It was late summer in 1997 when Gary Stull dropped off an exchange student at the Crawfordsville train station. Getting off that train, bags in hand, was another young man who was ready to walk to Wabash College.
"He needed a lift," Stull said. Little did Stull know at the time, but it was the young man who provided an amazing, inspirational lift.
Ashraf Haidari, now the political counselor for the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., had experienced the horrors of a home country in conflict. He decided not only to survive that devastation, but to rise above it.
Haidari’s dream to "make a global impact" received a huge jump-start by his acceptance as an undergraduate student to Wabash.
On Tuesday, the 33-year-old Haidari visited Stull, along with many other friends and former professors at Wabash. He was scheduled to speak to National Guard soldiers at Camp Atterbury today.
"Ash needed a ride from the train station (in 1997) and that started our relationship," said Stull, who now is retired from Kroger. "We hit it off right from the start. He was young and vulnerable, and he had some needs."
Knowing that Haidari was from Afghanistan and had no contacts here in Crawfordsville, the Stulls (wife Patricia, son Aaron, daughter Rebekah) decided to become the freshman’s "host family."
"We are now so close, I don’t feel good about saying host," Haidari said. "They are my family."
Stull felt a father’s pride as he watched Haidari climb life’s rungs to position himself as a major player on Afghanistan’s changing landscape. A huge admirer of Mohandas Gandhi, Stull said he sees Haidari influencing change in a similar way ... through his deeds, one person at a time if necessary.
At the current time, Haidari travels the United States, thanking solders for making potentially the ultimate sacrifice in order to bring peace to an area once forgotten by the world. He also explains to both soldiers and to U.S. citizens in general how their intervention has put Afghanistan on the road to recovery.
"Making the ultimate sacrifice for your own country is difficult," Haidari said. "To do it for a country overseas, thousands of miles away ...serving in the mountains and the deserts for days and months to help secure a country for a very suffering people ... is amazing.
"I tell the soldiers that we are very optimistic (in Afghanistan). We’re resilient. I emphasize that this will be a success story. I have had U.S. soldiers come to me and say, ‘My heart is with your people. I am happy to help secure Afghanistan."
Haidari urges the U.S. to double its efforts in Afghanistan in order to produce a government that ultimately will be strong enough to stand on its own for years to come.
To this point, he has not seen a strong government in his home country. Growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan’s largest city, Haidari worked as a street vendor as an early teen, selling grocery items so his family could eat. The city, meanwhile, was under siege. The Hezbe Islami shelled the city starting in 1993 for three years. Haidari’s family fled to Mazar-e Sharif.
"I realized the only way to get out was to learn English," Haidari said. "Our schools kept switching from Russian to English and back and there were few English books. I found an old Oxford Dictionary with some of the first pages missing. It was English to Dari (Persian). I started to memorize it and build my vocabulary."
Haidari would watch for U.N. workers and would chase them down on the street to ask questions in English. Eventually, as a teen-ager, he managed to land a job with the U.N. He kept working his contacts until he received the opportunity to attend college in the United States.
Those contacts put him in touch with Dr. Whitney Azoy of Lawrenceville School of New Jersey. One of Azoy’s former students was Waseel Azizi, a 1995 Wabash graduate from Afghanistan. Azoy told Haidari that Wabash would be a great fit.
The fit would only happen if Haidari could get a VISA. With no real government in place in Afghanistan, Haidari tried every avenue to earn entrance into the United States. With the help of Joan Kudlaty, the assistant director of admissions at Wabash at that time, Haidari negotiated the maze.
"I landed in New York City and I thought Crawfordsville was going to be just about the same," Haidari said. "Then I got here. It was quiet and peaceful. Of course, once I stepped on campus already behind two weeks into the semester, I found that it was quiet and peaceful outside of campus. Inside Wabash, you were always busy 24 hours a day if you truly were focused."
While at Wabash, Haidari soaked in information so that he could work to help his home country. "Wabash teaches you to serve others, to make a global impact," he said. "They teach you how to stretch your horizons and your goals. You can go as far as you want to go."
Stull watched the young man progress even in the face of some adversity. Obviously, he didn’t have the look of a local.
"I saw the face of how people do not understand," Stull said. "Sometimes I thought to myself, ‘My gosh, I can’t believe this still goes on.’ "
Stull talked about watching Haidari struggle through security while traveling. "He’s from a terrorist state, so he must be a terrorist," Stull said. "There is not a more peace loving man in this world.
"I am glad my children were exposed to him."
Haidari’s toughest time at Wabash came during his sophomore year, when his father, Shafi, and his brothers, Rafi and Muhammad, were picked out for ethnic cleansing to be killed.
"Our neighbors were being systematically shot," he said. "But my family was not Hazara and they were spared."
His family, including his mother, Najiba, and his sister, Farah, fled Afghanistan to Pakistan. For four months, Haidari had no idea whether they were alive or dead, until one day he finally received word from Pakistan.
He pressed forward at Wabash. He credits the help of professors such as David Blix and Melissa Butler with pushing him ahead.
Eventually, Haidari earned a master’s degree in security studies from Georgetown along with his bachelor’s in political science from Wabash. He began working for Afghanistan Ambassador Said Tayeb Jawad in 2004 and became the embassy’s political counselor in 2006. He is now married to his wife, Lina, and they have a 2-year-old son, Arman.
"I am looking for a leadership role that will allow me to do more in the most effective way possible," Haidari said. "When the Taliban was brutalizing our people, most people only hoped for survival. I was one of the young Afghans who were self-teaching in the hope of making it to the U.S. Now I want to truly give back to both countries. I’ve been a refugee through internal displacement. But I’ve also been part of a country that has given me the skills, education and facilities to bring cultures together.
"We have to learn global citizenship and that we are connected in so many ways. Our world is shrinking. If we think globally, we will know that caring for others means caring for ourselves."