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Afghan Exiles in U.S. Long for Peace

October 15, 2001

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NEW YORK (AP) _ The flag of Afghanistan in the corner of a grocery store hangs limply, its red, black and green fabric furled in on itself. It’s out of date _ almost 10 years have passed since Afghanistan used that color combination.

Saeed Azim won’t get rid of it, though. He has a new life here in the United States, with his wife and three small children, but the flag reminds him of the land he had to leave 12 years ago.

``There was peace,″ Azim, 29, said of Afghanistan before the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. ``We knew each other. We were educated people.″

Choosing exile over war, thousands of Afghans left their country in the years after the Soviet attack _ and many made their way to New York. For years they watched in frustration as strife and unrest kept them from returning to, or even visiting, their homeland.

But now, even as U.S. bombing causes concern about civilian casualties, they hope a stable government can be put into place.

``There is a hope among Afghans here, hope that there is a window of opportunity to see their homeland liberated,″ said Quadir Amiryar, a professor and executive director of the Central Asia Research and Development Center at George Washington University.

Estimates put the population here as high as 30,000, making the city home to the second-biggest Afghan community in the country. Nationwide, the population is estimated to be as large as 180,000, with the heaviest concentration in Fremont, Calif.

Some Afghans in America wish for the return of former king Mohammad Zaher Shah, and the first loya jirga, a gathering of tribal leaders, since 1964. But most wish for stability.

``We’re sorry to see people killed, but we’ve already lost so many,″ said Amanullah Haiderzad, an artist who once designed some of the country’s currency. ``There is hope that Afghans will build their own home again.″

While the Taliban has a small amount of support in the Afghan community even now, it enjoyed widespread approval in 1996 when it consolidated power in an Afghanistan torn apart by the years of civil war that followed the Soviet occupation.

``In the beginning, the people supported the Taliban. Everyone thought the Taliban would bring security and safety to the country,″ said Habib Mayer, 62, chairman of Afghan Community in America.

``When the Taliban first came to power, even people inside Afghanistan were hopeful,″ said Zohra Saed, an Afghan doctoral student. ``No one expected them to be what they turned out to be.″

So instead of peace and stability, and a chance to visit the homes they left behind, Afghan exiles have had to watch from America as their cities were turned to rubble, their lands mined and their cultural heritage destroyed.

``There’s a sense of sadness, a sense of loss for the next generation,″ said Shekaiba Wakili, 31, who was born in Afghanistan and came here when she was 10. ``My kids will probably never see the place I grew up.″

Afghan immigration started in significant numbers after the 1979 Soviet invasion. The first wave were the elites, the better educated, the ones wealthy enough to get out, Amiryar said.

Then came the merchants and, in the mid-1980s after the United States got more involved in Afghanistan’s turmoil, the poorer refugees. Since the 1990s, Afghan immigration to America has dropped drastically.

For the most part, when they came here, they found themselves shut out from the kind of jobs they had in Afghanistan, due in part to a lack of English language skills. So the lawyer ended up in landscaping, the accountant became a coffee vendor, the professor became a movie ticket-taker.

Many Afghans thought their stays here would be temporary. But as years passed, new lives were built, children were born and thoughts of returning to Afghanistan faded.

While residences and citizenships have changed, Afghans in New York have not forgotten the country they one day hope to show to a new generation.

``That is my biggest wish,″ Azim said.


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