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An Afghan journey
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During his life, Ghafar Lakanwal served as an ambassador to the U.N., then went to washing dishes in a Twin Cities pizza restaurant. He says he has a lesson to teach Americans. (Photo courtesy of Ghafar Lakanwal )
War can bring big changes. Ghafar Lakanwal speaks five languages and holds a PhD. He is the former head of Afghanistan's U.N. delegation. Now he lives in the Twin Cities, runs two restaurants. Lakanwal says the story of his life contains a lesson for Americans.

Bloomington, Minn. — Ghafar Lakanwal talks to a lot of people about his homeland.

At a recent multicultural forum in Minneapolis, he painted a picture of Afghanistan before the Taliban. His childhood in an agricultural village revolved around the seasons and the unspoken codes of village life.

"I was listening to the message -- don't forget your own people," Lakanwal says.

At the age of 13, Lakanwal got a coveted scholarship and went to the capital of Kabul to finish his education. There he had to adapt to new peoples and cultures.

"I saw, for the first time, a Tadjik, Uzbek, Turkman."

He also met Germans. After he graduated from the university in Kabul, he began working with a German development team. Lakanwal says he saw the mistakes first world countries make in places like Afghanistan.

The Germans served alcohol at a party. As Muslims, the Afghans were forbidden to drink it, but they didn't know what it was until they tasted it. Once they realized the mistake, the Afghans took to the streets in protest.

We should go to the darkest area in the country, and particularly to those areas where Taliban and al Queda are still operating in the mountains, so we can enlighten the heart and mind of the people.
- Ghafar Lakanwal, former U.N. ambassador from Afghanistan

"And they were demonstrating against the Germans," Lakanwal says. "That the Germans are imposing their culture on us, they're bringing their values to us, they're changing our religion."

Lakanwal says now it's the U.S. that may be making the mistakes in Afghanistan. The country's leaders are seen by many Afghans as a puppets of the U.S. This in a country that Lakanwal says suffered greatly under foreign occupation.

The Soviets invaded in the late 1970s. The Russians made Lakanwal an offer he couldn't refuse. Suddenly he was Minister of Agriculture.

"I saw that they don't understand the psychology of my people," he says. "They don't know the history, and plus they don't want to know."

Lakanwal spoke out and the Soviets put him under house arrest for two years. With perestroika, Soviet control loosened, and Lakanwal became head of the Afghan delegation to the United Nations in New York. He promptly defected. Eventually his wife and three young children joined him in Minnesota where they had relatives. Then he found more trouble. Lakanwal couldn't find a job. He says he sent in more than 300 applications.

"Then I started working in the Godfathers Pizza. I started to wash dishes."

That was Lakanwal's entre into the restaurant business.

He now owns the Da Afghan restaurants in Bloomington and Dinkytown. There he serves his native cuisine, along with stories of a lifetime's experience adapting to different cultures.

In 1992 Lakanwal founded the Multicultural Development Center, a nonprofit that promotes understanding between cultures. And now he's created the Partnership for the Education of the Children of Afghanistan, to raise money to build a model school.

"Let's educate people in darkest areas of Afghanistan. Not just Kabul, and not only in some cities," says Lakanwal. "We should go to the darkest area in the country, and particularly to those areas where Taliban and al Queda are still operating in the mountains, so we can enlighten the heart and mind of the people."

Lakanwal says the only way to fight terrorists in Afghanistan is to waste no time in starting a nationwide system of education, rebuilding the country's infrastructure and reviving agriculture -- but delicately, and with cultural sensitivity.

It won't be easy and it won't be cheap according to Lakanwal. He worries Americans might lose interest if they're distracted by a war with Iraq.

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