Should I move to Afghanistan?
May 7, 2014 8:22 PM   Subscribe

Should I pursue an amazing professional opportunity in Kabul, or is this the stupidest idea you've ever heard?

I have the possibility of getting a really interesting, unique job in my field at a university in Kabul, Afghanistan. It includes a very high salary (far above what most people in my field will ever see), insurance, travel expenses, and an apartment on the university compound.

I am: American, female, mid-30s, no spouse or kids, Christian. The troops are supposed to be leaving Afghanistan by the end of this year. Part of me thinks the country will immediately turn into a hellhole, but another really keen on the adventure. Also, boatloads of money. And a really cool job.

Metafilter, what's your view? My best friend think I'm nuts to even consider it.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (33 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I had a friend in your situation who had a decent time there but I don't know specifics. Drop me an email and I'd be happy to put you in touch. I do not think you are nuts to consider it.
posted by jessamyn at 8:25 PM on May 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

You're not crazy to consider it, but there's no way I would move to a place with as awful a reputation as Kabul without visiting first.
posted by facetious at 8:35 PM on May 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

I don't think you're crazy to consider it. I know of at least one former colleague who worked there for a time. That said, another friend was there recently as part of an election observation team until he saw one of his colleagues get murdered in a restaurant and they had to leave the country.

Any change includes risk but obviously some involve more risk than others. What is your risk tolerance? The only wrong answer is the wrong answer for you. Good luck.
posted by kat518 at 8:57 PM on May 7, 2014

One important thing to consider: do you just want to try this for the adventure/big money for a few years, or are you thinking of something far more longterm? If it's the former, do you have a sense of how easily you could return to employment in the States?

(I had a friend who did something very similar in a different country and loved it at first until the area where they were destabilized and exceeded their risk threshold. But now they've been stuck because they can't find comparable employment Stateside...)
posted by TwoStride at 9:03 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

22 foreign civilians have been killed in Kabul attacks on non-military targets so far this year and the year is young. It's a war zone. I'm with your friend - it's nuts. The money and coolness of the job means nothing if you're not alive to enjoy it.
posted by cecic at 9:19 PM on May 7, 2014 [28 favorites]

Visiting is a really good idea, and either way you will know if you want to go or you will have a fabulous unusual holiday. If the university wants you, they will probably be open to helping you arrange the logistics and having you meet future colleagues there.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:44 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a woman, there's no way in hell I would set foot in Afghanistan. This is a country where they routinely throw acid in the faces of girls just for attending school -- what do you think they'd do to a female university professor if they got their hands on you?! Especially a Christian American!

Listen to your best friend.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:06 PM on May 7, 2014 [8 favorites]

Find out what the restrictions on your life would be like there. Is there a compound in which you could live a fairly normal Western-style life? How much would you have to cover up to take a normal walk in the street? Is there any risk of getting kidnapped for ransom if you're perceived as a wealthy foreigner?

I don't know the answers to these questions but you need to find this kind of thing out. But for myself, if I received satisfactory answers, I'd go. (I'm female, older than you, atheist, but perceptibly white and western for sure.)
posted by zadcat at 10:37 PM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might want to listen to the first Longform podcast with journalist Matthieu Aikins who spoke about working in dangerous and unstable regions.

Here's the money quote:

"Without getting too into this can of worms, there's no real objective framework for deciding what the value of your life is versus, you know, the value of a story or adventure. There's lots of pieties you can can say, that your life is never worth a story, or that someone died doing heroic things. Especially when you go to places where people are getting killed for the silliest reasons, and a life is worth so little, you realize that you don't necessarily have to value yourself as this precious commodity that can't be risked in any way and that's just a personal choice and it's actually a very selfish one, because obviously, if you have loved ones, you're affecting them by making that choice. In any case, it's just a different headspace that you inhabit."

You might want to consider if this resounds with you.

The whole podcast is good but the section from 25:20 to about 30:00 is especially relevant.
posted by sockpup at 11:02 PM on May 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

From wikipedia: "According to a report by the United Nations, the Taliban and other militants were responsible for 76% of civilian casualties in 2009, 75% in 2010, 80% in 2011, 80% in 2012. In 2011, a record 3,021 civilians were killed in the ongoing insurgency, the fifth successive annual rise."

And with the troops leaving soon, the amount of violence is guaranteed to increase. As others have said, you are proposing to move to a war zone where the Taliban is still a significant presence. And it is probably fair to say that two things very high on the Taliban hate list is 1) Americans and 2) women.

Personally, if it were me, I would not do it. The day to to day stress and anxiety would be too much. But we are all different that way. Maybe you have that "adventure gene" that draws you to higher risk activities--like free climbing a 1000 ft cliff without a rope.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 12:17 AM on May 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

Your best friend is absolutely 2000% correct. Do not do this.

I was already shaking my head when I found out it was Afghanistan, and when I read that you're a woman? As a woman who lives in the subcontinent (but not Afghanistan), no, no, and fuck no.
posted by Tamanna at 12:25 AM on May 8, 2014 [10 favorites]

Hell, I would advise someone coming to Delhi to think long and hard about the decision, because the thing about living here is that it's not the big dangers that wear you down. It's the small things. Being stared or groped, having people assume things about you because of the colour of your skin, not being able to live near as freely as you would in the US... all of that can be incredibly, incredibly wearying on a daily basis. And India is nowhere near a war zone (at least not yet, who knows in a few months.) Kabul? Fuggeddaboutit.
posted by Tamanna at 12:28 AM on May 8, 2014

I've been there, and while the people I met were mostly nice, they were culturally different enough that moments of friction and misunderstanding were likely. A lot more people are being killed there on a daily basis than you may realize, and while I'm sure the University has security, it's almost certainly a softer target than the nearest FOB.

Don't do it. War zones are completely unpredictable, the only certain thing about them is that they are violent.
posted by atchafalaya at 12:35 AM on May 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

So how adventurous and risk taking is your life otherwise? If this is your first brush with danger, and you otherwise lead a fairly sedentary life, don't do it. Being an expat is hard enough without the additional problems.
posted by Omnomnom at 3:32 AM on May 8, 2014

I worked in Baghdad as a civilian in 2006 and 2007, mostly living and working in the Green Zone but not entirely. My list of pros and cons was almost exactly yours, except I had a decade of active military service to prepare me.

Given the chance to rewind my life, I would not have done it, and I would very strongly recommend that you not do this. Feel free to MeMail me for details of why.
posted by Etrigan at 4:13 AM on May 8, 2014 [11 favorites]

Places like Afghanistan can offer what sound like amazing professional experiences because more experienced professionals take their pick of jobs elsewhere and choose not to take the risk.

I've had friends do this (Afghanistan, Darfur). Most now say it wasn't a great idea - it seemed quite fun until they were in lockdown for days or bombs went off at their usual restaurant or outside their workplace. One friend did seem to quite enjoy Afghanistan. I think she liked the ratio of men to women expats..

It might be worth looking around to see if similar roles are available in other developing countries that would still offer adventure, but offer a more comfortable lifestyle.

I declined a role in Afghanistan because I didn't think the job was worth dying for, and I didn't want to put my family through the stress of me being there. But that was my weigh-up and your life is not my life.
posted by AnnaRat at 4:38 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

No job is worth that sort of risk to your safety (and life). There are plenty of interesting jobs in places that aren't warzones. You really need to value your safety and life more than a cool job that pays well. Seriously.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 4:56 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think they pay whopping amounts of money because otherwise they couldn't (and probably shouldn't) get anyone to risk their lives to go there. I wouldn't go there as an American woman if they were paying me a billion dollars to visit for a day, but that's me and going out via violent death and/or rape in the Middle East isn't something I want to do.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:31 AM on May 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

It would have been a good idea before, but not now. There is already more violence this year. The Taliban are not the kind of adventure you're looking for.
posted by inkypinky at 5:51 AM on May 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Apart from safety, universities work on reputation much more than other sectors, and these young institutions don't have one. I have a colleague who got a very senior department lead job at a university in Iraq but could not convert it into something remotely equivalent when he left after 4 years. So consider the career hit as well.
posted by wingless_angel at 6:13 AM on May 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you're up for oodles of money and an adventure, try Abu Dhabi. Not Kabul.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:53 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

You should only go if living/working/serving in a dangerous active conflict zone is your primary objective and the primary draw. You should not go if the primary draw is the job, the salary, or even experiencing Afghanistan's people or culture. From my job, I know dozens of people who have worked in Kabul over the past decade. Even with massive security restrictions, it is an exceptionally dangerous and stressful place. The vast majority of private western citizens in Kabul--meaning those not under the auspices of a foreign government, military, or international organization--are the type of people who have been preparing for this type of experience their whole life and... to be kind... are a little bit off their rocker. Taking this job is absolutely not something to be done lightly and absolutely not something to be done if an equally interesting and well-paid job in Dubai would be just as enticing. You owe it to yourself--and to your friends and family--to really research and understand what you would be getting into.

