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WM: Advocating for Afghanistan

From a young age, Ashraf Haidari ’01 had a clear understanding that there would be “no promising future” for him if he chose to stay in Afghanistan. He knew pursuing education internationally would be key to a brighter future and potential change for himself, his family, and his home county.

“We did not get a proper education in Afghanistan,” explained Haidari, a refugee who came to Wabash in 1997. “We would sometimes go to school only two or three days a week, and sometimes the teachers wouldn’t show up.”

Haidari experienced unimaginable hardships firsthand both under the Soviet occupation in 1980s and the Taliban rule in 1990s.

Ashraf Haidari ’01 speaking at the 100th anniversary reception of Afghanistan’s Independence Day.He worked as a street vendor as child growing up in Kabul, so his family could eat.

His family fled Kabul for Mazar-e Sharif in 1992, where Ashraf approached the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officers for a job. For the next five years, Haidari held various field positions with UNHCR and the World Food Program in Afghanistan, serving internally displaced persons and refugees from Tajikistan.

It was through those jobs with UNHCR that Haidari honed his English skills and his complex road to higher education in the United States began.

“I so desperately wanted to get out,” says Haidari. “What mattered most was getting out of the instability, poverty, violence and bleak future. I was hoping against hope.”

A YEAR AFTER Haidari left Mazar, the city was plunged into lawlessness when the Taliban returned to take over the city and massacred thousands of non-combatant members of the Hazara population. After witnessing their own neighbors be systematically killed, his family fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

“Ashraf told me about his family fleeing the Taliban, and that he had not heard from them in over six months. He had no idea if they were living or dead,” remembers Professor Emerita of Political Science Melissa Butler H’85. “I was tremendously moved by what he had been living with through his first semester of college.”

There was no internet in Afghanistan. Email was not an option to stay in touch with family. The country only had roughly 3,000 landlines, which had been destroyed, and there was only one central office of communications where people would wait for hours, only to get a minute or two to speak to someone abroad.

“I completely lost touch with my family for nearly two years,” Haidari says. “My friends that worked with the UNHCR would let me know when they saw my father here and there, or would go check on my family. That was the only kind of communication, I had during my early years at Wabash.”

Thankfully, Haidari says, he was never truly left alone. Faculty members, his host family, and other friends he made in the Crawfordsville community would often check up on him and ask about his family and how he was coping.

“I did struggle to stay focused on my studies at times,” says Haidari, “but they made it all possible.”

He credits faculty, specifically Butler and Religion Professor David Blix ’70, for helping him persevere.

“Their empathy, support, and patience put me through tutoring. They caught me up to be at the same level as other students,” he says. “Because of them, I was able to exceed everyone’s expectations.”

BUTLER RECALLS his keen interest in the prospects for change in Afghanistan. He wrote his political science senior seminar paper on regional stability in South and Central Asia with an emphasis on Afghanistan, and his international studies paper on what he learned from his junior year studying abroad in Geneva, focusing on Swiss armed neutrality as a model for Afghanistan.

“Ashraf is a good man of high moral character,” says Butler. “He is the kind of public servant that his country and the world badly needs in its leadership.”

Blix says he felt awestruck by the fact that Haidari had lived through horrors in Afghanistan and still came out of it with a “relatively cheerful spirit and selfless determination to right a country that had been wronged.”

He remembers instructing Haidari in class, specifically in Introduction to the Quran.Haidari with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

“Teaching about different religions around the world, sometimes I might have a Muslim or a Hindu in class, and I’m always wondering how my account of Islam matches up with what they are actually living,” says Blix. “Ashraf explained to me what he lived through. He believed it matched up with what I thought I understood and was teaching in the classroom.

“We had a lot of conversations about his home, and in a way, he was my teacher as well,” he says. “It was through him that I really became aware of the complicated situation in Afghanistan and what it was like to spend one’s childhood in refugee camps.”

IN LATE 1998, with the support of Wabash, Haidari applied for and was granted asylum.

“I applied for asylum because I couldn’t go back to Afghanistan,” he explained. “So, I focused on graduating from Wabash, working for two years until I got a Green Card (officially known as a Permanent Resident Card) and then getting a master’s degree. Maybe by the end of that, I could get a UN job focused on humanitarian assistance. That was my original plan.”

Following his graduation from Wabash, Haidari earned a master’s degree in security studies from the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington D.C.

Since then, he has worked as a fellow in Foreign Service at Georgetown University, served more than two terms at the Embassy of Afghanistan in the U.S., served as Afghanistan’s deputy chief of mission (minister counselor) to India, and as the director-general of policy and strategy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan.

HAIDARI HAS SERVED as the Ambassador of Afghanistan to Sri Lanka since 2018, and concurrently served as the rotating director-general of the South Asia Cooperative Environment Program, a regional inter-governmental organization headquartered in Colombo.

He engages in political, defense, economic, commercial, academic, and public and cultural diplomacy as Ambassador in order to build and deepen comprehensive bilateral ties between Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. He works closely with?the leadership of the Sri Lankan government, including the president, prime minister, and foreign minister.

Additionally in this role, Haidari has enhanced the visibility of the Afghan Embassy in Colombo by working as a writer and TV and radio commentator on Afghanistan, regional, and international affairs. His work has consistently been published in notable national, regional, and international publications.

Some of the key issues Haidari focuses on as Ambassador have shifted, specifically after the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in 2021 after the U.S. withdrew its remaining troops from the country as outlined in a 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban.

“I have focused on advocacy,” Haidari explains, “advocacy for human rights, especially women’s rights, and speaking up against and exposing the war crimes the Taliban continues to commit.”

In the months before they captured Kabul, the Taliban systematically destroyed local and state institutions, including health clinics and schools, and gutted these facilities of their female workers, Haidari says.

“The Taliban has taken away all of these facilities that help maintain public health and help Afghans survive,” he says. “And this is getting worse and worse as Afghanistan continues to be sanctioned internationally, as the Taliban imposes a complete gender apartheid. It is a nation unfortunately suffering, starving, dying, and completely cut off from the rest of the world.”

BLIX SAYS HAIDARI has been on his mind a lot recently, especially after he heard news that the Taliban had returned to Afghanistan. He admits to worrying about his former student, but is proud of his “huge amount of courage” and the work being selflessly put in to protect and save his country and its people.

Haidari with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena at the Bilateral Cooperation MOU Signing on April 7, 2021.

“A Wabash education, at its best, introduces students to the world and gives them a certain capacity to move comfortably and to not be intimidated by adversity or differences of culture,” says Blix. “Ashraf is a living testimonial.”

Haidari says his work as ambassador does put him at risk, and that he cannot go back to Afghanistan because he’s confident his name is “on the top of the head list.”

But that doesn’t stop him. Haidari says he won’t lose out on any opportunity to “resist, fight, and speak up” on behalf of his home even when others have publicly “fallen silent” out of fear of Taliban retaliation.

“The reason why I continue talking is because of the education that I got from Wabash: what to do in situations like this, how to lead in situations like this, how to speak up for the values and rights of my nation,” says Haidari. “It’s an incomplete journey of achieving our democracy, which of course means freedom, liberty, and sustainable development.

“We have to react, resist, and fight against this, and convince our neighbors and the world that what is happening in Afghanistan matters. … What’s happening in Afghanistan, much like the 1990s, has implications for the United States,” he explained. “We cannot just let a whole nation suffer under these medieval, ignorant, terrorist criminals that has taken a whole nation hostage. We need to separate them (the Taliban). That liberation will be good for regional stability as well as the rest of the world.”