A group of well-educated Afghans with credentials to work in Europe are instead committing to stay in their troubled homeland - and using Facebook to encourage others to do the same.
KABUL — Does everyone really want to leave Afghanistan? Not quite. A few young Afghans want to stop the exodus. Among them is Sharam Gulzad, who grew up in Germany, but left behind professional opportunities there to return to his home country in 2006.
Gulzad's Facebook campaign "Afghanistan Needs You," which he founded with five friends, encourages others to follow his example. And it seems to have hit a nerve.
"If your mother were sick, you wouldn't just leave her behind," Gulzad says, explaining his motivation. He feels the same way about Afghanistan. He believes that those who want the country to recover should stay and try to change things for the better.
Gulzad and his friends have done exactly that. Young Afghans use the Facebook campaign to post photos of themselves with signs depicting the slogan, "Afghanistan Needs You!" Beneath their pictures they post their reasons for staying home and offer thoughts about why their peers should do the same.
They often say that Afghanistan really does need them, that by leaving they make a gift of their own resources to other countries. They also say that the youth of a country is the gateway to the future. But sometimes the message is much simpler than that. "If you want Afghanistan to exist as a country in the future, you will have to stay," they argue.
Asking people to stay is no small request. The recent deadly battles over Kunduz, a city in Afghanistan's northern region, show that the Taliban is still powerful and the country as a whole is dangerous. Foreign troops haven't completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan, and it already seems to be engulfed by a wave of chaos.
Even Kabul is unsafe, and the attacks cause uncertainty, which in turn influences the economy. Unemployment rates are high and, together with American forces, foreign investors are leaving the country. Relief funds are providing less and less support too, Gulzad says.
These are the reasons why many young Afghans just want to leave the country. They are looking for security, education and a future that allows them to improve their lot, and they are doing so increasingly within Europe. Gulzad could have had all of these things. His family fled the Taliban when he was three and managed to escape to Germany. He grew up in his aunt's house in Hamburg, finished his A-levels and found work. All he had to do was stay.
Working for the family business
But the young entrepreneur decided to return to Afghanistan in 2006 and then followed in his father's footsteps. "He is a true patriot," says Gulzad, "who wanted to fight for his country." His father returned to Afghanistan early on and founded an import-export company that deals in building materials. Gulzad joined his father's business upon his return.
"It was quite difficult in the beginning," says Gulzad. Difficult because everything was new to him — the rampant corruption, the work ethic, the culture. Employees often stole goods. Some of those fired as a consequence even threatened his family with retribution. "The people can't seem to think beyond the here and now," he says. But the biggest problem, he says, is corruption. Some of his friends once tried to complain to an anti-corruption department about crooked civil servants. But the response was sobering: "We can take note of your complaint, but how much can you pay us to see it through?"
Young Afghans in particular want to leave the country, Gulzad says. "It's not exactly cool to be pro-Afghanistan," he notes. The public has become apathetic and hopeless. And it is this particular feeling that the Facebook campaign tries to eradicate. "We want people to once more shoulder responsibility, we want them to not just simply sit on their hands and wait for the government to fix the problem," Gulzad says. They are supposed to become active citizens, to develop new ideas, to found new businesses.
But are 5,000 likes and a few photos enough to achieve all of this? "Maybe that's naive," he says, "but even Ghandi started with only an idea." The first step, he insists, is to change the way people think.
The six activists seem to have found some traction. It took only a week to achieve 5,000 likes. Several press agencies wanted an interview, and the Afghan Ministry for Refugees offered to cooperate with them. In the end, even a large Afghan banking institution offered to provide jobs to 20 young Afghans.
Gulzad and his friends most certainly are not among those Afghans who are badly off. Gulzad himself is from an old merchant family that has good connections to the government. The others are all well-educated, he says. But what about those who lack good qualifications? What is to become of those in a country that doesn't even have anything to offer to the well-educated?
"You don't have to have a lot of money to make a change," Gulzad says. He speaks of micro credits given to poor Afghan women. "Many of them have done wonderful things with them." Besides, this movement isn't about the poor who can't afford to flee the country. "We are aiming at the well-educated, like us, who want to leave, those people the country needs most."
You could counter that there are still many people who fear for their lives, people whose mothers, fathers or brothers were executed by the Taliban. Gulzad says that he doesn't harbour any illusions regarding people's safety, and he himself has only narrowly escaped attacks. His own office has even come under fire. "But it cannot get any better if all of us leave," he says. Those who cannot stand to be in the countryside should come to the cities "and we will rebuild the country from there in."