From education minister in Afghanistan to refugee: Samad’s story

Samad is a friend of the Scalabrinian Secular Missionaries, who met him in Solothurn, Switzerland. As with so many migrants, we meet them at the most critical moments, a short time after arriving in a foreign land, when the wound of leaving is fresh, the uncertainties due to residence permits many and the need to share the road with someone very important. With Samad it was like that: from the first steps through many different stages the friendship grew, grew stronger and his testimony, which from the beginning was good for us, in time became a gift for many young people, a help to reflect, to appreciate every moment of life, even the hardest ones and to always hope, because love always, anyway, goes through history and is carrying it.

Samad, would you like to introduce yourself?

My name is Samad Qayumi. I was born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan, where I also did my undergraduate studies graduating in engineering. I worked in the oil sector in Iran, and then, back in my home country, I was hired in a company in Mazar-e-Sharif that produced fertilizer and employed 3,000 people. From chief engineer, I became deputy director and then director of this plant. I always tried to do my job well and have good relations with everyone.

And how did you come to hold political responsibilities?

Unexpectedly, in 1982 I received a telegram from the prime minister of the government, with an invitation to go to Kabul. It was about my appointment as head of all provinces, a position I held for four years. When problems arose in education, health, agriculture, construction or whatever, I would be contacted and with the competent minister I would try to find a solution.

And then the leap into the world of education….

I was later appointed minister of education. In this role I was mainly concerned with the construction and improvement of schools in our country. I always thought that education was crucial for the future of Afghanistan. To better prepare myself for this task, I did my doctorate in education. The work was immense because the education system was backwards and also because the fundamentalists were very active and kept destroying school buildings and killing teachers.

What changed the course of your history?

In 1989 I was reappointed as head of the provinces and remained in charge until the mujhaiddin came to power in 1992. Six million Afghans were forced to leave the country. I too had to flee with my family in the space of two hours, leaving everything behind. Other members of the government had already been killed. For two months we stayed at the border in Pakistan, hoping for an improvement in the situation. Then we left the country and, with two of our three children, arrived in Switzerland. I would have preferred to go to Germany, but back then it was easier for the traffickers who organized the escape to bring the asylum seekers to Switzerland.

When you arrived in Switzerland, were you able to rebuild your lives?

Once in Switzerland, we finally felt safe. However, for six and a half years, while our asylum application was being processed, we could neither study nor work: we had to live on state support. We wondered, “When will our waiting be over?” It was a very difficult time. In Afghanistan I had no free time or vacation time, and here all of a sudden I found myself without any employment…. My wife in Afghanistan was a teacher. Every day she thought about her schoolchildren and cried and wondered about their fate. She had moments of depression.

How did you cope?

Living without having a job to do can lead you to lose self-confidence, to no longer know if you are capable of doing anything. In those years, in the long time of inactivity to which I was forced, I read the Quran and the Bible and managed to live through that period without anger and resentment thanks to faith and prayer-I always believed that God would not abandon me. In the Gospel reading, I was particularly fascinated by Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question about the greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Then did anything improve?

After more than six years of waiting, the positive response to our application for asylum finally came, and from that day I was told that I had to find work immediately, but it was not easy. After the first few attempts to find employment, I was asked at the employment office how much longer I wanted to live off the backs of others. I applied to many places, but when they asked me what I had done before, I always received negative answers. I did not stop looking, however, because it is important for a man to be able to do something with and for others. After three years, one day an opportunity came to me to apply for a job as a janitor in the apartment building where we lived. The first time I cut the grass on the lawn, my wife started crying. Later, because there was so much work, she also began to help me. This even changed relations with the neighbors: before they were very distant and avoided us, and then they began to talk and entertain us. 

Later, I got a job as a custodian in a historical museum of arms and armor. But thanks to my knowledge and technical skills after two years, I became a restorer of antique armor.

And your story has become a valuable testimony for many young people….

It was precisely during those years that I got to know the International Formation Center (IBZ) “J.B. Scalabrini” in Solothurn and began to collaborate with the Scalabrinian secular missionaries in the work of raising awareness and forming young people. I have been able to present my experience and reflections to numerous university students, especially from the faculties of pedagogy and law, or to groups of young people of various nationalities who participate in international meetings. The topics I talk about are usually the situation in Afghanistan, the living conditions of asylum seekers and refugees, but also my personal testimony of life, the values that have guided me since my youth.

I often tell young people that it is important to have a lot of patience and be ready to take the first step toward the other. Love makes the other grow and is the key to building peace. He who loves does everything for the other. Those who do not love destroy, come to hatred and war. Through love one can forgive, overcome hatred and be happy.

Also read the article with video about the International Centers of the Scalabrinian Secular Missionaries