'I never wanted to become an expatriate'
With two bachelor degrees, a master's and doctorate from Germany Ibrahim Hotak is a hero in Afghanistan. He has never considered giving up his citizenship.
Born in 1963 in Kabul, his family is originally from Dara Lam village in the Qarghayee area of Laghman province. At the age of six, he was enrolled in school by his elder brother. "Even after 54 years I remember the first day of school," he says.
Hotak was a bright student and quickly learnt to read and write. No one had notebooks. "We would write out the homework with chalk made of white soil on a wooden board and put it in the sun to dry. Sometimes on the way to school, the writing would get rubbed out if we got too busy playing," he says.
By the time Hotak reached class seven, his elder brother and uncle who were both in military service, decided along with his father who he says paid "special attention to our studies" that he should be encouraged to do better and better.
"I was in class seven and my uncle who was home on leave told us (younger children) that anyone who does very well in school would get a gift. I was promoted to class eight and my uncle gave me 20 Afs, which a very big amount at that time. It was a big incentive for me that if I do well I will get gifts!"
This was the time of the government headed by president Dawood Khan, when the school system had changed with students having to pass an all-Afghanistan exam to go from class eight to nine. "I passed this exam getting good marks and got admission in a commerce vocational high school," says Hotak. Hotak graduated from high school in 1981.
He sat for the university entrance exam, and though he had wanted to do law, got admission into the faculty of economy. He decided to try for a scholarship to either Japan or Germany because in his head he believed these two countries would offer high levels of education because they manufactured good quality goods!
At the end of his first semester he was informed that he had secured a scholarship to study in Germany on the basis of the "good marks" he had got. "I liked the sound of the name Germany otherwise I was not acquainted at all with its language, politics or culture," he says.
His elder brother bought him new clothes and other things including dry fruit to start him on his new life in Germany. As he left for the airport, his mother held up the Holy Quran and he passed under it. "My mother and others were crying loudly. My father just said, 'You are leaving us but you will remain with us.' This was the last time I would see my father," he says.
He spent the first year he was in Germany learning the language, German. At the end of the year he passed the exam which was mandatory for admission to university. All the students from different parts of the world who did not pass the exam were sent back to their home countries.
Once again Hotak hoped to study law but he was enrolled in social affairs. But he proved himself very capable and went on to complete both his masters and PhD. Around the time that he should have been defending his thesis the Berlin Wall collapsed, and in the political tumult that followed – West and East Germany were reunified – he found himself a job.
"There were many problems of refugees in Germany, so I became in charge of legal and social office of expatriates. With an Afghan passport I was the first foreigner working in the office. We had to share the problems of expatriates with the government," he recalls.
Following the reunification of the two Germanys foreign students like Hotak were given the option of acquiring German citizenship, but he did not give up his Afghan passport. "I am Afghan; I never wanted to be an expatriate though I could have got foreign citizenship easily. I don't want that someone will write on a sheet of paper that Hotak is an expatriate."
Hotak established an association for all cultures, which he took care of for four years before heading back to university for a second bachelors degree – in art and sociology. He graduated in 1996. Then he worked in a charity for three years.
In 1999, Hotak returned to Kabul for his brother's wedding. "Earlier I had come to Kabul in 1992, seven years after my father, mother and two elder brothers had passed away." He stayed in Afghanistan for one year under the Taleban regime, which sparked rumours in Germany that he was "lost" in Kabul. "I was farming. I had constructed a house. There was no other work so I decided to go back to Germany, where again I was jobless for three months," he says.
Hotak enrolled for a management programme following which he found a job as an administrative officer in a consultancy for expatriates where he worked for two years. In 2003, he returned to Kabul. He was invited by the social affairs faculty of Kabul University to teach. Also, the Ministry of Education offered him a job.
"I did not see either of these places as suitable and I went back to Germany."
Once again he decided to acquire a new skill. He got a diploma in German, and started free-lancing as an interpreter for refugees. Things were going well when he met with a skiing accident and broke his shoulder. The doctor he went to fixed the bone, and also changed his life. He asked Hotak why he had not returned to his country. Hotak says the doctor said, "You tell me there was Taleban and war, but now there is a government in your country. If you don't make it strong who will?"
Making a mark
Hotak moved back to Kabul in 2005. He got a job at the Goethe Institute as head of cultural affairs. In 2015, he was appointed head. Looking back at the years in the institute he says, "We held eight national festivals of theatre, also literature. We translated books, and also published children's books. We trained people in film making and made 52 films."