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Leaving the comfortable life in America to help Afghanistan

Photojournalist Andrea Bruce writes: "After covering the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 10 years, I found it important to bring attention to the similarities in the cultures involved in these conflicts. I believe that getting people to relate to each other in different countries and from various religions is the first step to empathy during war. I hope photography can help cut down stereotypes and cliches." To this end, Bruce photographed Afghan-Americans who left comfortable lives in the U.S. to work in unstable Afghanistan.

Andrea Bruce / Alicia Patterson Foundation - NOOR

Aman Mojadidi, 41, artist.

"Afghanistan definitely didn’t seem like home per se but it was very much this place where my family was from, and I still had this very strong kind of sense of having an Afghan identity … it makes me kind of understand more my American identity. It's funny ... [it took] growing up in the U.S. to feel Afghan and it took living in Afghanistan to feel American.

"I think probably by far one of my favorite ones [art projects], yeah, was the pay back, which was basically a fake checkpoint set up on the street in Kabul where we offered money back to some vehicles rather than asking for bribes … trying to take something that a lot of people spoke about all the time, which was the corruption, the bribes that they have to pay and all this kind of stuff and turn it into, you know, an art work and kind of flip it on its head."

Andrea Bruce / Alicia Patterson Foundation - NOOR

Hassina Sherjan, 51, girls' school founder and administrator.

"I really believe in what I’m doing, and when you really believe in what you do, you hardly get frustrated. I started clandestine girls schools in '90s. We have 3900 students in nine provinces. I don’t really see it as an Afghan thing or an American thing. You just do what you need to do.

"As the elite who left when everything became rough, we have a responsibility to come back and do something here. Not to just be comfortable and make money but to do something. To really make a difference. And a lot of us can. There are a lot of Afghans abroad who are educated, who have done a lot of work, who understand education building, who understand governments ... but nobody is coming."

Andrea Bruce / Alicia Patterson Foundation - NOOR

Koukaba Mojadidi, 35, an architect for International Organization for Migration in Afghanistan working on building a womens' center and police training facilities.

"I grew up in Jacksonville, Fla. Which was really boring, most of the time. Very safe, very quiet. We never struggled. Upper middle class, living on a river. Pretty fortunate. 

"Both of my parents are from Afghanistan. The minute I came into my house, I was living in a different set of rules, a different context. And the minute I left my house, I was living in the real world. Having to consider both cultures at the same time, all the time. For instance, we couldn’t socialize with a lot of Americans. My parents were really into keeping our heritage alive, our culture alive. There are are more differences than similarities, in my parents' minds.

"Everything in your life before you are 18 revolves around how you fit in in school, and learning how to establish yourself as an individual ... and at the same time you are balancing western ideas of your culture. Individualism (in the US) contrasts deeply to the idea of Afghan culture which is all about being a collective and being together and being close and feeling what that other person is feeling, and being emotionally enmeshed in everyone’s problems."

Andrea Bruce / Alicia Patterson Foundation - NOOR

Mustafa Ali Nouri, 44, an architect for the International Organization for Migration in Afghanistan working to build a womens' center and police training facilities.

"In the end, home for me will always be Washington [DC]. The longest period of time in my life was there. I will always consider it my hometown. But I feel I have roots here. Emotions that I don’t know how to explain. You feel connected to the land. Doesn’t matter how dusty it is, or how terrible it might be in some ways. Even as an architect, the environmental mess, but at the same time there is something beautiful about this place.

"Because I am Afghan American, I feel I can see it better. I can see it in the eyes of the young people. They are craving to be a part of the world society. How can they go back to before 2001? You can not drag them. Either push them out or exterminate. But it is in their brain now. You can not kill that. They know now. They know what is out there in the world. They want to be. They want to have a society for themselves and for their children where they can have opportunities. They are the ones that give me a lot of hope."

Andrea Bruce / Alicia Patterson Foundation - NOOR

Tooba Mayel, 38, Gender Justice Advisor with International Development Law Organization. She monitors protection centers who work on legal and mediation cases. IDLO's work is currently supporting the work of lawyers and training programs for prosecutors who defend victims of violence, since violence and protection laws are vague or not implemented. Training and working with local authorities is vital during this time in Afghanistan, Mayel believes.

"Being an Afghan-American to me means that I am able to unite two different worlds under one frame of thought, mind and heart that exceeds boundaries and distances. As an individual that was raised under two cultures, where experiences and circumstances have taken me from conflict to freedom, from a poor nation to a rich one, from deep rooted traditions to new and modern ideologies, but more importantly the courage and the compassion to come back where vulnerable peoples fight for human liberties. 

"I have not only helped a country I call my motherland in its rehabilitation and progress, but also that same country has taught me to be sensitive to issues of human rights and not to take for granted the liberties that America has raised me with."

Photographer Bruce continues: "In the process of covering Afghanistan, I met many Afghan-Americans who said they sometimes feel caught between two different worlds. And they have felt the events of the past 20 years most harshly. When Sept. 11 happened, many saw great possibilities in combining their two homelands. Since then, some have wrestled with their identity. Others have become disillusioned. Regardless, all of them have spent a lot of time thinking about their two countries, and what dual-citizenship means to them in a time of war."

See more images from Afghanistan's current events in this slideshow, and more Afghanistan images in PhotoBlog

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