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Fremont, Calif., has the largest Afghan community in the United States. They even call it "Little Kabul" now. Nearly 60,000 Afghan-Americans live there, most of them having arrived after the Soviets invaded their country in 1979. Now, for the first time in 20 years, many of the Fremont refugees are planning to visit their homeland. Reporter Debra Schifrin spent time with three of them in Fremont, as they prepared for a trip frought with potential heartache.

Feature: Going Back Home, To Afghanistan

By Debra Schifrin [3/8/2002]

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Schifrin: They've built lives here. Katrin Fakiri, Emal Newman, and Rahima Haya -- refugees from the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. They've built vibrant lives. Twenty-nine-year-old Katrin has a high tech job and close friends. Emal, a few years her junior, works with his great love -- airplanes. And Rahima, of an older generation, helps foreign students adjust to America. But they all have been waiting for this moment as long as they can remember. Now, Katrin says, it's time to go home.

Katrin: I'm nervous, I'm excited, I'm also really afraid. Not so much for my safety, but afraid of what I'm going to see. All those memories I've held all those years are of good things, playing with my brothers and sisters and cousins -- fun, happy, laughing-type of memories.

Emal: What I remember was, uh, Russians, tanks, a lot of bombing.

Schifrin: Emal Newman's childhood memories couldn't be more different from Katrin's.

Newman: Some of the heavy Russian airplanes that would bring tanks to Jalalabad, the airport, and, uh, every time they would go over the houses they would shake the entire house complex. And I've seen some of my closest friends being, uh, run over by tanks, you know. They bring them home, and the family starts crying and you see the blood all over the coffin and stuff. So, that is what I remember.

Schifrin: Rahima Haya had kids of her own by the time she fled Afghanistan. But she reminisces about the foods of her childhood...sweet black carrots and sour cherries they ate with salt. Poverty and joy mixed together.

Rahima: People, I remember, they were very happy. They loved to go picnics on Fridays, also I remember children -- they enjoyed. As a child I laughed a lot, and the other children -- they were happy"

Schifrin: But for all of them, the moment arrived when the situation became intolerable and they had to leave. They fled to the United States -- temporarily, they thought. But as they slowly adjusted to a confusing new culture, they watched the situation in Afghanistan worsen, and their hopes of return diminish.

Now, for the first time in two decades, a window of opportunity has opened. They are taking advantage of the U.S. involvement and the relative stability of the region to visit Afghanistan.

Katrin and Emal join UN-sanctioned delegations. They'll be distributing food and blankets, and helping ask what aid should come next. They flew to Pakistan last week and navigated the difficult roads into Afghanistan. There are no direct flights. For Emal, this trip is a duty because he feels he has abandoned his homeland.

Emal: Living the life here is very comfortable, I gotta admit. It's a comfortable life, very relaxing, no worries, nothing. But when you see your countrymen back home suffering, and then all over a sudden you just kind of wake up and say, 'Hey. You need to help."

Schifrin: Rahima Haya also is going to help. She is determined to leave in coming weeks -- whether she is able to join a delegation or has to go on her own. She says that now the Taliban regime has fallen, there is finally a chance to help the women of Afghanistan improve their lives.

But for all three of these travelers, there is also a very personal side to this trip. They want to look up old classmates and relatives, and see their old schools. Emal says the first thing he will do is to visit his old home.

For Rahima, that will be impossible. A few years ago her nephew sent her a picture of her house. It was completely destroyed by two rockets. Katrin believes that her house still stands -- and her parents want to move back in.

Katrin: Now, we don't know who's there, so I'm definitely going to go and try to reclaim our house.

Schifrin: How will you do that?

Katrin: We have the paperwork, we have the deed. I think it is going to be as simple as walking up, ringing the doorbell and seeing who lives there. If there is a needy family living there, we're not going to kick them out, or we're not going to ask them to leave. But, if I can reclaim it, we will reclaim it."

Schifrin: This may seem like a dangerous endeavor for a petite woman in a volatile region, but neither Katrin, Emal, nor Rahima fear for their safety. They are adamant on that point. But they are afraid of confronting the horrifying change that has afflicted Afghanistan since they left.

Rahima: The people that I left, they loved each other, they didn't kill each other -- they didn't hate each other. Twenty-three years of war made my people so that they are killing and they are starving. Family have seen their, um, children, their husbands their mother, fathers killed in front of them. They are suffering a lot. Not just starvation, but emotionally.

Katrin: I am prepared for the absolute worst. I'm prepared to see a lot of maimed people, poverty, children begging. But what I've heard from my friends who have gone back previously, I mean, you truly feel at home when they go, it's like, you're no longer a foreigner. I don't even remember that feeling, I've been here so long I feel like this is my home, but there's always that part of you that senses that you really don't belong. So I want to go back to see if I'll feel like this is home, or if I'll feel like I'm an outsider there as well.

Schifrin: Katrin, Emal and Rahima are not alone in their desire to return. Although travel to Afghanistan came to a halt for a few months following Sept. 11th, there are now more than twice as many Fremont residents going as there were before the terrorist attacks. And hundreds of others are preparing passports and visas, and putting their names on a waiting list for when direct flights to Kabul become available. Many want to start businesses, hoping to create a fuller, if simpler, life then they have now. Some older people want to return so they can die and be buried in their homeland. As one Afghan-American leader told me, 'We are a homesick people.'

Still, not everybody is ready to go back just yet. They want to go in 6 months or a year, when they hope peace will have a chance to really take hold, and there will be more stability. Emal Newman has no patience for that attitude.

Emal: Who wants to wait until there is more stability, there is more security, I have one thing to say to them: 'Stop that.' Because the more you wait, the more people are going to die. If you think you are going to go help, this is the time.

Schifrin: In Fremont, Calif., I'm Debra Schifrin for The Savvy Traveler.

Savvy Resources:


Time Photo Essay: http://www.time.com/time/photoessays/afghanwomen/

Forced Migration Review on Music and Afghan Refugees:

USA Today: "Little Kabul" Immigrants Apprehensive:

Newshour: Afghan-Americans Look Homeward: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/jan-june02/homeward_1-07.html

US Border Control: Afghans In U.S. Thrust Into Spotlight

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