"A Commercial Lawyer from Afghanistan…."
By Henaa Salehi
Image: Wikimedia Commons
My name is Henaa Salehi. The title of this piece is how I introduce myself when I meet new people. But behind those words, lies the story of a 25-year-old female lawyer practicing one of the most new, fast-evolving and challenging fields of law for over 7 years in Kabul, the heart and capital of Afghanistan. The story also includes parts that I normally hide from people’s eyes in order to keep my aura of strength. That is the story of a 16-year-old girl from a middle-class family, being the first girl from the family to go to university counting down from two generations, the first ever girl from the family to study and practice law, the first girl from the family to work in the private sector and later, in the government, and the first girl from the family to travel abroad, alone for education, work, and secret vacations.
This is also the story of a young female lawyer establishing a career in a male-dominated field. Indeed, not only establishing a career, but one in which she would be in decision-making and leadership positions. This the story of a girl who was the only female lawyer in the firm when she joined her first job; a girl who was the first female employee in most of the offices she joined and often, the only female at most tables.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Being the first or the only one is not a victory, sometimes. It is not a privilege, but a curse. She soon realized this. So it became the story of a girl who always strived to make sure she wouldn’t remain the only one, and to constantly pave the way for others. It was also the story of a female lawyer who became the youngest legal expert in the Legal Unit of the President of Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
For 9 long years, this was a story of obstacles and achievements, a story of barriers and beating them down one at a time, a story of a woman’s empowerment, of a woman in leadership and decision-making positions, a story of working hard and fighting to take each step forward, while also working and fighting for a bigger cause, so that our children will have stories very different from mine.
Image Credit: Henaa Salehi
Today, however, when you put those words together and voice it, you will find that it is just a story of loss: the painful loss of all that I achieved one by one, over the years, step by step.
Now, replay that story in your mind again and again. This is not the story of one Afghan girl. It is the story of thousands and thousands of Afghan youths of three decades and three generations. Imagine how big of a loss it is for hundreds of thousands of Afghan youths to build a life from scratch and to set up goals and then watch all of them shatter in front of their eyes. Imagine having to gather your whole world in a backpack and leave to an unknown place just to stay alive, even as you cannot save your homeland, your own world. Imagine having to sit with yourself in an unknown place, trying to convince yourself to think of building a life in a new place. Plan from zero. Build from zero.
One day, the media headlines read: The US government evacuated over 122,000 people in an evacuation process from Afghanistan, including 6000 Americans. The UK saved 15,000 people from Afghanistan.
Next day, the media headlines say: The UN calls on Afghanistan’s neighbors to keep their borders open for Afghan refugees.
We don’t want to be saved this way. We don’t want your safe shelters so that we become refugees. We wanted and needed you all along to stand beside us, to save our country: not just now when things have spiraled out of control. I never wanted to become a refugee. That was never on my checklist when I was setting my goals: my goals for 5 years, for 10 years… that’s what society teaches us, right? “Where do you see yourself in 5 years from now if you get this job? If you get this scholarship? If you get this funding for your projects? If you get this investment in your startup approved?” The word “refugee” was never figured.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
However, irrespective of where I saw myself, here I am in New York City. I was one of the luckiest ones, apparently, because I flew out of Kabul in what was later called the last commercial flight from Kabul International Airport. I had a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue my masters in the US. Three years ago, when I was preparing my application essays for Fulbright Scholarship, I was asked the same question: where do you see yourself once you return from your masters at US. I put my 5-10 years career plan there. I planned to establish my own law firm: the first female-owned, female-led law firm in Afghanistan. I would become a lecturer handling commercial and contract law. I would create a whole new syllabus for commercial law subjects because we wound up studying one that was 20 years old. I would work on legislative reform for the commercial legal framework of the country and advocate for more women-friendly laws and policies in this sector. I had every intention to return to my country, and to work for my country and my people. I wanted to continue the life I had built there for years.
I never wanted to become a refugee.
When your whole life revolves around something and that very thing collapses, you are left with a gaping hole in your heart. Our lives were built around Kabul and when Kabul collapsed, everything was gone with it.
The next time someone tells you they are from Afghanistan, please remember my story. Remember our story!
Each of these youths have a similar story like mine. For sure each of these youths, like me, will be able to build a life for themselves in foreign countries. We will serve these countries with all our hearts because they give us shelter. But the only difference will be that our souls will keep longing for our own country. We will always want to return to those busy, dusty streets of Kabul and breathe under its sky again. We will always strive to work for Afghanistan in Afghanistan. We will always crave to live in Afghanistan again, to raise our children under Afghanistan’s sky, in the heart of Afghani culture, language, and values.
After all, what is a person without their homeland?
Henaa Salehi is the Director of Procurement Policy and Legal Directorate, at National Procurement Authority (NPA) of Afghanistan. She first joined the Afghan government in 2019 as Legal Expert for the Office of Chief Legal Advisor to the President which later evolved to the Legal Unit of the President. She was also serving as the Acting Director for the Directorate of Regional & International Commitment’s Coordination at the Legal Unit of the President. Afterwards, she was appointed as the Policy and Legal Director for NPA by President Ghani. Henaa has a Bachelors in Law from Kabul University. She is also a Fulbright Scholar and is currently pursuing her masters in International Business & Trade Law at Fordham University, New York City. She has been practicing as a Commercial Lawyer for over 5 years in Kabul before joining the Afghan government. At the sideline of being a lawyer, she has been an advocate for women and youth rights for 10 years mainly focusing on gender equality and education.