"They Deserved My Respect"
aid worker, and the College's intern at the United Nations, Ashraf Haidari
is on a mission to break down the stereotypes associated with the world's
by Steve Charles
When his future Wabash classmates were battling each other
on high school sports fields, Ashraf Haidari '01 was running for his life
through a Kabul, Afghanistan street, a Mujahidin rocket screaming overhead.
When he speaks today about stress, he's not referring to final exam jitters.
He's recalling the day when, as a United Nations radio operator, he was
taken hostage and robbed at gunpoint by a band of militiamen. He was freed
only after a rival group broke in, killing one of the men in a lengthy
When he wrote, as an intern for the United Nations High Commission for
Refugees last summer, that "Taliban guards systematically killed
thousands of civilians in the days following their military takeover of
Mazar-e Sharif," he wasn't penning cold analysis of distant atrocities.
His father, mother, brother, and sister had been refugees in the city,
and for more than two months during his sophomore year at Wabash, he had
no way of knowing whether they were alive or dead.
If Wabash wants an immersion learning experience to examine man's cruelty,
cynicism, and indifference, Haidari can take you to the folks to teach
it. From the Taliban killings to opportunistic aid workers in dusty camps
to the Soviet and Western diplomats that used his country as a Cold War
football, he knows the facts from the ground up. He's studied them intensely
as a political science major at Wabash even as he's worked numerous jobs
on campus to send money to support his family, now refugees in Pakistan.
Yet the 26-year-old has not merely survived a nightmarish coming of
age; he's emerged a hopeful and disarmingly approachable man whose lodestar
is his belief that all people should be treated with dignity. Reference
his days as a teenaged assistant field officer for the U.N. in a refugee
camp in northern Afghanistan: placed in charge of "casual laborers,"
older men who before being driven out of their communities had been doctors,
engineers, or civil servants, he chose to work beside them rather than
order them around as others had.
"These were professionals suddenly working for a kid," Haidari
explains. "In any other situation, I'd be working for and learning
from them. They deserved my respect."
Teaching that respect for the more than 17 million refugees and internally-displaced
people in the world has become Haidari's mission as he graduates from
Wabash. Few lives have more painfully yet effectively prepared a Wabash
man to embrace his chosen vocation, and few Wabash men have stepped off
the stage at Commencement with such a difficult yet compelling life's
work at hand.
The Kabul of Haidari's childhood was a city ripped by conflict. His boyhood
was punctuated with battles between the invading Soviets, the Soviet-backed
Afghan army, and Mujahidin rebels. The Soviet's notorious tactic of disguising
anti-personnel mines as toys and killing and maiming children is a threat
Ashraf recalls well. He saw the mines, and his schoolteachers showed safety
films describing what to do if such a toy was spotted.
His father is a pharmacist, but wages were low and professional employment
rare, so 13-year-old Ashraf supplemented the family income as a sidewalk
"I'd buy wholesale a box of 52 bars of soap for 15 afghanis apiece,
spread them out on the sidewalk downtown, then ask for 20 afghanis and
bargain down to 17 or 18," Haidari smiles as he recalls his earliest
business venture. "Then I sold different items, and eventually one
company gave me a job running errands."
Haidari spent little time with peers. Schools were often closed, and even
when they were open, students came straight home. The streets were too
dangerous for play.
When the communist government began to crumble with the retreat of Soviet
troops, rebel rocketing of the city intensified.
"It's the sort of thing you see in an action movie here," Haidari
says admitting he still has nightmares about the attacks. "But when
you're in the scene, all that matters is your life. Sometimes, I'm sorry
to say, even those around you don't matter. You just run for your life,
and you don't know if you'll live to make the next step."
Haidari's family fled Kabul for Mazar-e Sharif to the north in 1992, where
Ashraf approached United Nations refugee officers for a job. The agency
soon realized the young man's talent for making connections and getting
things done, and it was through one of several jobs he held with the U.N.
that his convoluted road to Wabash began.
His supervisor at the UNHCR office put Haidari in touch with Dr. Whitney
Azoy of Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. Azoy's correspondences encouraged
Ashraf to hone his English skills and to consider college in the United
States. One of Azoy's former students was Waseel Azizi '95, so the teacher
knew of Wabash and suggested that Haidari apply.
The College offered extensive financial aid, and Haidari faced a difficult
choice. He had spent years learning English on his own with the hope of
attending college. But leaving his family behind in such circumstances
ran against the grain.
"Finally, we decided that after the completion of education at Wabash,
I would be in a better position to help not only my family, but also to
assist in the rehabilitation of Afghanistan."
A year after Haidari left Mazar, the city was plunged into lawlessness.
Having failed in their earlier attempts to hold the city, the Taliban
returned, this time taking the city and massacring thousands of non-combatant
members of the Hazara population, reportedly to avenge earlier Hazara
Ashraf's sophomore year at Wabash was emotionally draining. As the Taliban
closed in on Mazar, even his extensive contacts within the country were
unable to get detailed information out of the besieged city. He would
discover later that his next door neighbora "kind and gentle
man who had nothing to do with the fighting"was dragged from
his home and murdered by the Taliban.
Ashraf says he was comforted through these difficult times by his host
family and Wabash staff members, particularly former assistant to the
dean Kiyoe Mapps. Professor David Blix became his mentor throughout his
adjustment to academic life.
"All of my professors were very supportive, but Dr. Blix encouraged
me all the way," Ashraf says. "I had never written in English
academically before I came here; Dr. Blix was very understanding, pushed
me to get better, and put specific comments on my paper that really helped
"He also became my friend, he listened to my worries, knew what
I was going through; he was someone I could trust and share with."
It was almost two months before Ashraf learned that his parents and family
had survived the genocide. He was more determined than ever to get them
out of the country, again working through U.N. channels to ferry them
to safety in Pakistan. He saw them there last summer for the first time
in four years.
The reunion came as Ashraf was completing his internship with the UNHCR
in Geneva, Switzerland, an arrangement made possible with the help of
former International Studies Coordinator Leslie Davis and Professor Melissa
Butler with money from the Cassell Fund. The Wabash senior's Afghani contacts
enabled him to produce a report on the region that brought previously
hidden information to the agency.
This summer the Wabash graduate is considering job offers from refugee
relief agencies and pursuing his goal of breaking down the barriers of
prejudice toward the world's displaced persons. He credits his family,
his faith, and Wabash with reinforcing his desire to do so.
"Wabash has enabled me to do this work; without the degree I couldn't
do it," he says. "I had the experience; now I have the degree
to make what I want possible."
Blix believes Hadairi's aspirations are within his reach.
"He has a deep sense of global public service, a powerful empathy
with anybody and everybody who has suffered any kind of injustice and
needs a home or roots. He wants to help, to make a difference in their
lives. I have every confidence that he will eventually do that."
Haidari says the power of his message is in the facts.
"I look at my father, a pharmacist, my sister, a medical doctor,
my brother, a civil engineer: With all their training and skills, now
they are refugees and jobless. They would go home if they could, but they
Almost 2,500 years ago, Euripides wrote that "there is no greater
sorrow on earth than the loss of one's native land." Ask Haidari,
who was granted political asylum here in 2000, where "home"
is for him now, and he points to the ground: "Here, of course. Wabash
has become my home."
But even as he says it, you sense he has another home in mind. He leaves
behind the campus that has been his respite these four years determined
to help others find that place.
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