From fleeing the Taliban with his family from Afghanistan to Pakistan, to barely staying one step ahead of hunger and the menacing Pakistani police, as a refugee in Pakistan, to trudging through the snow, to his graduate courses at the prestigious Brandeis University near Boston, the life journey of Mirza Amiri ‘07, Economics, is an inspirational tale of perseverance, hope lost and regained, and dreams fulfilled. Mirza kindly took time out of his hectic schedule as a graduate student on full scholarship in the International Business School at Brandeis to talk about his remarkable path from his war-torn homeland, his life-changing experience at AUCA, and his plans for the future.
Beau Gordinier: Tell me about your life before getting to AUCA?
Mirza Amiri: Life became very difficult for us once the Taliban took over Kabul. When I was young, before the Taliban came, I always wanted to study abroad. When the Taliban took power, they closed down the university and I lost hope that I would ever achieve this dream. When we fled to Pakistan, things got even worse. The Pakistani that smuggled us into the country stole everything we had, and once we got there we faced constant discrimination. It was the worst days of our lives living in Pakistan. We lost all our money, our home, even our clothes. We didn’t know if our friends and family were dead or alive. The police were very hostile and stole from Afghan refugees all the time, and sometimes they planted drugs in your pocket and demanded 100,000 rupees to get out of jail. When I tried to find work, the most they would pay you was often 50% or less than the wages of Pakistanis. I really lost hope of ever achieving my dreams because all I could think about was how to find work to survive.
Finally, when the Taliban was driven out of Kabul in 2002, my family agreed to let me return there alone to work for Focus Humanitarian Assistance of Canada. It mainly focused on repatriating Afghan refugees back to their homes in Afghanistan. I was hired as the assistant to the director, and most of the decisions were influenced by me because the director knew very little of the country.
Soon I was promoted to head of operations and supervised the repatriation efforts at the provincial offices. The most important thing about this experience was that I regained hope and confidence and I realized I had leadership skills and I could greatly contribute to my country.
BG: What are some of the key skills and ideas that you learned at AUCA that helped you move on to a graduate program at a prestigious American university? How did AUCA prepare you for your graduate studies?
MA: AUCA played the role of a ladder for me, which helped me climb up towards the peak of my aims. AUCA prepared me for the graduate program academically. That is why, I feel comfortable here after only 2 weeks. AUCA improved my language skills. I am not only fluent in English in my school now, but I speak in Russian also to some of the international students from CIS countries. AUCA also improved my presentation skills and it is one of my greatest strengths. Professor Valeri Hardin served as a personal advisor for me, although he was not in my department. He was my English instructor, but he advised me in all spheres of my life. He still is my teacher, my advisor and above all a very good friend of mine.
Economics professor Liudmila Konstants taught me about Economic research, which made me a researcher. From her class, I learned how to study and how to work hard for myself. I am very grateful to all of my professors.
BG: What would you tell young men and women in Central Asia about studying at AUCA? What advice would you give AUCA students wanting to pursue graduate studies?
MA: The only thing that I could advise to the people in Central Asia or Afghanistan is that a person who makes their way to AUCA is lucky. Not only is AUCA one of the top university in the region, it is an educational bridge between east and west. With the knowledge and degree from AUCA, one can easily compete in the job market, as well as pursue graduate studies in the west. For AUCA students, who would like to pursue graduate studies, take full advantage of the facilities and opportunities there. Take the required courses in English, sharpen your writing skills by contributing to the student newspaper or perhaps repeating the composition courses as an audit, and try to maintain an excellent G.P.A. Also, for those who want to enter MBA, economics or finance programs, work hard on your math skills so you can score high on the GMAT or GRE tests.
BG: Tell us about your experiences working in Afghanistan this past year. Who did you work for and what is the nature of the organization? What did you learn from this experience? Beyond the troubling security situation in Afghanistan, talk about some positive developments there and tell us about what you think needs to happen there to really pull the country out of crisis and on the path to peaceful development?
MA: I worked for the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency (AISA) as an investment analyst, analysis section head, and deputy director of the Research and Policy Department. I assumed three positions in a time span of around 7 months. AISA is the only modern, government-linked organization in the country that supports either local or foreign investors to improve the private sector in the country and attract foreign direct investment. AISA is a “one-stop shop,” which issues business licenses, provides consultations and supports and organizes investment promotion programs in the country and abroad.
During my tenure at AISA, I learned how to apply the theories from my textbooks to real life situations. I learned about the economy of Afghanistan. I learned that security, infrastructure, low education levels, and corruption are the main obstacles to the economic development of Afghanistan. Despite the immense structural developments, economic reforms and growth, the crisis in the country has not completely diminished yet. At this point, any short-term solutions to the crisis is very controversial since a lot of foreigners are working to exacerbate the situation, which would benefit them in one way or the other. The long-term solution to the crisis in the country is education. One day, this educated generation will pull the country out of crisis.
BG: How are you settling into your new home in Boston? Any first impressions about the United States?
MA: My settlement did not take me that long. I feel at home here already and have been doing well with everything. My first impression about the U.S. came prior to my arrival at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. Everybody who was standing in the queue of visa applicants was complaining about U.S. visa difficulties. This was true. My visa process and security clearance took so long that I missed the first two weeks of classes. I am still trying to learn about the culture, traditions, food, parties, characters, and the reason behind the smiles that people show me as I pass them on the street.
BG: Why Brandeis? Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
MA: I chose, Brandeis University International Business School for its program, which is my favorite, and for the scholarship that I was awarded. I am studying International Economics and Finance, which are my favorite branches of economics. For now the plan is to earn an M.A., and later I will see if I want a Ph.D. With this degree, I am sure that I will acquire a high ranking position in the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, where I worked prior to coming to the U.S., or to the line ministries in Afghanistan (Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of National Economics, Central Bank of Afghanistan). Being in one of the afore-mentioned institutions, I can easily notice my contribution to my war torn country.
BG: What does your family think about your move to the United States? Were you inspired by anyone in your family to achieve such academic success?
MA: My father has always been the main pillar supporting me. My family members in Afghanistan have been suffering economic hardships without me, but still they have accepted the tradeoff and have sent me abroad to study. Although I am the first one to acquire higher education in my family, since our older generation did not have opportunities due to the barbaric political system and ethnic cleansing in Afghanistan, I have always followed my father’s footsteps.
BG: What fond memories of AUCA pop into your mind now that you are living so far away?
MA: It is so difficult to move from a small house like AUCA to a large house like Brandeis. At AUCA, I almost knew everybody and used to say HI about 200 times daily, while here, it is impossible to do that. So far, wherever in the campus I go, I remember AUCA since some sort of comparison flashes into my mind. I miss the small campus of AUCA. I miss checking books for free from AUCA library. I even miss the noisy reading room of the library.