I have been living in Afghanistan for ten years. We've just had a week of multiple major attacks in our capital city Kabul. For me, I went through a bit of a routine, as I do when these awful things happen. Making sure my friends are ok. Making sure my family in Canada knows I'm ok. Followed by wondering, at least for a few minutes, if I should be here.
Why I choose to be here is something I'm asked very often - in a series of fair but unfortunate questions by essentially everyone I come across. When I respond to them, I tend to find my answer. I am here because I see what others don't and I would hate to lose that privilege. I am going to share some of those conversations with you.
I have a long list of disclaimers to keep in mind when you read my answers. I grew up abroad, I do not live under the poverty line as many Afghans do, and I speak from the perspective of someone in the capital city. My ability to leave the country is certainly a factor for how safe I feel here but the fact is that I choose to remain. My days are spent on a small project with a few colleagues and many children so I'm not surrounded by "Afghanistan statistics". I answer these only with what I have; ten years of living almost consecutively in the country and thus my own experience. This is what I see.
Is it safe? Aren't you scared?
No, it's not as safe as other countries and I'd be lying if I said it was. Though what you hear and see on TV is sensationalized, it does have truth to it. It is not a safe place when random attacks continue in the capital and in the provinces. And it has deteriorated. I no longer travel as freely.
I am cautious of the potential occurrences, but I'm not constantly scared. It is awful here at times, but I have a daily life of fulfilling work surrounded by great people. The happy days in Kabul have always outnumbered the sad ones.
Why do they keep killing each other?
Afghans are not the major problem or cause of death in Afghanistan. Ask anyone who has been here for more than five minutes and they will tell you exactly where this is coming from. It is from outside of our own borders and Afghanistan is more frustrated by this being ignored than any other problem that's being faced.
Has anything changed in the many years of foreign presence?
Yes. There have been positive changes I've seen with my very own eyes. Many roads are paved, electricity is much better and the infrastructure is barely comparable to the bombed out buildings I arrived to. The airports are incredible! I see girls going to school every day. In 2005 I would receive one or two female applicants for job postings. Now I get hundreds. The number of mobile phone users nationwide is close to 90%. We're on the world stage of sports including having won Olympic medals and qualifying for the 2015 Cricket World Cup. We have a female cycling team and female boxers. There are shopping malls and music schools and a bowling alley. There are 2000 registered Afghan Scouts. There are women in government. The list goes on. Each point I made could be countered with what has gone wrong and what "bigger issues" didn't succeed in the past decade. But these are major and minor things I have seen change that I doubt most people abroad know about.
Do you have to wear a scarf or a burqa?
I know it is a controversial issue that women wear burqas and scarves, but seems to be a topic I hear discussed mostly outside of the country. We have bigger fish to fry. I think the right to education and economic independence should take priority. Simply put, I just don't think it's a big enough deal to worry about before women have basic rights and that's what I'd like to focus on first. So yes, I do wear a scarf in public.
Do they hate foreigners?
Afghans are hospitable and kind. I know it's hard to wrap your head around that from far away, but it's true. As a civilian, you'll be offered tea and meals by the poorest of families and even at police check points! Of course there is military, government and money frustration from every angle. But as an average visitor to the country, there is far more love here for you as a guest than any chance of hate. You can not claim otherwise unless you've been here as a civilian.
Have people lost hope?
Contrary to popular belief or assumption, Afghanistan is not a nation of hopelessness. After the multiple attacks this week that killed so many and left hundreds wounded, the hospitals had to turn blood donors away because they had filled up their storage. Government officials who could not leave work carried out blood drives at the ministries. It is a country founded on perseverance.
I'm sure I'll be faced with these fair but assumption based conversations many more times. I'm sure there will, perhaps for a very long time, be very negative truths in my answers. I do however note the fact that I can fill conversations with a lot more about the positive you don't know versus the negative you see. I am convinced that most of my answers to common and uncommon questions will always remind me why I am here.