Abdul Hay Sadrey returned to Afghanistan in 2006 after spending a year in the United States on an exchange programme. When he had left the shores of his homeland, 39 other exchange students went besides him. When he came back, the number had dwindled to 33. “Six ran away and took asylum somewhere there,” Sadrey said. In the following years, as more students sought asylum, the US exchange programme was suspended in 2011, as also those offered by other countries like Australia.

This struck Sadrey as “a great loss for the educational chances of young Afghans, and a shame for our youth,” he said. “So we connected all these dots and decided to launch a campaign to persuade and encourage fellow Afghans to return to their country.”

In September, Sadrey and four of his friends in Kabul rolled out the "Afghanistan Needs You" initiative. Within a week, the campaign was shared widely on Twitter, and the group’s Facebook page had more than 5,000 followers. “We are touching an emotional issue, that’s why people are behind us,” said Sadrey on the phone from Kabul.

To begin with, the campaign asked Afghans to send in their pictures with a short message. In response, they got images of people sitting behind office desks, in football fields, in homes.

“I would never leave Afghanistan,” commented Hikmat Noori.  "No other country has what we have. Besides the problems we have, it’s still our country. We can’t run away from problems."

Wrote a young woman named Muzhgan Azizy, "Once an American asked me, ‘How can you leave all the comforts America offers you?’ For the respect and self-satisfaction I receive in serving my country, I replied.”.

Most of the faces on the Facebook page are young. The only grey beard belongs to a baker, Sharafeddin, photographed inside his small shop. “Hopelessness is haraam (forbidden), and always in some way Inshallah we hope we have the beautiful and tranquil Afghanistan,” he said.

Ebb and flow

This Afghan “brain drain” is a real problem for a country where over 60% of the population is below the age of 25 years. It is a generation that has grown up with war. Many came of age abroad, like Sadrey, who lived in Peshawar and Islamabad through the years of conflict. When he returned to Kabul with his family after the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001, he could not even speak proper Dari, the form of Persian spoken in parts of Afghanistan. “But we always knew we wanted to return home.”

Sadrey’s case is not uncommon. Decades of war and displacement have given Afghanistan the second largest refugee population in the world. The country was the top source country of refugees for more than 30 years until it was overtaken by the wave of Syrians fleeing their civil war. The bulk of Afghan refugee communities were based in the neighbouring states of Pakistan and Iran. After 2001, as the Karzai government was formed, there was a movement to return across the border. Many returnees were assisted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which estimates that more than 5.8 million Afghan refugees have returned home since 2002. These represent 20% of Afghanistan’s population. However, resurgent insurgency and the deteriorating law and order across the country has caused the flow of returnees to ebb over the past five years.

At present, Afghans make up the second largest group of new arrivals in Europe, with nearly 50,000 people making the journey since the start of this year.

Opportunities at home

“When we started this campaign, we quickly received a lot of compliments as well as support. However, we were also criticised because people believed that we did not understand the entire situation,” said Shakib Mohsanyar, a 23-year-old entrepreneur who is part of the Afghanistan Needs You effort. “But we explained to them that Afghanistan is like our mother: if she is sick, you will not leave her, but work to heal her.” Mohsanyar took on the campaign after working with different web-based initiatives, including a crowdfunding programme for Afghan social entrepreneurs.

In part, the Afghanistan Needs You campaign is made of emotional appeals. “Afghans should go abroad and learn from the best universities, but we also have a responsibility to come back to build our country,” said Mohsanyar. “It’s not the job of the government or the foreigners, but our job.”

But at the same time, the group offers pragmatic arguments. Sadrey describes the developing country as “the land of opportunities”. “When people move to the US or Europe, they have to start their careers from zero,” he said. “Afghans who hold good qualifications end up working in supermarkets or washing cars or being waiters. Here, you have more chances to grow and [get] the satisfaction of building your own country.”

Many of the country’s politicians, Mohsanyar notes, were unknowns when they returned to Afghanistan – “like Hamid Karzai, I didn’t know him when he was in America, and he became our president”. Hamdullah Mohib, who was recently appointed as the Afghan ambassador to the US and is in his early 30s, is a prominent role model for Sadrey. “He lived and studied in Britain and is already at such an important post,” Sadrey said. “This shows how young people can hold key positions in both public and private sectors.”

Government campaign

The Afghanistan Needs You initiative coincides with a government campaign appealing to Afghans not to join the stream of refugees landing in parts of the world. Its Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations has posted images on Facebook and on Twitter, highlighting the hazards of the journey and the benefits of staying home. The campaign indicates how deeply anxious Afghanistan is about the exodus.

