Memories and lessons learned

Afghans in Tucson

Spreading a little knowledge…

Check out this awesome, creative classroom!

Last week, I accompanied Tawab Saljuqi on a visit to a high school Literature class out in Marana. Saljuqi was chosen as the Center for Middle East Studies Outreach scholar for 2010-2011 and as part of the deal, he has to give two lectures to the Tucson community about Afghanistan. The class was reading Khaled Hosseini’sThe Kite Runner” and the students were curious and eager to learn more about Afghan culture. Saljuqi prepared a presentation to teach the students a bit about the lives of the average Afghan. Here are some pictures from that trip. I’ll update with more pictures and hopefully a sound slide show soon…

Saljuqi setting up his presentation

Saljuqi goes over critical points in Afghan history

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Meet Dr. Abdul Tawab Kawa Saljuqi

“Sometimes you can’t imagine how perfectly you are positioned in the timeline of history,” said Abdul Tawab Kawa Saljuqi, an Afghan Fulbright student studying at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona.

Trained as a medical doctor in Pakistan, he was the chief editor of a health magazine based in Afghanistan, and became the Director of Public Health Promotion, all before he turned 30.

He arrived in Tucson on September 3, 2009 and was promptly escorted to his first class where his professor and classmates eagerly awaited his arrival. Saljuqi is studying Health Promotion and Health Behavior.

Policy and Management has turned out to be his favorite class thus far. “I was there,” he said referring to working in Afghanistan at the Ministry of Public Health, “and I was asking, ‘Is there anyone that can design me research?’ and there was no one. I had to get a company and pay them a lot of money that they will do designing for me. And I did it because I didn’t know how to do it. Now I’m learning. Most of my focus is on how to design research and how to do data analysis.”

But he is not the only one benefitting from this exchange. His classmates were so interested to learn about healthcare in Afghanistan that it prompted him to put together an information session about it. He began his presentation with a lively song about Afghan refugees returning home after the Taliban were ousted from power. He then went over the many issues facing public health in Afghanistan:

Life expectancy is only at 43 years of age. Afghanistan is one of only 4 countries that still suffers from cases of polio and one of 22 countries that has endemic tuberculosis. He also ran through the numbers for maternal mortality rates, the under 5 mortality rate, and went over the lack of health survey and research methods in the country.

In an optimistic outlook, coverage to primary health services is received by 85% of the population. However, this also means that there is a maximum 2 hour walk to the nearest health facility from most villages in the country.

After his presentation, he was asked questions ranging from women’s enrollment in medical school, to the effectiveness of midwives, to various birth control methods taught to the community. He answered every question with authority and with the optimism that the education he is receiving at the University of Arizona will one day help his fellow Afghans when he returns.

Saljuqi is not alone here in the Tucson desert. The city is home to a community of Afghan students, scholars, and refugees. The newly formed Afghan Student Association at the University of Arizona, of which Saljuqi is an active member, is comprised of approximately 12 Afghan students. The University also hosts several scholars that are either from Afghanistan or study it.

According Charles Shipman, the State Refugee Coordinator for Arizona, approximately 1,645 Afghan refugees live in Arizona, 265 of which reside in Pima country. Although Afghans have immigrated to the United States for decades, there was an influx of Afghan refugees to Arizona from 1987 to 1991, and a second wave of refugees from 2000 to 2006. The largest number of refugees, 271, arrived to Tucson in 2001. In 2009, only 61 sought refuge in Tucson.

Saljuqi’s family fled from the war in 1990 and initially moved to Mashhad, Iran. Eventually they settled in to Pakistan in 1992, where he received the bulk of his medical training. They lived in Pakistan for the next ten years before they were able to safely move back to Afghanistan.

“It was a natural return to Afghanistan,” Saljuqi explained. “At that point, our expectations and our vision for a future Afghanistan was very positive and we were thinking that it is now the time. We are now done with everything. Thirty years of war is past, now it is all hope and reconstruction and return home.”

Millions of refugees were flooding back through the borders into Afghanistan. “It was amazing,” he said. “We were part of that.”

Then times changed and the war in Afghanistan, this time between Taliban insurgents and NATO forces, grew more violent. “After a few years coming back, it was not as colorful as we thought.”

While most of the world views the war in terms of the last 9 years, Afghans have suffered through conflict in one form or another for the last 30 years, with no clear end in sight. First, with the invasion of the former Soviet Union, then with the civil war between former mujahideen warlords, followed by the Taliban’s rise to power, and culminating in the present conflict.

Saljuqi worked as a translator for journalists in Afghanistan from 2002 until 2005. He traveled the country and interviewed Afghans from all walks of life.

“The change was very obvious,” he said, referring to the period after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. “You could see it in the face of the city. The difference was, there was no fear anymore. Music was there… you could see now the freedom and that was amazing.”

