Baktash Ahadi was born in Kabul in 1981. His family had to flee during the Soviet Invasion in 1984. After spending over a year and half in Pakistan between refugee camps and makeshift homes, his family was given asylum in the United States and started their new life in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Baktash started his career as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mozambique from 2005 to 2007. He then went into management consulting with Booz Allen Hamilton before serving as a military translator in Afghanistan for three years. His experience not only brought him closer to his roots, but also instilled a sense of responsibility to educate others on the realities on the ground in Afghanistan. Baktash joined FRAME BY FRAME as an ambassador for that same reason — to shed light on the country’s complexities through human stories.
Here is RPCV Baktash Ahadi’s story. — JC
MY STORY STARTS in 1968, before I was even born, when my father was growing up in his hometown of Kandahar, Afghanistan. During this time, Peace Corps Volunteers were serving the people of Afghanistan through educational and development projects. My father’s school in Kandahar hosted a Volunteer named Eric. My father and Eric developed a friendship that led my father to work for USAID in Kabul for 3 years until the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
In 1984, my father’s life was put in danger by the Soviet-backed Afghan government. My family fled Afghanistan in a treacherous journey across the Hindu Kush Mountains while avoiding Soviet gunships and landmines. We spent two years in refugee camps in Pakistan before being invited to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad for an interview. My father presented our case to the Asylum Officer by expressing his high regard for the U.S., born out of his experience with the Peace Corps and USAID. The Asylum Officer verified our story and we were granted political asylum in 1986. We were given the sanctuary to live a life full of opportunity in America.
My family landed in Carlisle, which is a small town in Pennsylvania and is considered one of the most livable small towns in the country. It’s safe, quaint and beautiful. For a small town, Carlisle is relatively diverse in its people and institutions. The US Army War College and Dickinson College are both located here, and they attract people from all over the world.
What I liked most about my upbringing in Carlisle was that people immediately accepted my family and made us feel part of the community. They taught my parents how to drive, shop, and open up a bank account, and other activities that helped us function. My family was in a place where we could build and grow a life together. In short, we found a home, again.
On 9/11, my two worlds — which had seemed so distant — were brought together in an abrupt and violent manner. During my first year of college, terrorists attacked the U.S. and the American military campaign in Afghanistan commenced. In the following years, I found myself engaged in dialogue related to understanding, cooperation, and peace building. During this time, I decided to dedicate my life to serving that cause.
Upon graduating, I signed up to serve in the Peace Corps in Mozambique because of the impact the Peace Corps had on my father and ultimately my family’s life. After contracting malaria twice and living without running water and electricity, my experience in Mozambique proved to be the best education of my life. As recognized by the Peace Corps and the Embassy of Afghanistan, I am the first Afghan-American returned Peace Corps Volunteer to date, which is an honor that truly humbles me.
After my Peace Corps service, President Obama announced the surge in Afghanistan in 2010. Once again, the call to serve presented itself and I was on a plane heading to Afghanistan to serve as an interpreter and cultural advisor for the US military. As an interpreter, my role was to bridge cultural divides among American soldiers, Afghan commandos, civilians, and insurgents. At times, I became the voice of both the Afghan and American military. I was honored to contribute to the victories of our missions, whether it was successfully clearing a village of insurgents or fulfilling my duty to Afghan helicopter pilots in training for our Afghan-led missions. I was part of a family, an absolute brotherhood. The Marines and Afghan Commandos live for each other every day. It was an honor to be a part of that.
Serving America in the country of my birth proved to be one of the proudest and most valuable experiences of my life. I had the honor of serving alongside brave American and Afghan soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice to bring peace to Afghanistan. I have since made it my moral obligation to continue to serve people and causes that matter most to me.
I returned to the U.S. with the goal of informing others about the reality on the ground in Afghanistan. I produced and translated Frame by Frame, an award-winning documentary about free speech and photojournalism in Afghanistan. Frame by Frame has been invited to hold screenings at various institutions, from high schools to the Afghan Presidential Palace. After viewing the film, President Ghani signed a decree protecting the rights of journalists in Afghanistan and thus their right to free speech, which was a monumental achievement for Frame by Frame and the people of Afghanistan.
I am the living product of people who wanted to make a difference in the name of service. I’m dedicated to educating others to better understand communities in conflict. I’ve produced and translated award-winning documentaries, and advised Paramount Pictures on films about Afghanistan. Currently, I teach diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute on matters related to Afghanistan.
As someone who was born into war, whose family escaped war, then lived as refugees before coming to America and finally, who as an adult, decided to serve to resolve war, it means very much to me to serve the greater good to continue to make a positive impact.