Mustafa Babak: Unlocking the Potential of the Afghan Diaspora

Born and raised in Afghanistan, Mustafa discusses his own identity as a member of the Afghan diaspora, and offers a hopeful message about the strength to be found in unity

 

I was born and raised in Afghanistan and have been living in the U.S. since 2011. My journey might seem unique to many, but if you were born and raised in Afghanistan, the journey may sound very familiar: survive several conflicts, live an immigrant life, work and study hard, and make your parents proud. My journey has just been that: I survived the Soviet invasion, the ensuing civil war and the rise of the Taliban I lived as an immigrant in Pakistan and pursued a successful career in PR and communications back in Afghanistan after the Americans arrived in 2001. 

 

My immigrant and post-conflict experience have had a profound impact on me. I became a survivor, appreciating the character-building challenges and opportunities that come with three decades of protracted conflict, turmoil, and uncertainty. Perhaps the biggest impact on me has been the yearning to pay it forward or play a role that adds a slightly positive narrative to the Afghanistan story. This mission is with every Afghan I know, especially those of us who had our formative years in the midst of conflict. 

 

This feeling has become much more pronounced in the past 9 years, since I left Afghanistan. I first came to the U.S. i after receiving a private full-ride college scholarship for the next four years. I, of course, missed my home and my family, but while I was away, a sense of guilt emerged for not playing a role in making things better for Afghanistan. Over these years, I have remained close to Afghan issues and have stayed involved through my work and the Afghan American community in the U.S. I have spoken extensively at TEDx and several national and international youth conferences to highlight the role of Afghan youth in Afghanistan’s future. 

 

Last year, I began exploring the potential role of Afghan Americans in constructive policy making on Afghanistan. Diaspora communities have traditionally championed causes for their countries of settlement such as preserving cultural heritage and identity, voting rights, and citizenship, as well as advocating for their country of origin such as human rights issues, reconstruction, and economic development. Diaspora have also played an instrumental role in advancing constructive bilateral engagement between their country of settlement and origin. The Afghan American community has been underutilized as a resource to play a similar role. It’s not very evident as to the challenges that have kept the Afghan American community from engaging on issues of their interest, but there has been a limited awareness of the basic makeup of the community, our priorities and challenges let alone avenues for members of the Afghan diaspora to channel their energies towards constructive engagement.

 

In collaboration with the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C. and the Open Society Foundations, I began a comprehensive study of the Afghan diaspora in the U.S. The goal was to understand the basic makeup, socio-economic demographic, estimate population numbers and potential challenges and opportunities in advance of exploring constructive collaborative platforms through which Afghan Americans can engage in responsive and constructive policy making on Afghanistan. 

 

The first of its kind on the Afghan diaspora, the study revealed several noteworthy findings:  

 

While Afghan immigration in large numbers to the U.S. did not start until the early 1980s, Afghans arrived as early as the 19th century with Mohammad Kahn fighting with the 43rd New York Infantry Regiment and Zarif “Hot Tamale Louie” Kahn, a restaurateur in Wyoming. 

 

Today, there are approximately 400 thousand Afghans living in the U.S., with the majority living in California, Virginia, New York and Texas. The study finds that Afghan Americans are a vibrant part of the American mix, contributing with their hard work, culture, delicious food, generous hospitality, and well-educated second and third generations. Compared to other immigrant communities, Afghan Americans are relatively new in the U.S. and largely immigrants of conflict, possessing relatively lower social, educational and economic capital than their peers.

 

The study also looked at the organizing capacity of Afghan Americans, finding that Afghan Americans organize mostly around religious and entertainment issues. Despite a considerable appetite, Afghan American organizing and engaging efforts around development efforts for their country of origin and advocacy issues in the U.S. is almost nonexistent. This is not entirely surprising given a historical lack of organizing culture in Afghanistan. 

 

There are tremendous opportunities as we build a better understanding of our community. Early signs of success are beginning to emerge mainly driven by the second generation of Afghan Americans who are beginning to organize around professional, social, and civic issues through organizing conferences, petitions, cultural events and running for elected offices.

 

I have seen the potential our community can bring to our newfound communities within the United States as well as efforts back home in Afghanistan. The opportunities that lie ahead are tremendous, and the potential that Afghan Americans have to affect constructive and positive change both in the U.S. and Afghanistan are very promising. Sustained action, both at the policy level as well as at the grassroots level is needed to realize these opportunities. 

 

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