She is from Asheville, N.C., and went to college in Boston, but is as much at home in Afghanistan as she is in America.
“I fell in love with the country,” said Lael Mohib, the 29-year-old wife of Hamdullah Mohib, the 32-year-old ambassador of Afghanistan. “My best friend in college was Afghan and when she went back home after graduation, I went too. I had done my master’s thesis on Central and Southeast Asia and got a four-month summer internship in the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development.
“I loved my work with the Community Development Council, a part of the country’s National Solidarity Program, where they give small grants to different communities and the community contributes in kind. I found Afghans very hospitable. They are beautiful people.
Lael not only fell in love with Afghanistan, but with one Afghan in particular. Her and Hamdullah met in Afghanistan through mutual friends. “It was just a random meeting.” She recalled thinking at the time: “He was substantial.”
Lael converted to Islam when they married in London. They were there for two years while her husband worked toward his Ph.D. from Brunel University, which awarded him a research scholarship to pursue his studies, including his thesis on how to deliver 3D video communications over heterogeneous networks.
Hamdullah, an Afghan native, first came to England as a teenager, having spent years in refugee camps in Pakistan — first to escape the Russian occupation of Afghanistan and later Taliban rule.
His family scraped enough money to send Hamdullah, the youngest of 11 children, to study in England, where he became active among the local Afghan community. He founded the largest Afghan diaspora youth association in Europe, the Afghan Students Association of the UK. He also founded and served as board chairman of the Afghan Professionals Network (APN). Within APN, he initiated community service programming to support special needs orphans in Kabul, and to recognize the achievements of Afghan women — two issues that resonate personally with Lael.
Despite his success in England, Hamdullah felt the constant pull of his homeland and decided to return, he told Roxanne Roberts in a recent Washington Post profile. “The minute I landed in Kabul,” he said, “it felt like a big weight off my shoulder was lifted.”
There, he used his tech savvy to become director of information technology at the American University of Afghanistan; at the time, Lael was also working in the country at the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development.
She had earned her master’s degree from Boston University in international relations and a bachelor’s in communication and media studies from Mary Baldwin College. “I have never really worked as a journalist, although I taught journalism at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul and I love to write,” Lael told us.
In 2014, she contributed a chapter on special needs children in Afghanistan to “Children of Afghanistan: The Path to Peace,” published by University of Texas Press.
It is an issue close to her heart. Her father, a surgeon, became deaf in the middle of his career and her aunt is intellectually disabled. But Lael also credits her interest in helping people with special needs to her experiences in Afghanistan.
“It was 2009 and everyone in the Afghan government had only a one-day weekend — Friday. I knew I wanted to do something outside my work,” she recalled. “A friend who volunteered in an orphanage for the disabled invited me to join her. I immediately became emotionally invested and decided to help them with their fundraising.”
Soon Lael started her own foundation, the Enabled Children Initiative, which advocates for Afghan orphans with special needs. “The charity goes pretty much where I go. We are all volunteers. You might call us global volunteers. Now, in Kabul we have access to a doctor, a physical therapist, a hospital and a school for the children. However, I’m the worst promoter and fundraiser,” she quipped.
Lael is waiting on 501C nonprofit status to have the foundation officially established here in the U.S.
“Children who are orphaned and disabled don’t have anyone to speak for them. They need in-home support, especially with poor and at-risk families,” she told us. “The kids found me. I don’t claim to be the expert … it snowballed for me.”
Hamdullah’s diplomatic career also snowballed. In 2009, he joined the presidential campaign of former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani. Although Ghani lost to Hamid Karzai, he would go on to win the presidency in 2014 — and make Hamdullah his deputy chief of staff before appointing him ambassador to the U.S. in 2015.
Meanwhile, Lael joined BBC Media Action’s Afghanistan team, where she worked on educational and media development programs. She later became chief of staff at the American University of Afghanistan shortly before coming to Washington with her husband.
Now, the young couple has found themselves in the spotlight as they work to rebuild a country wracked by decades of war and poverty.
“I’ve always been quiet and serious,” Lael told us as she sat in the living room of their modest Cleveland Park residence, gently rubbing her stomach and looking out over their backyard, where a small, brightly colored plastic slide awaits their 3-year old daughter Mariam. The couple is expecting their second child this summer. “In fact, my friends used to tell me that I needed to lighten up a bit. I wouldn’t call myself ‘ambitious,’ but I do like to keep busy and to make things happen,” she said.
“We have a great team at the embassy. I don’t do anything on my own but sometimes I initiate a program. I am in a rare role. It’s not an official role but I’m not there to have an official role,” she explained. “I am a full-time volunteer focusing on social, cultural, educational and women’s empowerment programs. I am usually there from nine to five every day, but now I am starting my maternity leave. It is also the beginning of Ramadan.”
