His name is Fazly, and he is from Afghanistan.
At least, that’s the easiest way sophomore Toorialey Fazly has found to introduce himself to Americans who often express amazement at his nation of origin based on their own misconceptions.
For Fazly, his identity as an Afghan is intertwined with his experiences as a college student in the United States, a dream he set his sights on as a young boy living in near-poverty under the rule of the Taliban and fought for years to obtain.
Now studying international studies with a minor in economics, Fazly insists upon bringing his experiences and knowledge back home to the country he knows best.
A stunted childhood
Fazly was born and raised in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and excelled at his studies for all of his life until his plans to attend college were halted by the necessity of providing for his family, which was struggling economically. His father ill and his mother unable to work because of the presence of the Taliban, the family was lucky to scrounge up a piece of bread.
“If we were able to find dinner, we didn’t know how to find breakfast the next day,” Fazly said.
It was a harsh reality that befell almost every family in the country at the time.
“I finished my high school, then I knew that was it, there was no hope that I could continue my education while I wanted to,” he said. “My family knew that. My mom told me, ‘I’m sorry. I know that you’re smart and you need to go to higher educational institutes, but we need help and you have to work.’ And I did.”
His first job paid just enough to sustain the family for a while until Fazly found a job with DynCorps, an American-based military contractor training the Afghan army at the time. It was Fazly’s skills in English and computers, learned at private training centers during his childhood, which set him apart from his peers for the job.
But it would be the skills and experiences Fazly gained from his American peers at DynCorps that would matter most.
“They were very helpful people who taught me everything — how to manage, how to run an office,” he said. “Every single administrative skill I have now I learned from the Americans at DynCorp.”
During a visit from Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, Fazly became acquainted with his director of programs and inquired about job opportunities and expressed his capabilities. Within two months, he received an email about an opening and six months later was officially welcomed as the scheduler for the president of Afghanistan. While still supporting his family all the while, Fazly credits his success with his willingness to embrace the opportunities before him.
“A guy who had nothing — no bread to eat — five years ago (was) working in the office of the president,” Fazly said. “It was beyond my dreams and beyond my imagination. The passion I had for education and skills I had — it never let me down.”
Education, a world away
With a secure, well-paying job in place, Fazly began taking courses in law and political science at Kabul University. As he interacted with American lawmakers through his job, he repeatedly inquired into available educational opportunities in the United States. It was during a trip to Washington, D.C. that his life was forever changed when he met Ashraf Haidari, a political consul in the Afghan Embassy in D.C. who had recently spoken on Elon’s campus.
It was through him that Fazly learned about the university’s commitment to admit Afghan students and the Pavlov scholarship, which Fazly was eventually awarded. And despite his two years of university in Kabul, he insisted his credits not be transferred from his transcript.
“I knew that the education I had received, the basics I learned about political science and law was in Dari, my language,” he said. “So I thought that if I am going to continue my education in English, I have to start from scratch. That would be very helpful in the future.”
But the cultural differences weren’t the only barriers between Fazly and his new classmates on campus. The 25-year-old was also significantly older than his peers and brought with him years of experiences many couldn’t fathom.
“I came here with tough experiences of life joining a school with students that had just left their homes,” he said. “The environment that they were raised in was completely different than the environment I was raised with. The only thing we had in common was the language I could speak.”
Encounters with the Taliban
Fazly’s first up-close encounter with the terror group came on a bright and sunny afternoon during ninth grade. A crowd of people wound through the streets before coming to a stop in front of a tree and turning their eyes upward.
“I came very close to the tree and I looked and there was one hand of a man and a foot of a man hanging in a tree,” Fazly said. “People around me said it was somebody who had committed robbery and the Taliban cut off his hand and foot as a punishment and to show if anybody committed any robbery, their hand and foot would be cut.”
For weeks, the 14-year-old was plagued by nightmares that the severed hand and foot was behind him.
Violence was the norm for the country, already just a shadow of the prosperity and development it had once heralded in the 1970s before years of occupation and Civil War. The disobedient were shot in front of crowds of thousands during sporting events as a mock, cruel form of entertainment.
“Every day and every minute, even if you didn’t expect something like that to happen in the stadium or outside of a school, you could come across incidents that could shock you,” Fazly said. “And you could not bring it out of your mind and it was punishing you all the time, seeing people suffering.”
While he sometimes doesn’t follow along with the pop-culture references and trends prevalent on any college campus, Fazly said he enjoys sharing a unique perspective in classrooms and casual conversations.
“As I got to know people and people got to know me, I have too many friends on campus. I love them, and they love me back and we are friends and we will be friends forever.”
Paying forward a priceless gift
The resources that Fazly enjoys as a student at Elon University are unheard of in his home country — not only is Internet sparse, but libraries are limited and filled with outdated textbooks.
In one small way, he is hoping to change that.
During his last visit home, students at Kabul University told Fazly their hardest class was statistics, not because they couldn’t understand the material but because they were forced to perform every calculation by hand, without the benefit of a calculator or computer — a far cry from the experience Fazly has had studying math.
“A person like myself who has had education in the United States can bring those changes back home,” he said. “Right now, it’s my goal and I’ve planned it to collect information from my classes, presentations my professors have for me and the problem sets they have for me during the class. To take home every piece of paperwork I had done in these two classes.”
With that and his calculator, Fazly hopes to teach a statistics class and introduce Afghan students to American methods of statistics.
“I don’t care if I have an impact on an Afghan’s life or an Indian life or an American life — as far as I am able to help an individual, a human being, I am satisfied with that,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I’m only focused on Afghanistan but (it) is the country where I was born and I have access. I see myself in the position to help those people. But if tomorrow I’m in a position to help somebody else, it doesn’t matter from which country, which faith, which race — I will definitely be doing that.”
Change for the better
In many ways, Fazly’s experiences mirror those of his beloved home country as it attempts to rebuild and develop after years of hardship.
While the nightly news brings images of sandy expanses of land and tiny, mud houses to America’s living rooms, the reality is that improvement is happening. Unbeknownst to many, particularly young Americans, Afghanistan was a highly-developed country in the 1970s that, in many ways, resembled America and European nations. Despite the occupation of the Russians, Civil War and the rule of Taliban, the culture of the nation still thrives, Fazly said.
“It has only been since 2001 that everybody came hand-in-hand in trying to build the country in every aspect,” he said. “You can witness development in every aspect of life now.”
After his first year on Elon’s campus, Fazly returned home and was astounded by the pace of development in just nine months. He still holds to his belief that education is the best way to gain access to a better life.
“It is changing for the better every day and people are working hard,” he said. “Everybody is working hard because they had a tough past and don’t want to fall back into that situation. Everyone is working hard for a better future.”