Unusually for the country, the group behind Afghanistan Needs You are not backed by donors, and run the small office in the neighbourhood of Karte Seh in western Kabul from their pockets.

“In the past other organisations have done stuff that was just for money, so now if you are seen as being backed by donors, people don’t trust you,” explained Mohsanyar. “We are happy to run this on our own for now because it’s a campaign for the people.” Besides Sadrey and Mohsanyar, the group comprises two other young men – a graphic designer and a photographer – all of whom hold day jobs and juggle busy schedules to run the campaign.

In many ways, the group’s profile seems typical of the youth their campaign targets – they have qualifications from the US or Europe, and come from the emerging Afghan middle class. Before his exchange year in the US, Sadrey got his bachelor’s degree from the elite American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. He now works with a skill development programme for Afghans. Mohsanyar, who was born and raised in Kabul, studied in a private university before attending an exchange programme for entrepreneurs in the US earlier this year.

(Left to right) Abdul Hay Sadrey, Shakib Mohsnayar, Sharam Gulzad, Qais Alamdar, and Abdul Moez Popalzai

Their experiences and optimism are not shared by all. Mohammad Idris, 25, holds an undergraduate degree in computer programming from Pune. He chose to come to India because it was a cost effective option. He could get a good education here and avoid facing the kind of discrimination he feared in Pakistan or Iran. But when he returned to Kabul, he was unable to find a job in his own field.

“After three-four months of looking, I took a position in a telecom company where I am doing marketing work,” Idris said. “It doesn’t pay well but I have to make ends meet.” He returned in part because staying on in India wasn’t an option. As a refugee, he said, he wouldn’t be permitted to work. Besides, “there are so many Indians who can’t get a job with just a BA degree. So I didn’t have a chance to make a good salary there.”

Masoud Aryan, who began an undergraduate programme at a private college in Pune this year, agrees that things are complex for returning students. “If you have a degree from London or the US, you will get a job, or you will find one through connections in Kabul,” he said. “That’s how things work there.” The deteriorating security, added Idris, is a big reason why many young people see no future in their country. “Its not a good thing to live away from your home but since the international community has pulled out their projects, there is no work and no peace here.”

A difficult choice

Returning to Afghanistan is a particularly difficult choice for educated or professional women. Sana Shahab, 24, left Kabul six years ago to study journalism at the American University of Central Asia, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. “After getting my degree I returned home and started working for an NGO, but because of security reasons I had to leave my beloved country,” she said in an email interview.

Shahab went to the United Kingdom in 2012, where she now works and is planning to study further. In Kabul, she said, “Women suffer more from [security issues] and don’t feel comfortable to work outside as well as men do. Hopefully, when circumstances change back to normal, I would love to go back to my homeland and work there to help and support my people.”

Mohsanyar disagrees. He believes women too have access to advantages if they choose to live and work in Afghanistan. “The colleges and universities offer scholarships just for women, and there are many funds for women entrepreneurs that some of our friends have already used,” he said. Storai Jalal, one of the five founders of ‘Afghanistan Needs You’ and an Afghan-American entrepreneur, is one such woman.

Mohsanyar’s vision for Kabul is that it should be a regional business hub by 2025. “It’s possible if we get stability,” he said.

Rebuilding the country

Coming on the heels of the Taliban’s capture of the northern city of Kunduz, and the bloodshed following its recapture by the Afghan security forces, this seems to be an optimistic picture. But while they are not glib, Sadrey and Mohsanyar are at pains to point out that the situation is more nuanced than it may appear. “The media has negative news every day,” said Sadrey. “We have problems but we also have opportunities.”

For now, the focus of the ‘Afghanistan Needs You’ initiative is firmly on targeting the urban youth through social media. But the group plans to move to a broader campaign, through pamphlets and radio spots, to reach rural areas too. “We need educated young people to do the jobs they are qualified for, but we also need skilled labour as right now we can’t even build a house without bringing in workers from Pakistan,” said Sadrey.

One of the few working class voices on their page is a young man called Mohamed, a municipal worker photographed next to a garbage dump. “Every young person should work for the cleanliness of their city and their neighbourhood,” he wrote.

In the years after 2001, Afghanistan had seen something of a reverse brain drain, with Afghans who had worked and studied abroad returning to work. Holding global credentials, they were mostly seen as assets for a nation seeking to rebuild itself. Now, campaigns like ‘Afghanistan Needs You’ are trying to hold on to this resource from among the new generation of Afghans. “We have come so far in these 14 years,” said Sadrey. “We cannot give up and leave.”