During that time, Saljuqi also finished his residency in Kabul. It was then that he realized that he wanted to “reach more people and change more lives.”

He began looking into Public Health programs and came upon the Fulbright Program. “I came to Ministry of Health not to do this management thing. I came to… study and learn something and then be effective. But the absence of people pushed me to the front line,” he explained. “I was never happy working 10 hours a day as a manager. The best part of my life was that I could open a book for 15 minutes and read it.”

His biggest challenges while working as the Director of Public Health Promotion were the lack of trained personnel, obtaining funding for his health communication program, and corruption within the system. With so much aid money coming in, and evaluation systems not yet in place, it created an environment susceptible to opportunism.

“I was very innocent,” he said about how he navigated around the challenges of widespread corruption. “That helped me because knowing nothing happening, you are very sincere and working very hard.”

When he started working at the Ministry, he started off at a much lower position and it took him until he became director to see the corruption. “It is not obvious. You cannot give evidence that this person is but you know that there is going on something… everyone is involved.”

The corruption is not limited to pocketing money, however. Nepotism is another problem. “Everyone has someone in the ministry, everyone has their own agenda.”

For now, while he is studying at the College of Public Health, he will focus on writing, reading, and publishing. Saljuqi is set to graduate from the program in May 2011.

He will return to Afghanistan this summer to visit his wife, Malalai Afzali, and 2-year-old daughter, Marwah. Afzali is a researcher working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Fulbright Program has operated in Afghanistan since 1952 and during the following 27 years sponsored over 250 Afghan students. The program shut down in Afghanistan due to the war with the former Soviet Union, but was recently reinstated.

The class of 2009-2010 admitted a total of 14 students from Afghanistan who are studying for their masters or on foreign language teaching assistantships. Four of the students are in the United States teaching Persian or Pashto, three are in a public health program, and the others are studying telecommunications, journalism, language and literature, international relations, civil engineering, business, and agriculture. Several factors, such as geographic distribution, English proficiency and academic interests, are taken into account when deciding where to place the students.

Saljuqi keeps in touch with his Afghan cohort of Fulbright students and together they have formed a network of Afghan scholars with their own Google group – the Afghanistan Public Health Network. “The only way that we can really bring a change is not through individuals, it’s through a group of people.”

*Since I first wrote this story (April 2010), Saljuqi was able to visit his wife and daughter in Afghanistan and bring them back to America. They now live in California while Saljuqi finishes his studies.
Also Saljuqi is now the President of the Afghan Student Association at the University of Arizona.


Meet Diba Kushkaki

Diba Kushkaki, 40, is a mother of six from Kabul who has been living in the United States for more than 10 years. You might recognize her better as the owner of the the Afghan restaurant on University Boulevard, Sultan’s Palace. The soft-spoken mother of 6 sat down with me this morning under one of the beaded silk canopies at the Palace.

Diba left Afghanistan when she was just 10 years old, at the time of the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. She lived in Pakistan for 6 years before moving to Germany where she lived for another 14 years.

It was her father-in-law who sponsored her family’s move to America. Her uncle was living in Tucson at the time and running his own construction company.

“My passion was cooking,” Diba told me. “When I used to live in Germany, I always wanted to have a small… take-out place or something like that. But never got the opportunity.” She finally got that opportunity when a friend told her to check out a location on Drachman.

She opened Sultan’s Palace in 2005 with 2 other friends, both Afghan. But the restaurant never made enough of a profit for the 3 of them to share, so they left the business to Diba in 2006. In 2007, they began the move to their current location, which finally opened in 2008. The expenses in the smaller location are more than what they paid at the bigger restaurant.

“My mom actually is a very good cook, very good cook. But I never learned from her,” Diba said. In fact, it was her husband that taught her how to cook! Once she learned the techniques of cooking from her husband, Diba began experimenting with flavors and measurements. “Everything is Afghan,” Diba says about her recipes. She keeps the dishes served at Sultan’s Palace as authentic as possible. All the meat is halal and all the spices are brought in from Los Angeles.

“There’s a lot of food that we kept out.” The decision to leave certain recipes off the menu was made based on how feasible it was to freeze the food or how long it would keep in the refrigerator. Her customers more familiar with Afghan cuisine have called her up specifically for such dishes, however.

Diba says her restaurant does not get much business from Afghans in the Tucson community. “Most of the families are widows. Like 80% of the women they came as refugees here. They’ve barely established their lives here.”

With the Department of Near Eastern Studies just around the corner from their restaurant and the Islamic Center of Tucson just up the street, Sultan’s Palace gets a lot of business from the greater Muslim community in Tucson. Especially during the month of Ramadan, Sultan’s Palace was a local favorite of many to break their fast.

When I asked her about her favorites memories at the restaurant, her dream-job, she jokingly answered, “No best memories! All the time I am working so hard! … I am all the time here. I have no vacation. If I take vacation, the food changes… It’s not easy.”