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Last Updated: Sunday, 3 October, 2004, 23:58 GMT 00:58 UK
Exile returns to help Afghan women

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News Online correspondent in Kabul

Mina Sherzoy
Mina Sherzoy spent 23 years in exile in the United States
She was a diplomat's free-spirited daughter who had travelled the world and was in Czechoslovakia meeting her father when news came that Russian tanks had invaded her homeland, Afghanistan.

Mina Sherzoy, 43, remembers the time vividly in the winter of 1979 when the family decided not to return to a home invaded by foreigners.

She was 18 and a graduate of a high school in the Afghan capital, Kabul, when the family began their exile.

The family took a train from Prague to the German city of Frankfurt in West Germany and from there a plane to London.

They flew on to California, which was to become home for the next two decades.

In the US, Ms Sherzoy adapted quickly to a new lifestyle, working hard, marrying an Afghan man and looking after their two daughters.
I didn't know what I was going to face, I had read so many horror stories
Mina Sherzoy

She worked as a drug store cashier, an attorney's secretary, and a systems analyst before ending up selling luxury homes in the San Francisco Bay area.

Ms Sherzoy also raised money for her country's refugees displaced by the war.

'Lost cause'

In exile, she found success and wealth, a world apart from the millions of her countrymen struggling in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran.

Women in Kabul
Women are learning tailoring, computing and business skills

But, as Ms Sherzoy says, she always yearned to return to Kabul.

She remembered it as a charming city of tree-lined boulevards, with electric buses driven by women, bustling bazaars and sprawling, Kafkaesque, Soviet-style buildings.

But when news arrived that the Taleban had captured Afghanistan after the bloody civil war, Ms Sherzoy says she lost hope in her country.

"I told myself, 'This is the end. Afghanistan is a lost cause. There's no power in the world that can remove the Taleban'."

She was shocked to learn that the men who carried out the 9/11 terror attacks on the US had plotted in Afghanistan.

"Terrorists had made my country a pariah. What could be worse than that?"

Ms Sherzoy also remembered how wrong her father was in predicting the return to normalcy in Afghanistan.

"My father always said we would be in the US for two or three years and return to Afghanistan after its problems were over. It was 23 years before I could see my country again."

Disappointments

Two summers ago she and an American friend decided to take a trip to Kabul.

Mina Sherzoy
The men got wilder and more aggressive during the civil war... They have been really hurt more, in a way
Mina Sherzoy

The US-led war to remove the Taleban was over, hope was in the air and Kabul airport had reopened to civilian aircraft.

"It took a full two days for us to make it to Kabul from San Francisco via Texas, London, Dubai and Islamabad," Ms Sherzoy says.

"My heart was beating when the plane touched down at Kabul. I didn't know what I was going to face, I had read so many horror stories.

"But when I landed it felt good to be back home."

There were disappointments aplenty though.

"I remember how empty the airport was. I remembered it as a fun place with restaurants where we would hang out and have fun," says Ms Sherzoy.

During her three week stay, Ms Sherzoy decided it was time for her "to give back something to Afghanistan".

It helped that her two daughters had begun working. Ms Sherzoy had also divorced. "It would have been difficult for me to come back if I had remained married."

In Kabul, Ms Sherzoy puts in a punishing 15-hour day as director for entrepreneurship in the ministry of commerce and in running an NGO training women.

Overwhelming

It was not easy to persuade women into training for new skills.

She was invited to a local mosque.

Afghan women in burqas
Women's response to training was overwhelming, says Ms Sherzoy

"There were some 400 women veiled in blue waiting to listen to me. The mullah told them, 'Our sister from the US is here. She is going to talk to you'."

"I spoke to them in halting Dari about my plans. It was an amazing experience."

Next day, more than 100 women from the congregation arrived at Ms Sherzoy's office to find out more.

More than 10,000 women have signed up with her - only 400 of them are literate - to learn tailoring, computing, basics of journalism and law and business skills.

Plans are afoot to train women in the provinces too.

A few women who have completed training have gone on to open shops and boutiques.

The overwhelming response does not surprise Ms Sherzoy.

About 70% of what the country produces is the work of women, she says.

Many see women and children as the worst affected by the civil war and the Taleban regime, but Ms Sherzoy says men suffered too.

"The men got wilder and more aggressive during the civil war. Then the Taleban brainwashed them. They have been really hurt more, in a way."

Today, Ms Sherzoy says she loves working for her country.

She has remarried and her work keeps her very busy.

She is easily one of the most Westernised women in Kabul, but has re-learned Afghan ways.

"Afghanistan is a place which can frustrate you very easily. You just have to be patient. Tolerance plays a big role in any success here," says Ms Sherzoy.


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