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It was March 2001, and Ahmad Haya, a civil engineer working on the massive Bay Bridge earthquake retrofit, was sitting at a conference table in his Treasure Island offices, excitedly describing his work.
The Bay Bridge retrofit was Haya's first job out of college, and the fresh-faced, then-22-year-old engineer said he was thrilled to work on such a high-profile project, even though it involved clambering all over the bridge -- 200 feet above water -- to make sure the retrofit work was up to par.
Among civil engineers, bridgework is as glamorous as it gets, so Haya, who is Afghan-American, hesitated a moment before admitting that he had even loftier goals. Haya said that he loved working on bridges, but his life's calling -- what he described as his destiny -- is to return to his war-devastated birth country to rebuild the country one road at a time.
As a member of the Bay Area-based Society of Afghan Professionals, Haya is one of nearly 50 young Afghan-Americans who -- long before the U.S. began dropping bombs in Afghanistan -- have pledged to use their professional expertise to rebuild the Central Asian country.
"Afghanistan is a war-torn country," Haya explained from behind the conference room table in March, before terrorism or the Taliban figured into the thoughts of most Americans. "One of my goals has been to go back and rebuild the roads. That's why I went into civil engineering. Because there has always been war in Afghanistan."
As he leaned back in his chair on that spring afternoon, he had no way of knowing how complicated his noble plans would become when, seven months later, the United States would begin dropping bombs in Afghanistan to combat terrorism.
At noon on a gray Saturday in November, more than a month after the U.S. began its air raids over Afghanistan, Haya and his sister arrive at Fremont's Centerville Junior High School for a blanket drive for Afghan refugees. The crowd at the school has already filled a hallway with hundreds of blankets, some purchased just to be donated.
Haya prepares to box the blankets so they can be shipped to Afghanistan before the freezing winter months. Other members of the Society of Afghan Professionals, who range from college age to early 30s, arrive to volunteer in shifts throughout the day. The members come from all walks of professional life; they are doctors, lawyers, engineers, and technical consultants.
Humanitarian aid and volunteerism is a large component of the society, which was founded in 1999 by two Afghan-Americans who brainstormed and wrote bylaws from a Starbucks coffee shop in Fremont.
Since then, the society has grown to nearly 50 members and has acquired a sister organization in Virginia. Before terrorism came to the forefront of American consciousness, the organization focused on promoting Afghan culture and community in the U.S. and fund-raising for humanitarian aid. But now that Afghanistan makes front-page news -- some of which the organization feels is unbalanced -- the nonpolitical society has organized seminars and lectures to educate the public on Afghanistan.
"A lot of people don't know the basics, like where Afghanistan is, or who we are, so we have to do a lot of educating," says Wali Shaaker, who fled Afghanistan at age 20 so he would not be forced to fight for the Communist army. "We do seminars, telling people about our history and culture, and what war has done to our country. To give them an overall picture."
"People confuse al Qaeda and the Taliban with the people," adds Haya. "People associate Afghans with terrorism, but we say that Afghans have been terrorized by 20 years of war."
Regardless of current events, returning to Afghanistan to rebuild the country has been an underlying tenet of the organization from the beginning.
"Whatever we can do to rebuild the country, whatever it takes we will do," says Humah Bargzie, who is an industrial psychologist but says she will return to Afghanistan to improve the education system there.
"As an organization, we haven't made decisions as to when to go or how to go, because it is too early," says Shaaker, the society's president. "But with everyone I have spoken to individually, they do want to go back."
Many, like Haya, see returning to Afghanistan as a duty. "The only resource Afghanistan has left is in the young people that left Afghanistan -- people with some education or skills to help improve Afghanistan," Haya says. "Here, we have had an opportunity to get an education and make something of ourselves. If we were in Afghanistan, all we could hope for is to hold a gun and fight for freedom."
At the end of the Cold War, just before the Russians began invading Afghanistan, Ahmad Haya was born in the capital city of Kabul. His family endured the military threat for some years, but in 1980, Haya's mother decided it was time to seek safety from wayward Communist bombs and gunfire.
Haya's uncle was an airline pilot, and he helped the Hayas secure a flight to Germany. They left behind Haya's father, who refused to leave his land and home until several years later.