She remembers when Camp Eggers, home to U.S. military and coalition forces at NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan (NTM–A), was a residential area where she once got a privileged glimpse of King Mohammad Zahir Shah driving his Rolls Royce through the city.
“That was a big impression on me to see the king and have him wave to me,” Yusuf said with a smile. “I think about that all the time.”
According to Yusuf, women wore European clothing and it was not unusual to travel at night to see movie without a male escort. She also had no problem getting an education, graduating from Malalai School with a degree in history and geography.
When the Soviets invaded Kabul, she witnessed a drastic change in civil liberties. “Once Russia came over, it all stopped. No one could go out. Nothing. We were just inside the houses,” said Yusuf. “It made me very upset. Why did these things happen? We did not know the consequences of these actions on our future and the future of the country.”
At 20, Yusuf, her husband and both of their families left Kabul. After spending four years in a camp on the border of Pakistan, they immigrated to the United States. The family lived in Southern California for a few years and Yusuf lived in Sacramento before moving to Antioch.
Sept. 11, 2001 ignited a desire in Yusuf to return to Afghanistan, although the timing was not ideal. “My son was too young on September 11 to come over, but since then I wanted to come,” Yusuf said. “I do remember that I was at work, and I said to my coworkers, ‘I want to go.’”
Last year Yusuf got her chance to return. Hired by Mission Essential Personnel (MEP) as
a linguist, she received an assignment to Kabul as an NTM-A interpreter.
Nothing could prepare Yusuf for her return to Afghanistan.
After she was picked up at the airport, her first drive through the city she once called home was described as a “shock and disappointment.”
“When I first came here, they drove me through the city at night, and I saw all of the dust and the carts and poverty,” said Yusuf. “I heard the news that there were a lot of changes that happened here, and I expected a lot – but not this much. This was too much … I couldn’t believe that this was the capital that I grew up in.”
That first impression didn’t extinguish her desire to be a part of positive change in Afghanistan. “I have been here one year and now I see the coalition countries come here and try to train the military and police and work to clean up the country,” Yusuf said. “No one can blame (the Afghans) that they grew up in this situation. … They need direction on how they are suppose to go.”
During Yusuf’s time with NTM-A, she has seen the Afghan government’s proactive approach to improve vehicle security and traffic by implementing advanced vehicle search techniques. Plans are in the works to install traffic lights throughout the city.
She believes sanitary conditions are better throughout Kabul. When she first arrived, food vendors let fruit and meat spoil outside their shops from exposure to weather and pollutants from highly trafficked streets. Throughout the year, the government has worked with storekeepers to improve health standards.
But Yusuf believes more can be done by the government and Afghan people.
In an office of approximately 12 Afghan linguists, she is the only Afghan-American. She believes it’s important for all Afghans, whether living in Afghanistan or abroad, to be involved in the country’s future. One-by-one, people can make a difference: “All of us cannot be the president, all of us cannot be the vice president, all of us cannot be the ministry, all of us cannot be the general. Everything starts from ordinary people. Once they put hand-to-hand together and they are shoulder-by-shoulder, then we get victory. That’s the main thing.”
Yusuf’s coworkers enjoy sharing their experiences with her and feel comfortable asking her for personal and work-related guidance.
A former Afghan National Army (ANA) dentist and now linguist for NTM-A’s Medical Command and Inspector General, Shokrya is optimistic with Yusuf’s encouragement to make positive changes within Afghanistan. Shokrya was dismissed from the ANA when her hospital tried to force her into a job she was not properly trained for. She now works with the IG, who is responsible for correcting those kinds of problems within the ANA medical community.
“Sometimes when she has time, and I have time, we talk about personal issues,” said Shokrya. “She also gives us advice, like Afghan people should serve their country because this is Afghanistan and Afghanistan needs improvements.”
Nabiullah, also a linguist with NTM-A, is also recovering from an IED attack that claimed the lives of four U.S. service members he considered friends while working as their interpreter in the Paktika Province. Nabiullah suffered major injuries that still affect his speech abilities, but is thankful to be alive and continue working with U.S. and coalition forces and to have caring coworkers like Yusuf.
Working with other Afghan linguists has been rewarding for Yusuf. She’s glad coworkers feel comfortable enough to open up and talk with her but believes more could be done by her colleagues outside the office. “(My Afghan colleagues) are young, educated, they can think clearly and are not scared,” said Yusuf. “Every day, I ask them and tell them: if you guys have time when you go home, relax a little bit and then clean up your street. This is going to start with five or six people and then grow to hundreds if they make a group or organization.”
One source of inspiration for Yusuf are lines by poet Robert Frost: “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
Yusuf completed her one-year contract with MEP in December and renewed her contract to work with NTM-A for another year. In June of 2011 she was presented with a certificate of appreciation from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police-Combine Training Advisor Group for her work with the Afghan National Police. On Dec. 22 she was presented with another certificate of appreciation from MEP and given a thank-you letter from the company.
Currently, Yusuf is enjoying some vacation time, relaxing and enjoying her family stateside, but looking forward to continuing her work in Afghanistan. She hopes one day to be a cultural advisor for the Afghan government and encourage others to work together to re-build the country.
“Everything starts from zero,” said Yusuf about the power a community can have if people are willing to band together to create positive change. “Nothing starts from hundreds; it starts from zero and then goes to the millions.”
NTM-A is a coalition of 37 troop-contributing nations charged with assisting the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) in generating a capable and sustainable Afghan National Security Force ready to take lead of their country’s security by 2014.
Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class Elizabeth Thompson is an Antioch resident and writes for Public Affairs NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan.