The headlines out of Afghanistan today are strikingly similar to when Elyas Razawi’s mother fled the country 23 years ago, holding her two-month-old baby close to her chest. Then, the power vacuum had been left by the Russians who abruptly exited the country in 1989 after almost a decade of war. It led to the rise of the Taliban, the subjugation of women and girls, and thousands of refugees fleeing the country. Razawi and his mother were two of them.
Today, at 23, Razawi is a graduate of the Nyenrode Business University in the Netherlands. He graduated with a 3.8 GPA and spoke at his graduation ceremony, dedicating his speech to the mother who carried him to the West and who dreamed of seeing her child get the education that wasn’t available to her.
Razawi recently shared his journey as a former refugee to a young man with a promising career in business. He spoke with Poets&Quants from Finland where he is studying for an International Master in Management of IT at Tilburg University. He was also just hired as an equity analyst at Aegon Asset Management.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You were born in Kabul, Afghanistan, but fled with your mother to the Netherlands when you were just a baby. Can you begin by telling us about the circumstances your family faced?
The circumstances in Afghanistan were, I think, quite similar to the circumstances that are taking place right now. There was a huge power vacuum because the Russians had just left Afghanistan, and there was a lot of tumultuous behavior within society. I’ll just say that.
My family decided to flee to the West. My mom did most of that journey when she was 16, without her parents, sisters or her family. She had me two months before she left. She made the journey mostly with strangers. My father came later, but my mother and I went first, partially with his family and partially with random strangers. I am not going into the details, but the stories I hear about it make me furious that she had to go through all of that and at the same time makes me appreciate everything that I now have so much more. It also gives me the drive to be in charge of my own future so that I can ensure that something like that never happens again.
What year was that?
Somewhere around January, February 1999.
Did you ever talk about that decision or the journey with your family as you were growing?
We did not talk about it much. Most of the hectic past remains to be hidden in the past. My mother and my father were getting a divorce very soon after arriving in the Netherlands, and so, I was raised in a new culture, the Dutch culture, with different values and outlooks.
Most of our lives are centered around the present and the future. It’s rare that my mother speaks about the past. I feel like I’ve learned most of these stories right before I went on the exchange to France and to Finland, and nothing had really been shared before.
The talks began after my eighteenth birthday, but since it is so much and the emotional stress of reliving it affects my mother, it usually is in little unchronological snippets. It is very hard for me to explain, also because the story changes frequently. The reason for that is that my mother tries to protect me less and less and starts being more truthful with me. However, the one thing that is tough for me is that my past identity remains very liquid, making it hard for me to have an opinion about some of my values and beliefs. A clear example is that I used to be very gullible and positive, almost naively positive. I thought that we were lucky and that everyone along the way tried to help us because they knew how difficult it must have been. However, the story is much more bittersweet and people who had a positive image in my mind turned very dark after hearing the truth. I try to not let that impact me too much, but it has made me much more pessimistic in the trust and vulnerability area.
When I was younger, I never really asked for it. I felt like that’s so much to handle and so much emotional baggage that I feel like I would be better off if I don’t know it for now. I will want to know when I’m ready for it. At the moment, it’s difficult because the situation in Afghanistan is happening all over again. Our family that is still there is having a really tough time. I’m not very aware of what is happening exactly because there is more distance between me and the other members of my family. This is because of the physical distance, since I live in Finland, but also since I was raised as a Westerner, which also increases the distance from a cultural sense. The connection is still there, but it is different for me.
My mom raised me speaking Dutch and so I barely even speak Persian. Most of the traditions of my culture are not passed on to me. I did and do not participate in as much because my nature is shaped so differently. I’m more of an in-betweener. I wouldn’t say I’m Dutch. I wouldn’t say I’m Afghanish. I would like to call myself a “citizen of the world” although that sounds cliché. Nevertheless, I do still care a lot about my family, close or distant. I sometimes call my grandpa and it breaks my heart to see him in Afghanistan with bad lighting and a shaky internet connection talking about tragedies as if it is just a regular thing as if it is rain. Let’s just say that I am extremely grateful that I never have experienced war consciously.
I read that your mom’s biggest dream was for you to go to university. Is that true?
So this is probably going to be a good part because this is where I feel like my mentality is very different from most students. Most of my peers treat school more as a customer. So when they went to university, they had the mentality that they “’deserved it.”
But in our house, there was a different perspective. My mom’s perspective was “I wanted to go to school. I was very smart when I was a kid, I wanted to go to school but I couldn’t.” No girls could go to school when my mother was a child and it infuriated her. It also hurts her sometimes to see the amazing experiences that I am having and to think that she could have had that too if it was not for the war, a war that has been going on for the better part of” a century and that accomplished nothing. This does not mean that she holds me down. To the contrary, she pushed and still pushes me to get everything out of education and my student life. She pushes me to study abroad, see the world, study longer to find something that I really like.
She also taught me some amazing Afghanish etiquette when it comes to the classroom. I was always taught that you treat your teachers with respect. If they ask you to do something, you do it. If they want you to know something, you learn it, and if it’s hard or difficult, then there’s probably a reason for it. I was not really allowed to complain about it. And if something was too easy, well then learn more on the side by yourself, but don’t throw shade at your teachers.
NEXT PAGE: Taking a chance on business and Nyenrode.