Despite embracing the duties of diplomacy, both Lael and Hamdullah are still unaccustomed to the spotlight.
“We’re not used to having a public aspect to our lives. We still don’t consider ourselves to be public figures. We are very private people,” she said. “You could be at something every night but we always look for family time. I like my time with my daughter, alone.
“Even though we have a chef at the embassy, I cook for my husband,” she added. “Sometimes, my daughter and I cook together. I make Afghan food only for him but we eat a mixture of cuisines, including American.”
As far as relaxing, Lael said she is very low key. “I read a lot. I’m reading ‘War and Peace’ right now but I am a very slow reader so that will take awhile. I like [Leo] Tolstoy too. I love to take walks, which is one thing you don’t get to do in Kabul. You can go outside and go to a shop or something, but you wouldn’t just go for a walk.”
Despite 15 years of American nation-building efforts, Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, especially as U.S. troops continue to draw down by the end of the year. Poverty, endemic graft and relentless attacks by the Taliban are among the seemingly intractable problems facing this tribal nation of 31 million. But Afghanistan has made tangible gains in areas such as education and women’s rights since the U.S. invaded the country after the 9/11 attacks, and Lael is eager to dispel some of the myths surrounding her adopted homeland.
“There are a lot more similarities between Afghanistan and the United States than people think. Both countries are traditional with strong family values and strong love of country.” She added that Afghans, like Americans, work hard. “Afghans just get on with daily life. They are very resilient people. They do amazing things with very little … when you see this, you need fewer materialistic things in your life.”
Lael pointed out that 75 percent of Afghans are under the age of 35. “Very few are over 50,” she said. “Afghans grow up much faster. My husband is one of those. He is not unique. Age is relative. These young Afghans were born into war. They had to deal with loss and displacement. They don’t take anything for granted. It’s not how many years you’ve lived but what you have done with those years.
“Afghanistan is not a failure,” she stressed. “Unfortunately, too often Americans see or hear negative stories…. People deserve to see the big picture.”
To that end, Ghani, a former World Bank technocrat, has his work cut out for him.
“President Ghani has declared this the ‘Decade of Transformation.’ Everyday progress is hard to see. You have to be patient,” Lael counseled, applauding the president’s focus on improving the lives of women, particularly rural women.
“It is a new day for women in Afghanistan. President Ghani has launched a women’s empowerment agenda. There are more women in politics and education and a very active first lady.”
She noted that the country’s first public women-only university will break ground this year and that more women serve in government than ever before. Still, Lael admits major challenges remain in a patriarchal society where child marriage and honor killings sometimes command global headlines.
“It is unfortunate that negative anecdotes about domestic abuse and women killed get the most attention. There is no denial that they still exist, but the country is addressing that. American people deserve to know [the positive stories], particularly the American military who have helped us so much.”
To show Americans a different side of Afghanistan, Lael has been busy volunteering for several projects.
“We did the Embassy Adoption Program with the fifth grade at John Eaton Elementary. The students learned to sing the national anthem in Pashto,” she said. “We also had a job opportunity conference where we had Afghans here and elsewhere calling in on Skype from the U.K., Bangladesh and Kabul, among other places. They were interested in finding jobs back in Afghanistan. We were sending them a message: Afghanistan needs you.”
She has also been spreading the word about the “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan,” which will be on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through January 2017 (also see “Turquoise Mountain Rebuilds Afghan Artisan Heritage” in the April 2016 issue of The Washington Diplomat). The British NGO, founded 10 years ago at the request of Prince Charles and then-President Hamid Karzai, has transformed the Murad Khani district in the Old City of Kabul from a virtual landfill into a vibrant cultural and economic center.
Lael is also involved in a 2017 conference on the disabled. “A delegation from Kabul will be coming. We’ve made a lot of progress on paper … but after the Soviet [occupation], the country was heavily mined and a lot of children and Afghan fighters were seriously hurt. It’s a visual issue because you can see it,” she said of the country’s disabled. “Our hope is to look at how the U.S. has handled this population, moving from paper to program. We hope this conference will help to elevate the issue at home and here. We are reaching out to other embassies in hopes they would be involved; the Nordic and European countries are leaders [in this field]. They have good models for integration into society.”
Lael herself has had good role models, including a father who continued to perform surgery after 40 when he was almost completely deaf and a developmentally challenged aunt who worked in a bakery and attended community college.
“I want to help human beings reach their full goals, their potential,” Lael said. “People with disabilities are entitled to support networks. They can reach their high potential if they are uplifted by the people around them…. The holistic, community-based rehabilitation model throughout their lifetime works.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.