RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A story about hope, risk and unmet expectations - the story begins in the summer of 2003 in Kabul, Afghanistan. It has been almost two years since 9/11, two years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and pushed the Taliban out of power for harboring al-Qaida. I'm there reporting on how the country is starting to change. Girls can now go to school. Playing music isn't against the law. And children are starting to dream big dreams.
What do you want to do when you grow up?
SHAGOOFA SAHAR: President or (laughter) Kofi Annan.
QAIS DUNAISHJO: No, no.
ILYAS HURMAT: I like.
MARTIN: You are going to be Kofi Annan?
The three ambitious kids you hear there are Shagoofa Sahar (ph), Qais Dunaishjo (ph) and Ilyas Hurmat (ph). When I meet them back in 2003, they're between the ages of 8 and 11. And they're the hosts of a kid's radio program called "Good Morning Afghanistan."
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "GOOD MORNING AFGHANISTAN")
SAHAR: (Foreign language spoken).
MARTIN: I spent several weeks with these kids and their team that summer. I watched them put the show together, play jokes on each other. I watched them play volleyball and jump rope in the courtyard outside their studios. And I listened as they talked to me about the future they saw for their country.
What do you hope for Afghanistan in the future?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: She wants that the people - our country should rebuild and reconstruct.
MARTIN: I'd go back to Afghanistan many times after that, but I never saw Shagoofa, Qais or Ilyas again. And I wondered for a long time what had happened to each of them. With all that hope and optimism of those early years after the Taliban, what kind of life had they had? After some digging through social media, I finally tracked down Shagoofa and Qais.
SAHAR: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: Hi. How's it going?
SAHAR: I hear your voice after very long time.
MARTIN: Qais, are you there?
DUNAISHJO: Hi. Good morning, Rachel. Thank you for finding me again (laughter).
What else do you remember about that time?
SAHAR: Well, we were very much hopeful for a bright future about our country.
DUNAISHJO: I was confident with myself. Go to your school. Just whatever you want to do, do it. It's the time.
MARTIN: I remember that about Qais, actually. He was quiet as a boy but so self-assured for his age - always had this big devilish grin. At that point, he'd already been through so much. Years prior, he and his father were imprisoned by the Taliban for three months. Now that the Taliban was gone, he felt like life could only get better.
DUNAISHJO: It was a really good time on those days. I was really energetic, and I was looking forward for a bright and a good Afghanistan.
MARTIN: But over the years, the optimism would fade. The Taliban would keep launching attacks against civilians. Other insurgent groups moved in, including ISIS. Shagoofa and Qais each found an escape hatch. Qais was granted asylum in the U.S. He remembers the night before he and his wife and baby boy boarded a plane bound for California.
DUNAISHJO: It was kind of - for me, when you are going to somewhere to watch a scary movie and you're a little bit excited about that. When we landed here at Los Angeles, I see everything. People smile to each other. Nobody's worried about security issues here.
MARTIN: Shagoofa's escape came in the form of education. She convinced her family to let her go to college in Istanbul. Shagoofa thrived there. She made friends. She did well in her classes. And when she graduated, she didn't want to go back home to Kabul.
SAHAR: I knew that I have bigger ambitions than that. So in order to stay here longer to do my masters, I had to convince them again. And then - yeah, I actually did some crazy thing (laughter).
MARTIN: Shagoofa's brother wanted her to come home immediately and get married. She refused. And to drive the point home, she shaved her head - shaved off all of her long, dark hair, leaving her pretty much bald. She showed me photos of her from that time on Facebook. She's got makeup on, big earrings, super hip clothes. She had found another version of herself, and she wasn't about to let that go.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Now Shagoofa and Qais are living in this kind of tension. They are away from the bombs. They're living in other countries where they can see opportunity in a way they never could before. At the same time, they feel this pull to help drag Afghanistan out of the current chaos. Peace talks have been stalled. And even if the Taliban and the Afghan government can reach a ceasefire, both these young Afghans are worried about what happens if they come back into power.
SAHAR: The problem is that women are not much involved with the peace negotiations. And we are scared to turn back to, like, 18 years ago. And we are scared that we will lose all these advantages that we have today.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Are you nervous about the United States leaving?
DUNAISHJO: Yes. Yes, I am totally nervous. I'm feeling a bad dream about Afghanistan. If they leave us like this - if they leave us at this situation, I think everything is go backward.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Each of them have built their own life outside Afghanistan. Shagoofa now works at the Afghan Embassy in Ankara. She's also raising her two younger sisters, who followed her to Turkey. Qais works as a safety inspector for a construction firm in California, where he lives with his wife and son. I ask if they can imagine ever going back to Kabul, what it would take for them to return and build a life there.
Would you like to raise your son there?
DUNAISHJO: Actually, no. If it's - the situation is like this, no. If the situation is like this, I don't want same thing that happened to me, I don't want to happen to my son.
MARTIN: Shagoofa, on the other hand, still thinks about the dream that seemed so out of reach when she was 9 years old.
SAHAR: Yeah, I said I want to be president or Kofi Annan...
SAHAR: ...Because Kofi Annan was the (laughter) head of U.N. back then, yeah.
MARTIN: Two Kofi Annans?
So yeah, I still have this ambition in mind - one day (laughter).
MARTIN: The U.S. invaded Afghanistan 18 years ago this week. For 18 years, Afghans like Qais and Shagoofa have clung to an idea of what their country could be. But now they are trapped in a grim deja vu. Peace talks with the Taliban are stalled yet again. There is again no clear winner in the recent presidential election. On election day, the Taliban carried out almost 200 attacks across the country. The Afghanistan Shagoofa and Qais have dreamt up since they were kids still feels very far away.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.