TRANSLATING COMPASSION FOR “THE OTHER”

Baktash Ahadi, an Afghan-American from Carlisle, Pa., was only weeks into his first semester on campus when 9-11 changed the trajectory of his life. “It made me really want to understand my roots and everything that came along with that,” Ahadi says.

“Think about it: A war was declared by my adopted country on my home country after 9-11,” he says. “In that light, I became more and more interested in subjects, topics and people that would give me a greater understanding of that reality.”

That reality includes decades of war and instability in his homeland, a place his family fled when he was just 3 years old—far too young to remember their treacherous journey by horseback across the Hindu Kush mountain range. They fled Kabul for their lives in 1984 after his father, a government employee, refused to join the communist regime that rose to power after the Soviet invasion.

The family spent about 18 months in Pakistan, waiting for a Western country to grant them asylum. Desperate to leave there, Ahadi’s parents tried everywhere—Canada, Germany, the U.K., even Australia. Ultimately, they found refuge in the United States. It’s the only home Ahadi knew until that fateful day in September 2001 when he and the rest of the world were changed forever.

Following his undergraduate study in sociology and anthropology at Susquehanna, Ahadi began a master’s degree program in international relations at Johns Hopkins University. A year into the program, he was approached about serving as a translator for U.S. interests in Afghanistan.

Intrigued by the opportunity to serve his adopted country in his ancestral homeland, Ahadi interrupted his graduate studies to return to the home he never knew.

As both a U.S. citizen and an Afghan national who speaks the Dari language, he was uniquely positioned to help the counterinsurgency efforts.Initially he worked with a U.S. and NATO Afghan advisory group to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people. He later served with the U.S. Special Operations Task Force, working as a liaison between the Special Forces, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the local population.

He spent three years in country, getting to know the place and the people he had only heard about in stories. “Reuniting with my family … was an incredible experience,” Ahadi says. “Seeing them brought me full circle.”

Prior to going to Afghanistan, Ahadi says he was confused about his identity in many ways. Going back, meeting his family and learning about the country gave him a greater understanding of his own identity.

“I was no longer lost about my upbringing,” he says. “Afghanistan gave me a true sense of who I was—that being an Afghan-American, someone who holds values of both cultures and both worlds, an identity that I am grateful for.”

Ahadi says the job gave him a strong sense of purpose. “As an interpreter, I not only conveyed messages from one person to another, but in truth, I was the voice that shared meaning, experience and feeling.”

In that capacity, he was able to tap into the psychology of war on both sides, which gave him a greater appreciation for “the other.”

“I became really immersed in my work and in my contribution to any situation where I was bringing two very different perspectives together in one world,” Ahadi says.

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