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An Afghan journalist is at home, in Pittsburgh

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By ZUBAIR BABAKARKHAIL | PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARTHA RIAL


“A mountain doesn’t reach a mountain but a human reaches another human.”

That’s a proverb we have in Afghanistan and in short, it means: Humans, while small compared to a mountain, can help each other during hard times because they have the power to love and care for one another.

One of my goals was to get my family out of Afghanistan and settle in Pennsylvania.

Many Afghans and others have asked me why I chose to move to Western Pennsylvania when most new arrivals from my country go to California, Virginia, or Texas.

Let me explain why.

My family was evacuated out of a chaotic situation in Afghanistan with the help of a number of friends and colleagues from America, some of those with whom I had spent time in Afghanistan covering the war.

The first of many foreigners I’ve worked with over the years was a photographer from Pennsylvania. In 2000, he was documenting the lives of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. He told me many great things about this state, about its wonderful people, and his hobby of raising horses and walking in the woods for hours.

I was impressed with all that he described and dreamed of living such a life one day.

Since then, I spent two decades reporting on the war until I was forced to flee with my family because the Taliban targeted those Afghans who had helped foreigners during the conflict. But even amid the fighting and destruction, I never forgot about how nice Pennsylvania sounded.

So, while my family and I were being processed at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, we decided that Pittsburgh is where we would start our new lives, fulfilling a longtime dream of mine.

My wife, our three children and I finally arrived in Pittsburgh in November and were immediately impressed with what we saw: so many bridges, the fresh air, hills covered with trees. I felt like I was finally seeing the place I’d imagined many times in my dreams.

So far, the welcome we’ve received from Pittsburghers has been amazing.

Everyone we’ve met has welcomed us, calling the city our “new home.” A new friend has already told my wife to text her if she needs anything. Because she doesn’t speak English yet, I told her, “She will text you when she learns the language.”

“A smile is the best language for all people in the world,” our new friend replied.

I really like what she said. It is hard to believe how so many years of war have made us forget about these little things, which make a person happy and can make their day.

After leaving my country with my family during its fall to the Taliban, my aim was to think about the future for my kids, rather than thinking about what happened to my nearly two decades-long career, my property, and savings still in the bank in Afghanistan.

I have seen and tasted the sour reality of living in a war zone. A war gives nothing other than bloodshed, destruction, poverty, and an uncertain future.

But, I believe my family — and especially the kids — will have a bright future in the U.S., with some of the world’s best educational facilities. Here, they can enjoy a life free from the fear of war.

My wife and kids are excited about their new home.

The kids are thinking of what they would like to have: Khadija 10, one of my two daughters, wants to be a scientist and likes to ride bicycles in the parks of Pittsburgh. She could not ride a bike in Kabul, mostly because of the bumpy roads, which made her scared of falling off the bicycle. Now that there are proper roads, sidewalks and parks, she learned to ride a bicycle in Fort McCoy.

Javeria Babak, 6, puts on her shoes for a trip to the playground at the family's new apartment. Javeria arrived in Pittsburgh in November with her parents, Zubair and Fatima, and two siblings. || Martha Rial

Since our arrival, we’ve seen a lot of Pittsburgh in a short amount of time. We’ve been to the top of Mount Washington (overlooking Downtown Pittsburgh), where we watched the Steelers play the Detroit Lions from afar during the first snow of the year. We loved seeing all the people cheering during the game from Grandview Overlook.

Too bad about the tie, though.

And from up there, the view of Downtown with its numerous bridges is incredible.

I’m told that Pittsburgh is even better-looking in spring, when the weather will be warmer and the trees will have leaves.

So, when a friend asked me what I think about Pittsburgh, I said, “We need to wait until spring and summer to see it at its best.”

But overall, I’m so glad to be part of Pittsburgh’s great community, where my kids can go to school without fear of attacks, as it was in Kabul, and can enjoy the freedom to become professionals and citizens of this country in the future.

Zubair Babakarkhail is a journalist and interpreter. He has written stories for Stars and Stripes since 2012 and covered the war in Afghanistan for 17 years. He also reported for The Daily Telegraph, USA Today, Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera English, and AsiaCalling. He arrived in the U.S. in September after the fall of the country. He earned a degree in journalism in Pakistan.

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