PEOPLE
Volume 18 Number 1
An Exile's Choice
01 February 2005

Torabi (28) left Kabul in 1992, when he was 16, and fled with his whole family to Peshawar in Pakistan. Before their exile, his father had managed a hospital in Kabul.

YAMA TORABI has a dream: to create a research unit in his native Afghanistan which will prepare young Afghans for work in politics, public administration and the social sciences.

Torabi (28) left Kabul in 1992, when he was 16, and fled with his whole family to Peshawar in Pakistan. Before their exile, his father had managed a hospital in Kabul. The family did not belong to either of the two largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns and the Tajiks, but to a religious minority which claims descent from the Prophet.

Torabi, who is now studying in Paris for a doctorate in Political Science and International Relations, believes he has a ‘moral obligation to the people I left behind’. This conviction spurred him to return to Afghanistan after he finished school in Pakistan. University was financially out of the question. He started work with Madera, a French organization involved in rural reconstruction.

Both the director of Madera and the French embassy in Kabul spotted Torabi’s potential and he was offered a complete undergraduate education in France. He describes it as ‘the best opportunity I ever had’. He felt that to serve Afghanistan, he needed to get experience in other countries and learn more about humanitarian aid.

At the end of his first year at the Ecole Lyonnaise de Bioforce, which specializes in humanitarian issues, Torabi went to Congo. The deaths, starvation and hatred caused by the civil war were even worse than the situation in Afghanistan—but helped him to compare and analyse the roots of conflict in different countries.

He returned to Paris to enter the prestigious Institute of Political Studies in Paris (Sciences-Po). He gained his diploma in 2003, followed this with a Masters and has now embarked on his doctorate, in which he hopes to focus on Afghanistan, ‘to contribute in the reconstruction of the nation’.
‘I have never considered myself a victim or a refugee,’ says Torabi. ‘Of course I have experienced a certain feeling of being a stranger in Europe, but this sense is natural when you are not in your country, and it helps you to understand what exile is about.’

He believes strongly in the role of the individual in transformation: a perspective which was reinforced when he took part in the Caux Scholars Programme at the Initiatives of Change centre in Switzerland last summer. ‘In the world of development, organizations and charities normally see the individual in technical terms,’ he says. ‘They hire good thinkers or efficient doers , but the human aspect is often missing.’ At Caux he realized that his understanding of the roots of conflict was limited. ‘Not everything is structural, the other face of the conflict is the individual.’

And when his studies are over, like many other students in the West, he will face the options of pursuing a professional career in Europe or returning home to work with a grassroots organization. He describes his vision of a research institute as a ‘long term task’, which will require ‘the help of those Afghans who live and study abroad’. He admits that it is hard to make a choice between furthering one’s own life and helping others: but his decision to return is firm. ‘But I do not regret my choices because I find a real fulfilment in helping other people.’

José Carlos León Vargas


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