Courtesy Akbar Shinwari
Akbar Shinwari as a young man before the attacks of 9/11.
KABUL – I remember 9/11 clearly. I was in Pakistan where my family had sought refuge from the decades of fighting in our homeland of Afghanistan.
We watched the breaking news coverage and saw the billowing towers in New York and the replaying of the planes crashing into the American landmarks.
During the 10 years since the attacks, my life has changed dramatically. It has been a long journey from digging ditches in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan to working as a translator for Geraldo Rivera.
Scraps of potato skins tasted good
I was raised in a big family, where one prefers business and money over an education. When I finished school in 1996, I wanted to go to college. But the men in my extended family from my father’s side wouldn’t allow it. This made me a rebel.
They kicked me out of the house – only to let me back in later to live with my mother and siblings who were starving and without money. Our father was not around – he was trying to find work in Dubai. So I had no choice and began a job as a labor worker at an Afghan refugee camp in Northern Pakistan. I made $2 a day digging ditches for a makeshift sewage system in the camp. But as the oldest son, I needed the job to feed my mother, two brothers and two sisters.
Like many Afghan refugees, we were living a dismal life without much hope. I still remember a day that our neighbors found pity on us and gave my mom the skins of the potatoes they peeled for dinner.
My mother has always been a proud woman – another good and bad feature of the Afghan people – but she couldn’t say no because she needed to feed my brothers and sisters.
She cooked those skins and I remember telling her that the taste was familiar – but what was it? My mother didn’t want us to feel bad so she just said it was a new type of vegetable and to just enjoy it. So I did.
Courtesy Akbar Shinwari / NBC News
Akbar Shinwari pauses to pray before going on a motorcycle ride during his visit to America.
I paused to watch the coverage of 9/11 and my heart broke for the families who lost loved ones, I just couldn’t believe it. But I didn’t have time to dwell on it. I had to work in the grueling heat during the day and I found a professor who let me attend his night classes without paying tuition.
One evening I was walking home from my classes because I couldn’t afford the bus fare, so I took a shortcut through a busy marketplace.
As I was about to stop to pray at the local mosque I heard a police officer yelling something at me.
“Hey you, come here!” he said.
He saw that I was confused. So he put me at ease.
“Don’t be afraid. Can you help these foreigners? I have no idea what they are saying but I saw books in your hands and thought that maybe you can talk to them,” the officer added.
I saw four foreigners standing there. I asked if I could help them.
“Yes, can you take us shopping?” one replied.
I told them I would, but I needed to stop at the mosque for my evening prayers. They politely agreed and waited.
I then went shopping with four Italian journalists from RAI TV. At the end of the night they compensated me for my services and asked if I could continue to work with them as the invasion of Afghanistan was under way.
They offered me $50 a day. I hid my excitement but I was more than thrilled!
I worked with them for about a week before they headed for Afghanistan. I decided not to go with them because of some dangerous choices they were making. I knew I would lose a lot of money but it wouldn’t be the first time that I would choose my safety over money.
Unfortunately, the crew and their new Afghan interpreter were killed after having a run-in with the Taliban once they reached Afghanistan.
Akbar Shinwari with his colleague Geraldo Rivera during a visit to New York City.
By then, foreign journalists were flooding into Peshawar trying to find ways to get into Afghanistan.
I remember walking into the Pearl Continental Hotel to see a friend when I saw 90 boxes with a group of five people. They were looking for an interpreter, that’s when a hotel worker pointed at me and said I was an Afghan who spoke English.
They asked if I could join them. I said yes. I had no idea it was one of the biggest TV journalists in America, Geraldo Rivera, his brother Craig and their producer Greg Hart.
We had many adventures as we made our way to Kabul. Some good, some scary. But my life had changed forever.
Geraldo even invited me to the United States, where my adventures continued during trips in 2007 and 2009. I got to drive a Bentley, a Harley and eat at the great American landmark that every male knows – Hooters.
I experienced things in America I never even knew could happen in my dreams. But the experience I will never forget is freedom, especially freedom of religion.
I was able to pray five times a day, where ever I was – whether I was on the streets of New York or in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. These were the memories and pictures I brought back to show Afghans and Pakistanis the beauty of America and trueness of the nation and people who were so hospitable.
Akbar Shinwari is seen with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Fox News Greta Van Susteren during an interview shoot.
American dream, abroad
Everyone has heard of the American dream, but I am blessed to have lived it half a world away in Afghanistan.
Since 2001, I have worked with the biggest American, British and international channels. Everywhere from Fox News, BBC, ABC, CNN, SKY, and now as a permanent producer for NBC News and its U.K. partner ITN.
We can never forget the innocent people who lost their lives during 9/11; they are still in my prayers.
And every day I thank God for the chance to make my mother and siblings lives better – something that would not have happened if America had not come to Afghanistan.
I went from digging ditches to meeting dignitaries like former U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.
But what matters more to me is the friends I’ve made along the way from East to West – including the soon to be husband and wife Atia Abawi of NBC News and Conor Powell of FOX News; two people I’ve called colleagues, but most importantly I call sister and brother.