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Kabul Korrespondence

Fresh, factual, and funky view of Afghanistan and the surrounding Central Asian region

Six Afghan exchange students flee to Canada

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Allan Woods
They're on Facebook, they clown for the cameras with pals and they sit down to eat each night at the dinner tables of their American host families in small towns across the United States.

But three weeks ago, the Afghan exchange students on a U.S. State Department program started to go missing. Since the second week of April, six have fled to Canada to make asylum bids just weeks before they were to have been returned to their Afghan villages.

"We've heard from them mostly by email. They've been in contact with their hosts, some by phone and some by email," said Benjamin Gaylord, with the Washington-based American Councils for International Education, which runs the exchange program.

"There's been no talk about concerns about their future. They've said `I'm safe. I'm in Canada. I'm doing okay. I'll tell you more later,'" said Gaylord.

Mesbah Habibi, 17, is the latest student to flee to Canada. He did so after a trip to Washington to meet with his 38 fellow students. He checked in at the airport Monday to return to his guest home in Columbine, Colo., but wasn't on the airplane when it landed.

Some Americans are voicing suspicions, wondering whether the students present a security risk, possibly a teenage terror cell.

"I'm thinking to myself, `Geez, Louise.' They are 16-year-old Afghan kids," said Gaylord. "They're probably as American as most kids in high school. They're making the same jokes, wearing the same clothes. They're on Facebook just like everybody else."

Almas Kazimi, an Afghan exchange student living in Iowa, told the Star that Habibi was worried about the dangers that would await him at home in Herat, in western Afghanistan, where he was schedule to return in June.

Kazimi said he was angry because he feels these students are putting the exchange program, and the opportunities that go with it, in jeopardy. "Afghanistan is a bad place for everyone, but you have to go back. You have to bring change to the country," he said. "I know the risks."

The Youth Exchange and Study Program is a tool of Washington's public diplomacy strategy after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The idea is to bring Afghans and Americans face-to-face, while providing selected students an education they might use back in Afghanistan to help in the rebuilding process.
posted by Travis, 9:31 am

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