Our Stories

Kiomars Qahir: Ambassador for Peace

War seems much different when you're a child. It can be more of a game than a stark reality. You revel in successfully dodging bullets and play with the ones you find on the ground. When people's homes are destroyed by rockets and they take refuge in your school, your biggest concern is how hard it is to concentrate because classes are held outdoors almost on top of one another.

These are some of the memories of Kiomars Qahir MBA'08, who came to Willamette's Atkinson Graduate School of Management a year ago on a Fulbright Scholarship. When he was 12, his hometown of Kabul, Afghanistan, was constantly under attack during one of many phases of the country's long-battled civil war.

Many of his memories are also somber. His family would spend nights in their third-floor apartment, then retreat to the basement of the building during the day to hide from rockets and bullets. He remembers the green zones and red zones -- areas of the city deemed safe, areas where fighting was intense -- and how they were often only a few blocks apart and constantly shifting. "There was so much bloodshed. Being a 12-year-old kid and living with it, I got used to it, and that's how I made it. I think that makes it easier for me to talk about it."

In 1992 Qahir's family joined at least half a million people fleeing the city. They couldn't just pack their things into a moving truck -- they only could bring what they could carry in their hands. When the war reached the abandoned neighborhoods, militias often would loot what remained in the houses.

Qahir's family relocated to Pakistan, where there were so many Afghans that they had their own schools so they could learn in their native language of Dari. But once Qahir reached college age, he couldn't go to an Afghan-run university there because Afghan schools had been closed by a new force: The Taliban, a puritanical, extremist Islam movement that wanted Afghans to return to their own country.

Qahir did go back in 1998 to attend Kabul University and get his degree in journalism. "In a way it was safer because you didn't see rockets and bullets," he says. "But with the Taliban, you didn't feel safe mentally. They were controlling everything, like your beard -- you weren't supposed to cut your beard. They put it all under the umbrella of religion, but none of what they imposed represented what the religion says. They took things to an extreme self-defined level."

The Taliban Falls

When Qahir received his degree in spring 2001, he returned to Pakistan to work as a newsletter editor for a Danish non-profit organization. Several months later, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban attacked New York's World Trade Center. Qahir's memory of Sept. 11 is interestingly similar to the stories of many Americans: He came home to find his parents watching TV, flipping between CNN, BBC and Fox, shocked at the images of the towers burning.

One of the Afghan people's greatest hobbies, Qahir says, is discussing politics. And that day, elders in Qahir's neighborhood immediately gathered to have tea, watch TV reports, and talk about the attacks. When the Taliban claimed responsibility, Qahir says these Afghan men immediately predicted the fall of the Taliban regime. "We all thought 9/11 was so horrible. We were shocked by what happened. On the other hand, we also were tired of seeing people die. We'd already lost so many loved ones. We were tired of seeing blood. We knew that the Taliban and their allies did the most stupid thing, and that it would bring an end to their life. That's exactly what happened. The Taliban forces were defeated by the Americans in coalition with the Afghan army."

The next summer, Qahir relocated to Afghanistan for his job, and he returned to his home country for the first time after the Taliban fell. Qahir calls the Taliban regime "the darkest, darkest page of history for our country." When he returned, everything had changed. "It was like another chapter," he says. "Sunshine after the cloudy, dark days. It was more peaceful, and there were more opportunities. A lot of people repatriated back to Afghanistan.

"I see the U.S. troops more as peacekeepers there rather than being in a regular war," he adds. "The law enforcement is not absolutely empowered. The U.S. makes sure things are safe, helps rebuild and gets people back on their feet."

Life in America

Qahir decided he wanted to go back to school and get an MBA, and he wanted to do it in America, which had better and more plentiful programs. He applied for Afghanistan's competitive Fulbright Scholarship Program, and after rigorous applications and interviews, he was one of only about 20 chosen to go to the U.S. After obtaining his MBA, he plans to return home to work in the Afghan government's public administration sector, teaching others there the skills he learned while at Willamette.

Despite the initial Fulbright screening process, Qahir's biggest challenge was being allowed to enter the U.S. He applied for a visa but had to wait two months for the U.S. government to finish his security clearance. Security checks increased sharply after Sept. 11 for international students wishing to study in the U.S. Qahir's clearance took so long, he arrived two weeks late for last fall's classes and spent the rest of the semester playing catch-up.

In the past five years, Atkinson has hosted Fulbright scholars from Bangladesh, Peru, Vietnam and Jordan -- Qahir is the first from Afghanistan.

Qahir wasn't sure how he would be received by Americans. When he had visited Europe, he encountered strong stereotypes -- of people thinking all Afghan men wore turbans, acted aggressively, sported lots of facial hair, forced women to wear burkas. One woman told him he couldn't possibly be a native Afghan because he lived and dressed like an ordinary Westerner.

But many of the Americans Qahir has met are "friendly and charming," and he is happy to share his culture with them. That's part of what being a Fulbright scholar is about. "We're here to show Americans that we're not all the same," he says. "They've heard about the extremists, the terrorists, but we're not all like that. There are people in Afghanistan just like the people you know from your hometown. I'm looking forward to being an ambassador for peace."