Afghan student finds niche, purpose at Berea

BEREA — When Ahmad Shuja left Afghanistan at the age of 6, the country was disintegrating from the end of a civil conflict and the rise of the Taliban.

Seventeen years later, Afghanistan is still in chaos, but Shuja, 23, is Berea College's student body president, one semester away from graduation. His life has changed dramatically, but he still doesn't think he can go home.

"I don't know what the answer is," Shuja said recently. "It's so complicated now."

Particularly for him.

Shuja is a Hazara, a Shiite minority group in largely Sunni Afghanistan. Because of so few opportunities in their native country, where they lived in Kabul and other areas, Shuja's family settled with many other Hazaras in the city of Quetta, in western Pakistan. Shuja hasn't seen his parents and three siblings in four years, but neither his native country nor his adopted Pakistan look particularly stable or inviting for a recent college graduate.

And Shuja — whose determination to get an education brought him from Quetta to Berea College — has big plans that include graduate school, possibly in international diplomacy, at Harvard, Tufts or Princeton.

Then he might look toward his native land.

"It depends on what happens in Afghanistan," he said in his flawless English, which he speaks in a completely American accent. "If things improve there somewhat, I could see myself trying to prop that hopeless country up."

'The mother chicken'

It's been a long journey from war-torn Afghanistan to the sunny office of Berea's student government.

Shuja attended schools in Quetta run by non-governmental organizations with other Hazara children. His father owned a truck, which he drove for hire, moving people and things around Pakistan. That gave the family enough money to send Ahmad to special English and computer schools in the afternoon.

As he grew older, he started looking into scholarship opportunities for college.

"I wanted to study somewhere a degree meant something, as universities in Afghanistan had no future prospects," Shuja said.

He looked at Great Britain and Australia but, by then, Afghanistan was again a war zone, and Shuja spent time translating for several American journalists, which turned his sights toward the United States.

Marcus Stern, an investigative reporter for Pro Publica, was one of those journalists. He met Shuja in Quetta shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, when his translator was unable to understand the dialect of several Hazara women Stern was trying to interview. Shuja was walking by, stepped up and started talking.

"He was this kid in a clean white shirt on a bike, and he spoke perfect English with an American accent," Stern recalled. "I was amazed because he was so good at translating. But it was sad because he was saying he'd be finishing school and would not have any options for education beyond that."

In one of his Internet searches, Shuja found the name of Berea College, one of the last colleges in the United States to offer a tuition-free education to low-income students. Berea also has a significant community of international students.

Stern gave him the money for the plane ride to New York City. Shuja said his first experience in the United States was being held in immigration for four hours while officials checked out his Afghan identification.

"I was really afraid they were going to send me back," he said. "But they let me go. I came out of the airport, and there was New York, and there was me."

From New York, Shuja traveled to see Stern at his home in Georgia. It was in Georgia, Shuja said, he got to see the real America.

On the one hand, he couldn't believe the "organizational efficiency of people doing their jobs without taking bribes. I was not used to that."

On the other, he went to a Wal-Mart and couldn't believe the sight of people buying so much stuff.

But in Berea, he became a political science major, entering student government in his freshman year and serving as an officer until he was elected president.

His friend and co-officer, Elizabeth Vega, calls Shuja serene and introspective and says he will often study a situation before making a decision.

"He's interested in why people do the things they do from a cultural standpoint," she said. "He's an exceptional person. It's not just his intellect; there's a quiet strength he displays in his interactions with people. He's very, very diplomatic."

He has worked on such issues as making Berea more sustainable, getting more students involved in student government, strengthening the student resident program, and that perennial favorite, improving the food service.

Vega says that while Shuja is passionate about issues, "he never flies off the handle." And while she thinks he misses his family deeply, "he kind of recognizes that being here could also help his family and his community. He navigates that because he sees the greater good."

(Vega says many people remark on Shuja's extraordinary American English and says she's only ever heard him make one mistake: He was introducing her at a faculty meeting, talking about her maternal nature. "He was trying to say, 'she's our mother hen,' but he said 'she's our mother chicken,' " Vega recalled. "It was so funny, now people call me The Mother Chicken.")

Shuja also speaks Urdu and Farsi, along with some Pashto and Arabic.

'A sense of purpose'

Shuja spent a summer interning at Fox News in New York and had another summer internship at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, D.C.

"He's gotten the most of those experiences," said his adviser, John Heyrman, a political science professor. "He came already with a sense of purpose you usually don't see in freshmen, and he's made the most of his education."

He sees what could have been when he hears about his family members still back in Afghanistan. One cousin suffers terribly from diabetes, which in most countries is a treatable disease. Another cousin tried to work illegally in Iran and is now trying to make his way to Australia for work, where he will probably end up in detention.

"Refugee life was, of course, a blessing," Shuja said.

He doesn't have the answers for Afghanistan except to say: "Don't withdraw and allow elements against civilization and humanity to come back into power."

But someday, whether as journalist, diplomat or maybe even politician, he hopes to be part of the solution.

So do his fans.

"He's so perfectly suited between these two worlds (the U.S. and Afghanistan), to serve at this crossroads during this difficult time," Stern said. "When we begin withdrawing our troops, it would be really good to see him playing some role there."

As his friend Vega says: "I'm looking forward to seeing what he does in the future because he's a real leader."