Journal Archive > 2002 > January

Afghan activist

Until September 11, she was simply a student at Fletcher

While the American public has been traumatized by the terrorist attacks against the United States and the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Rina Amiri, an Afghan-born student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, has been additionally burdened by the reality of bombs dropping on her homeland.

When thousands of Afghan refugees began pouring into Pakistan, it brought back painful reminders of 20 years ago, when she and her own family fled Afghanistan as political refugees, staying first in Bombay, then settling permanently in California.

Rina Amiri © Jon Chomitz

"While I was only four or five years old, I can still remember my parents sitting huddled together in our home [in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital]. Speaking in hushed, anxious whispers, they tearfully bid our relatives goodbye as we made our way to Pakistan—the ‘Khyber Pass express' out of Afghanistan," she recalls.

"Confused, I tugged at my mother's arm, asking, 'Where are we going? When are we coming back?' I didn't realize we were leaving our homeland—forever.

"We traveled from Kabul to Pakistan, then India, the guests of relatives, our future and destiny unclear. Overnight, incidental tribal lines had made us enemies of the state. We had become political refugees."

The Amiri family eventually settled in California. Her father is a retired physician. Her mother works in a bank, and a brother works as a computer engineer.

The turning point
Earlier this semester, Amiri's life had been pleasantly uneventful. She studied at Fletcher and also worked for Swanee Hunt at the Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Then came September 11. Amiri was propelled from an anonymous graduate student to high-profile Afghan activist. A turning point came on September 18, when U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., asked the Fletcher School to host a forum on racial and ethnic tolerance in the aftermath of several incidents in which local Arabs were verbally harassed.

When Kerry opened the floor to questions, Amiri stood up and said that not all Muslims think alike or are antagonistic toward the United States. "The color of our hair and our skin does not reflect what is in our hearts and minds," she said. "The Afghan population is not the Taliban. They have been the first victims of the Taliban."

When the session ended, reporters descended on the young woman, anxious to interview her. With journalists invariably impressed by her intelligence and knowledge of Afghanistan, in short order, Amiri become much sought after as a lecturer, conference organizer and expert on the problems of Afghanistan.

An American citizen, Amiri retains a strong allegiance to Afghanistan and its people. "I see myself as having a dual identity. I'm an American student and an Afghan activist. I grew up eating Afghan food and listening to Afghan music. It was only in college that I began to have an American circle of friends."

Thrust into the limelight
To be sure, this intensely serious and well-spoken young woman has not sought the limelight. Indeed, she remains skittish about all the attention. "I don't want to become bigger than the cause," she says.

But circumstances and her own expertise have thrust Amiri into a public role. She has been profiled by Boston television stations Channel 5 and New England Cable News—both interviews conditional on her being allowed to talk about issues related to the war, not her personal life. Besides appearances on PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," CNN and National Public Radio, she has been quoted in the Boston newspapers as well as major papers around the country. She wrote an op-ed for The New York Times.

In an opinion piece published in the November 10 edition of The Boston Globe, Amiri weighed in on the humanitarian crisis involving Afghan's refugees. Citing Mary Robinson, the UN high commissioner for human rights who has predicted that this could be a far graver humanitarian disaster than Rwanda, Amiri wrote, "Now as the bombs are falling on Afghanistan, the international community cannot once again blind itself to the impending disastrous humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan."

During a two-week colloquium called "Women Waging Peace" at the Kennedy School of Government that brought together women from more than 20 nations, Amiri was a forceful voice on behalf of Afghan women. On November 19, a Boston Globe editorial called "Women, War and Peace" quoted Amiri concerning the relationship between the Taliban regime's oppression of women and growing religious extremism. "When you shut out the women, you don't leave voices that can be a moderating force," Amiri warned. "It is the women who supply a stable, cohesive community…If the international community wants stability, they have to empower the women as well."

Amiri and Harvard's Swanee Hunt flew to Washington, D.C., November 16 as part of a group of women's advocates meeting with Paula Dobriansky, an undersecretary of state for global affairs. "We were briefing the White House, providing advice on how it could be more responsive to women's issues," Amiri said.

The next day, First Lady Laura Bush delivered her now-famous radio address in which she not only addressed the Taliban's oppression of women but also vowed the United States would insist that women have power in a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

This month, Amiri is scheduled to travel to Pakistan to participate in a women's conference.

She says she is physically and emotionally exhausted from balancing her studies, her job and her advocacy. But there is work to be done. The refugee problem will not go away. Food will have to be airlifted during the cold winter months to Afghans living in remote areas, and sooner or later, the international community will have to address Afghanistan's reconstruction.