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Hard Times in Little Kabul

Afghan businesses in the Fremont, California area have been hard hit by fallout from the terrorist attacks. But patriotic Afghan-Americans are hopeful that their customers will return before it’s too late.

Harry Sarwari is a quintessential Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur.

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He made his first money working as a computer-network engineer consulting with Hewlett-Packard and Wells Fargo. Then he began building startups, including a business-to-business Web site for the fast-food industry and a recruiting and staffing company in the greater Fremont, California area. The latter, his most recent venture, is called MakeItFun Inc. and includes a job-posting Web site with 1.5 million candidates.

But Sarwari’s phone has stopped ringing since September 11, and a number of his old clients — companies for whom he used to recruit — have stopped taking his calls. His office with a dozen silent computers is forlorn. A small paper fan printed with the Stars and Stripes sits on his window ledge because the flags he put up outside have been ripped down.

Maybe it’s because Sarwari, 32, is Afghan. He and his grandmother fled Kandahar, home to the Taliban, in 1982 when he was 13 to make their way to the United States, where his father and brother were already living after being granted political asylum.

But Sarwari prefers to be optimistic. Maybe, he says, the flags were ripped down by kids playing. And while he recognizes that some clients have stopped calling because of his last name or where he comes from or the fact that he prays in a mosque, he also says that the downward-spiraling economy bears some of the responsibility for putting his business in the tank.

Sarwari strives not to blame anyone for what’s happened since September 11 because he’s reluctant to criticize the United States, a country that offered him the freedom to start businesses, to pray in peace, and to live without fear. He says that only in this country would he have the freedom to pick himself back up after the September 11 attacks threw a harsh spotlight on his former home and his people.

“I could never have imagined a more supportive environment than the United States,” Sarwari says. “Even now I’ve had tremendous support, although some of the nonsupporters were people my business counted on. But I can always go out and get new clients.”

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Fremont, a Silicon Valley bedroom community, is home to hundreds of Afghan families, including Sarwari and his extended clan — a group that includes his parents, his brother, his wife’s family, and an uncle who sells insurance in a small office just down the street. Some 40% of the 100,000 Afghan-Americans living in the Unites States are in the San Francisco Bay Area, with 15,000 in the Fremont area alone. A stretch of Fremont Boulevard just south of Thornton Avenue is referred to as Little Kabul or Little Afghanistan, depending on whom you ask since people from Kandahar don’t like Kabul getting all the credit. In this quarter-mile stretch of road, there are a few Afghan restaurants, a kabob stand, and two grocery stores that sell halal meats and sweet green melons native to Afghanistan.

Like many immigrants before them, most Afghans simply started over when they came to the Unites States. Several of Sarwari’s family members were once wealthy government officials, but Sarwari’s father drove cabs in New York when he first arrived in this country close to 20 years ago.

Omar Amerie, 54, was a town planner in Afghanistan. Now he runs Afghan Village, a spotless restaurant on Thornton Avenue that features kabobs and pallow, a rice dish much like pilaf, and fragrant Afghan bread.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon would have affected Amerie and Sarwari even if they weren’t Afghan. Small businesses run on tight margins in the best of times. In the worst of times — times like these — Amerie says that you pay the bills but not yourself. On Fremont Boulevard, at least one restaurant has already closed down since September 11. At Pamir Travel, Zabi Ansari says that his three phone lines, which used to ring off the hook, are silent. At Afghan Village, most of the tables are empty during the Wednesday lunch hour, although business does pick up in the evenings, Amerie says. But there are hopeful signs that things might yet improve.

As the few lunch customers begin to disperse, a middle-aged man in a polo shirt and chinos pays his bill and turns to Amerie. “I came up from San Jose (a 20-minute drive) to have lunch and help out,” he says. “I figured you could use the business.”

Amerie says that the businessman’s sentiment isn’t unusual. Indeed, the outpouring of support and sympathy for Afghan-Americans and Muslims in the United States has come from everyone, including President George W. Bush. “We’ve lost some customers. We used to have more Pakistanis, Afghans, and Indians,” Amerie says. “Now we have new customers who probably have never eaten Afghan food.”

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But Fremont’s Afghan residents would rather have had their neighbors learn about their culture, food, and religion under better circumstances. “It’s sad to see a criminal like bin Laden be the one to educate Americans about Afghanistan,” he says.

Sarwari says that when his family moved from New York to Woodbridge, Virginia, he had a tough time explaining to people exactly where he was from. “People used to ask if I were Puerto Rican,” he says. “I’d say, ‘Afghan.’ And they’d say, ‘You’re from Africa?’ ” He finally ended up saying that he was from New York, especially since he had picked up a slight Queens accent while going to Forest Hills High School.

As proud as they are of their heritage, some in the Afghan community are reluctant to divulge their origins these days. The Afghan Cultural Society of Alameda pulled out of that city’s multicultural festival in late September. The society was supposed to perform the country’s national dance.

Right now, people like Sarwari and Amerie simply want to keep a low profile. They don’t know how long the goodwill among Americans will last, especially if U.S. soldiers start dying in Afghanistan. While Sarwari tries to put on a good face about all that’s happened since September 11, he says that the first two weeks following the attacks were tough: “I was very depressed during this time and felt hated because I was an Afghan.”

Fara Warner (fwarner@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer.

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