In this story, Ahmad Shah Mobraiz shares his story of a childhood scarred by the Taliban, followed by a journey of resilience and a passion for education in the face of deep hardship and tragedy — a journey that was illuminated by his grandmother’s proverb.
My grandmother would always tell us one proverb: “A man is harder than a stone.” In other words, no what matter how hard life may be, humanity can bear it and it is possible to overcome!
I was born in a tiny village of a dozen households surrounded by mountainous valleys in Daimirdad, Wardak province, Afghanistan.
Masjid – a place where Muslims worship – is at the center for community involvement, discussions, and decision-making in many villages in Afghanistan. All families would come together in the mosque and celebrate festivities. Our village used the Masjid as a school too, where I received my education until third grade. My father, with other elders of the community, found a person from another village who had done his high school in Kabul; they recruited him as a teacher at our mosque for the kids from several villages. He was a man of patience and great talent in teaching all school subjects. He and my father were my first heroes in life.
When I was growing up, our village was a thriving and spreading community. After the invasion of the Taliban – the first war I experienced as a child – my village, like many others, was reduced to only three households. I was nine years old at that time and can still remember the splash of bullets and the heinous sound of bombs falling.
That war took everything my family had, and I lost everything I had. My mother, who was ill and could not escape, was brutally killed by the Taliban inside the house. All I could see and smell on my return was pieces of human blood on th walls.
Before the war, my uncle would tell us not to worry because – according to him – the Taliban were people from religious schools and would not harm civilians. This proved wrong and they spared no one, not even an ill woman!
This is the story of almost every village in our part of the country. Houses, gardens, villages, and valleys were abandoned, and people fled with whatever they could. After 40 days of hiding in the mountains, the region had fully fallen to the Taliban. Families returned to their villages, with the difference that they had lost dear ones and every economic means for livelihood and now had to live under the Taliban. Once settled, the Taliban started interrogating people to find previous affiliations with political parties.
Among families in Afghanistan, a woman is considered the light of the family. But men taking on “women’s chores” is unbearable for men, especially in villages. Having lost my mother in the war, my father was left widowed and the house without a woman. My father decided to shift to Kabul, the capital, where he could have more privacy and people could not observe him doing household chores and raising me and my elder brother. We were followed by my uncles and many of our villagers, most of whom fled the country.
But life in Kabul was not welcoming. My father and my uncles were watched by the Taliban. My uncle was arrested and was dragged behind a car until close to death! He lost his range of motion and cannot walk now.
Life in those days was all about fighting against the odds and adversities of every kind. My father is a visionary man, however. He enrolled me at a public school and let my elder brother work. He also enrolled me at the only English language education center in the part of the city where we lived. That decision gave me an advantage over many people of my age and later provided a source of income for me and my family.
After almost two years living under the Taliban, at the end of fifth grade, the September 11 attack happened, followed by the US-led international intervention that toppled the Taliban. The incident was liberating to many people, especially minorities whom the Taliban regarded as second-class citizens, meant to be vanished. There have been significant changes in Afghanistan since 2001. The current emerging generation of leaders in my country is the result of an event in history that changed their life trajectory. In the meantime, it brought devastation to many others whose homes became the battlefield for the Taliban insurgents.
Once in my early school life, my family was in some desperate economic circumstances and we were fighting for mere survival. I had to leave school. However, at the age of 11, I decided to take on more work weaving carpets with my elder brother – a few more hours at night would compensate for the non-earning hours I had to spend at school as well as pay for tuition. At that age, I was looked at as a grown man who could take responsibility for the family.
My English language skills also started to pay off and I started teaching at an English language center in Kabul. Growing up in a politically charged environment, I aspired to become a politician and thought that the only way to do that was to study political science.
With that aspiration I participated in the countrywide university examination in 2008 and came in 66th among over 100,000 participants that year. I was admitted to the major of my choice at Kabul University. I also participated in an open competition for a scholarship provided by the Indian government that year. My English language skills paid off and I was chosen for a fully-funded scholarship. However, I made an error while selecting majors and universities, and selected Business – instead of Law and Political Science – because of my lack of familiarity with abbreviations. That was the best mistake I have made in life!
It put me on the path to becoming an economist. The three years of my undergraduate journey in Bangalore, India, were flourishing ones. It opened my eyes to a greater world and prepared me to become a world standard citizen. Right after my graduation in 2012, I got another scholarship to do my MA at the South Asian University (SAU), a university established by SAARC member countries. I consider SAU as my second home because it truly provides an environment for discussion and intellectual debate. I also managed to create connections and a wide professional network in South Asia.
After getting my MA in Development Economics, I returned home. After a few months working at Afghanistan’s Supreme Audit Office, I joined the Ministry of Finance as a Senior Economist and served in the same position until I departed for my Ph.D. journey.
I always aspired to pursue my education in the U.S. I achieved my dream by earning a Fulbright Scholarship. Primarily, I wanted to see the diversity of cultures in the U.S. (which itself presents immense opportunities to learn) and to understand the richness of an entirely different culture. That and my academic goals were the driving factors for me to come to the United States. I am currently pursuing my doctoral studies in Economics at the University of Arkansas. I am committed to serve humanity through my contribution to the economic science.
Before pursuing my education in the U.S., life was a mix of new experience and nostalgia of the kind of life I brought up with. In Afghanistan, life is about family and community interconnections, while here in the United States it is more weighted towards the individual. Overall, America’s lifestyle is different, and it takes time to adjust. Thankfully, I am a student, and the diversity of the student community itself makes the transition easier. I might have been more shocked if I had been immersed in community and family life!
When I arrived in the U.S., I found that Americans are nice and welcoming. Specially, academic institutions have created a very friendly and empowering environment for international students. I have felt at home and I am grateful for it. In one year, I visited 10 states. I enjoy the simplicity of life and social interactions. I am now a part of the Fulbright Association at the University of Arkansas. However, it is challenging to make friends because it is hard to tell jokes in a non-native language. I can’t tell jokes in English!
I believe that my identity is woven into me. I can’t avoid being who I am. I was brought up under hardship and lost my dearest ones in war. It will always affect the way I see the world. But my life’s journey reveals to me the meaning of my grandmother’s proverb: that a man is harder than a stone, and I and so many of my friends are living proof.