk to all the staff because everyone was shaken. We have spent days and nights not knowing what will happen to us the next morning or evening. That is not a good feeling. This is not just our story, but also the story of a young generation who lives this life everyday in Afghanistan.

Afghan Independence Day in Kabul in August 2019. (Photo: Hedayatullah Amid/epa-EFE)

We never gave up hope. After every tragedy we picked ourselves up, supported our family and friends and worked harder to build a change today, in hopes of a better future tomorrow. We did all of this and more, to do justice to ourselves and to give everyone who asked the answer to why we came back. We did all of this to prove that Afghanistan is worth the fight. 

Now that a draft agreement between U.S. negotiators and the Taliban is proposed, and as the peace deal continues to be finalized, everyone seems to be frustrated and there is a rush to bring the Taliban to table through any kind of settlement. Our story is just one example of millions of other stories in Afghanistan. Our story should remind everyone that, even though the future of Afghanistan seems dark and unclear, a rushed peace deal in which the gains of Afghans and their allies are pushed back decades isn’t the solution.

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Unfortunately, Afghanistan has become a threat against peace in the rest of the world. The United States fears that it can again turn into a hub for international terrorism. This is why Afghanistan’s story has to become a success story. With the fundamental changes that have occurred over the past 18 years, we are very close. We must not endanger these achievements by a hasty peace deal.

U.S. soldiers in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2015. (Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

Afghanistan can be a peaceful democracy only if these fundamental changes are not compromised. Negotiators must always keep in mind the sacrifices of all the young women and men who lost their lives fighting for a great cause. While the international community has invested and sacrificed for the good of Afghans in Afghanistan, the Afghan people pay and sacrifice everyday to keep the rest of the world safe from global terrorism. While we do believe the Afghan people are paying the ultimate sacrifice, none of us should give up on this country, because terrorism knows no boundaries.

Ilias Alami is the executive director of a youth-led nonprofit organization based in Afghanistan, Afghanistan’s New Generation Organization. He is an alumni of American University of Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @IliassAlami

Suleiman Amanzad is chief operating officer of Rumi Consultancy, a strategic communications firm, and the founder of an education for street children program in Afghanistan, Sarak-e-Awal. He is an alumni of American University of Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @SuleimanAmanzad

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