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Bay Area Afghans hear homeland's call Families, jobs left behind to help nation rise from ruins
Anastasia Hendrix, Edward Epstein
San Francisco Chronicle

Nine months ago, Said Tayeb Jawad was a workaday stiff in San Francisco, toiling away as a consultant in an Embarcadero Center law firm.

Now he's the right-hand man to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"I love this country, and San Francisco, too," said the 44-year-old Afghan emigre, who returned to Kabul to help rebuild a post-Taliban Afghanistan and ended up as Karzai's chief of staff.

Jawad, who grew up in the Afghan capital, is among the Afghan Americans from the Bay Area who have interrupted their lives to try to create a "modern, moderate" state out of a land ravaged by decades of war, impoverishment and extremism.

Jawad's rapid rise -- he hadn't even met Karzai until arriving in Kabul last March -- shows the improvisational nature of what has happened there since the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies were ousted a year ago as part of the war on terrorism.

"There are a limited number of people who can get the job done in Afghanistan," said Jawad, a U.S. citizen who had lived in the Bay Area since 1989.

So when Karzai asked him to join his fledgling government as press secretary and later as chief of staff and director of the office of international relations, Jawad felt he had to accept.

His experience has been mirrored by other Americans, such as former San Francisco investment banker Khalil Shariani, who left the Bay Area last February to work for the Afghan government's new Ministry of Finance as its general director for economic enterprises and development.

Over the past several months, Shariani has made repeated trips back to the Bay Area to meet with, interview and recruit people to help the effort to rebuild Afghanistan.

"One of the main issues we have is the revitalization of government enterprises," he said during a recent Bay Area visit. "We want to create jobs for people because we believe security, stability and economic development go hand in hand. If we can create 16,000 jobs, that means 16,000 guns off the street."

Shariani has hired Afghans from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C.,

Maryland and Virginia as well as Australia and Germany.

Admittedly, his job is difficult given the continued instability in Afghanistan and the looming possibility of a U.S. attack on Iraq.

"I tell them, yes, the challenges are overwhelming, because the basic needs for the necessities of daily life are inadequate," he said. "Transportation, health care, banks, manufacturing, etc. . . . But the rewards are even greater. "

Shariani's recruiting zeal hooked Zemar Achikzai, who is so certain of Afghanistan's economic recovery that he passes out a 10,000-afghani note -- currently worth only about 25 cents here -- to almost everyone he meets.

It's his way of putting money where his heart is -- a symbolic gesture that shows his confidence in the future of his homeland because he expects the bill's value to multiply dramatically soon.

The goateed 34-year-old Bay Area mortgage consultant is making another, more intensely personal investment in the country's economic future. He is trading-in luxuries like his black Mercedes-Benz and a gorgeous home near Chabot Regional Park in Castro Valley to move to Kabul next month and take comfort in helping his former countrymen make a decent living. He'll help restructure Hokhest, the country's largest government-owned pharmaceutical manufacturing factory.

"My interest is not to go and take a job from these people, but to let them learn my skills so that they bring the company to the next level, to the international standard. They deserve that," said Achikzai, who is also the co- chair of humanitarian projects for the Society of Afghan Professionals, a Bay Area organization that has been working over the past year to raise money and awareness about the country's many needs.

"In America we have ground zero, but over there, it's ground below zero," he said, referring to the massive rebuilding effort needed to bring Afghanistan back to the modern era. "There is much work to do."

Jawad echoes that view, saying he was shocked by the destruction when he first arrived in Kabul, where his father was a university dean and where he attended the French School as a boy. "I knew the city had been destroyed, but nothing prepared me for what I saw," he said.

But now, Jawad says, life is blossoming around the capital, and nothing is more symbolic of the change than the re-emergence of color in a society that he said the Taliban had turned dark and forbidding.

"The biggest difference I see now is that people are painting their houses in very bright colors, in pinks and blues," he said. "It's like people are taking their revenge on the Taliban by painting in vivid colors."

Jawad's odyssey is typical of the Afghan diaspora. He fled in 1980, right after the Soviet invasion. He went to Germany and studied law, then migrated to New York City, where he worked in a law firm. In 1989, he reached San Francisco, received an MBA from Golden Gate University and went to work for a business law firm.

He kept in touch with people in Afghanistan and became a well-known writer and commentator on affairs in his homeland. He lived in San Francisco and two years ago bought his home in the Oakland hills.

Jawad remains very much a creature of the Bay Area, and recently enjoyed his first vacation in those nine months by spending a few days with his wife and 12-year-old son at home in Oakland.

He says he misses the food, restaurants and diverse culture he enjoyed while living here, remains crestfallen over the Giants' World Series defeat and hopes someday to come back to the Bay Area to live.

"I'm a refugee, not from Afghanistan, but from the expensive city, living in the Oakland hills," he joked. While he toils in Kabul, his family has remained behind. His wife works to help pay the mortgage.

Shariani says it's been hard to find people who are willing to leave family,

friends and loved ones behind.

"One of the major, major sacrifices is being away from your family, especially when they are this young," said Shariani, a father of two girls, ages 4 and 6. "You miss their ballet classes and regular father things, but at the same time, my kids are going to school telling their teachers and classmates that I'm in Afghanistan helping out, and there's a pride in that."

Achikzai, who recently divorced and is father of children ages 2 and 4, says he knows his heart will ache while he is away from them. Like Shariani, he says he plans to visit every two months and will keep in touch by phone and computer messages.

Knowing his son and daughter are able to attend good, safe schools, he says he wants to ensure the same for the young girls in Afghanistan.

While there, he will be the point man for a Society of Afghan Professionals project to build an all-girls elementary school in Kabul. The group is raising money by raffling off a new car donated by Fremont Toyota on Christmas Eve, hoping to raise $100,000.

He's not sure whether his move will be permanent, but he says this is a pivotal time in Afghanistan's history -- and he can make a difference.

"For me, Afghanistan is like a body, and if you see someone keep getting beaten, you want to go help them," Achikzai said. "Right now, Afghanistan has many wounds, but it has a big heart that is still pumping, and I don't want to let it die."

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