Hamid Arsalan, a graduate of EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, works on strengthening democratic institutions and grassroots organizations through his job with the National Endowment for Democracy. (Photos by Michael Sheeler)

CJP grad from Afghanistan reflects on journey to EMU, current work and imminent election back home

2010 was a busy year for Hamid Arsalan. He earned a master’s degree from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, while also completing two degrees from the University of Virginia: a bachelor’s degree in international relations and affairs, and a master’s degree in public policy. Around the edges, he fit in a part-time job to pay for food and rent. It was hard work, but Arsalan has been working hard since, as a six-year-old back in Afghanistan, he took a job cleaning up and making lunches at his uncle’s electronics store.

The fourth of five children, Arsalan was born in 1983 in Herat, an ancient city in western Afghanistan then under Russian occupation. Now based in Washington, D.C. as a program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy, he recalls a difficult childhood.

“I grew up in war, and it wasn’t easy,” he says, of life in Herat.

He remembers his mother trying to kiss him goodbye every morning as he left for school. “She would say, ‘Son, you are leaving and I’m not sure I will see you back,’” he recalls. “Just imagine moms going through that every day.”

“It was not a childhood,” Arsalan says, “but those experiences forced me to take the responsibility that led me to where I am today.”

Arsalan also recalls his father’s important influence from early in life. “My father was my hero, my role model. I learned the values of fairness, justice, and peace from my father,” he says.

At 18, Hamid got a job with Médecins du Monde, an organization working with internally displaced people in Afghanistan. His work there as a medical coordinator inspired him to continue working in the development field.

In 2002, after the American-led war in his country began, Arsalan took a position in the programming department with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) working on refugee resettlement. Serving nearly 6 million people, the UNHCR program in Afghanistan was the largest in the world at the time. “I’m honored to have been involved in that process to help my own people come back,” he says.

Summer Peacebuilding Institute leads to enrollment at EMU

Arsalan remained with the organization until 2006, when he came to EMU to attend the Summer Peacebuilding Institute _H9E3672-2(SPI).

He’d heard great things about SPI from several friends who were studying at EMU at the time, but the program wasn’t without its challenges. When then-director Pat Martin noticed the menu wasn’t to Arsalan’s liking, she brought him a bag of flatbread in an attempt to give him a taste of home. “That really meant a lot to me,” Arsalan says. “Suddenly I felt that I wasn’t alone.”

After attending all four sessions of SPI that summer, Arsalan enrolled in EMU in January of 2007 to complete his undergraduate degree. The following year he enrolled as a master’s student at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP), admitted under a non-baccalaureate exception.

He eventually transferred his undergraduate credits to the University of Virginia and also joined its master’s degree program in public policy. Arsalan finished all three degrees at the same time three years later.

One of the practical highlights of his time at CJP was working with professor Lisa Schirch on the 3D Security Initiative (now 3P Human Security), through which he was able to interact with policy-makers in Washington, D.C. On a personal level, he now refers to Don and Margaret Foth, who helped with his accommodation and supported other aspects of his time in Harrisonburg, as family.

After graduation, Arsalan received a number of job offers in the United States and in Afghanistan. He chose to join the nonprofit National Endowment for Democracy because it allows him to work on strengthening democratic institutions and grassroots organizations in multiple countries with multiple different groups. He enjoys the connection that the work has to the grassroots, where “ideas come from” and the needs are greatest.

Cautious hope for the future of his country

Arsalan travels to Afghanistan several times per year, and describes the pre-election mood there as hopeful. Having met with the top-11 candidates for president in the April 5 elections, Arsalan is tentatively hopeful about the future. “I think all the top candidates indicate they will sign the bi-lateral security agreement. The biggest fear for me is whether the losers of the election will accept the results,” he says.

Arsalan cites transparency, and security as critical to a successful election. “If the candidates see that it was a free and fair election, there will be no problems,” he says. “But with Afghans deciding to fully participate in elections, they are saying no to the terrorism and tyranny of the Taliban, and embracing constitutional order and democracy.”

The recent enthusiasm the Afghan people have shown for the election are great indicators that the people are moving toward a positive future and away from the Taliban, according to Arsalan. Regardless of the outcome of the elections, Arsalan says two key indicators of a positive future for Afghanistan are its youth, and access to technology. “This generation just finishing school now will be the first graduating with a real education.” he says, “Afghanistan will never go back to the Taliban. We have come too far and we have learned too much.”

“Things have changed so fast,” he says. “I always ask if there are things that my family wants from the here before I return home. You know what my 4-year-old nephew asked for? An iPad.”