Listen to your friend.
posted by whitewall at 7:00 AM on May 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Some questions you should be considering/inquiring about: could you live on the compound if you effectively had to be confined to it? Is it even possible for the university to secure the compound during high risk times? What's campus security like? Security getting from the compound to campus? How readily could you evacuate if things got really bad? If you break your contract, what are the legal implications?

How well do you cope with extended exposure to stress and boredom? It sounds exciting to go someplace like Kabul, but even in far more stable places, a lot of expatriates end up living fairly restricted lives (sometimes due to personal choice, but sometimes due to significant external constraints). A cycle of boredom and stress is difficult to deal with, and you'll be away from your social safety net.

I don't think you're crazy to consider it, but do consider the various drawbacks very carefully. From my experience, whitewall's advice is on the mark.
posted by EvaDestruction at 8:07 AM on May 8, 2014

I sent a copy of your question to a good friend who worked in Kabul a couple of years ago for the UN. She's an attorney. She seconded most of the reservations others here have, and also wondered why you mentioned you're Christian.

Do you mean that as in "born again", the way my students down here in South Carolina use it? If so, are you thinking of going there to proselytize?
posted by mareli at 8:24 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you are crazy to consider it, so that's at least two of us who think so. Putting your life at risk for money reminds me of Jack Benny's need to think about the "your money or your life" ultimatum of an armed robber.
posted by Dansaman at 8:27 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you lived overseas before? Have you lived in a Muslim country before? Have you lived in a country where people's first language is not English before? Have you lived in a country with serious security issues before?

I think I have a relatively high risk tolerance, and I have friends with a risk tolerance much higher than that. People I know have worked for the government and nonprofits in the Sudan and Afghanistan, and I've spent time in the Congo. I don't think any of them are crazy, and I don't think the decision to go to Kabul to teach in the university is necessarily a crazy one.

That said, the decision to move to Kabul without any kind of experience living in places like Kabul does strike me as unwise, both because you may take risks without realizing it, and because you have no way of knowing whether or not you will end up desperately unhappy.

Now, you may have some relevant experience, I don't know. But something to keep in mind is that cultural sensitivity is a skill. Staying safe in dangerous regions is (to a certain extent) a skill. Even teaching students whose first language is not English is a skill. Do you have those skills? If so, you might consider going. If not, I think you should look for a less high-stakes opportunity to acquire them first.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:59 AM on May 8, 2014 [4 favorites]


Unfamiliar city where you don't speak the language
Possibility of getting stuck in a location with no nearby American-friendly haven
Female in an outwardly anti-female environment
Christian in an outwardly anti-Christian environment
Historical data that shows danger and violence are an ongoing, legitimate problem

Seems pretty clear to me.
posted by _DB_ at 10:07 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ruthless Bunny mentioned Abu Dhabi. Whitewall mentioned Dubai. That was my first thought too... There are some fantastic paying positions available for academics in places like Dubai, in cultures that are very different, which offer some risk (socially anyway) for you, definitely some adventure.

As for Afghanistan, according to Al Jazeera, there has already been a huge bump in crime against women in the last year. It's likely going to be much, much worse once the troops leave.

Even if your objective was to educate some of the young women and girls denied their rights for so long, I would still say, let another woman fight this battle - one armed to the teeth, and extremely experienced in working in warzones and countries which are hostile to women.
posted by mitschlag at 10:17 AM on May 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just remember, it is a dangerous place (especially for women).

A cool job and boatloads of money won't mean anything if you taken captive or are dead.

Perhaps you can find a safer place to be?
posted by Leenie at 2:07 PM on May 8, 2014

NOPE. Lame job, low salary > overtly hostile militarized war zone. I can see the attraction of adventure, but unless you have some badass military credentials you didn't mention, NOPE.
posted by mibo at 4:26 PM on May 8, 2014

Agreeing with everyone else that this sounds like an awful idea. The UAE and Qatar are trying to set up research and education facilities, and are willing pay Americans oodles of money, probably more than what you're being offered. All the adventure and experience of another culture with no (or very little) risk to your life and freedom. Singapore and China are also options for good university jobs that are recruiting Americans -- and will let you move about where and when you want, dressed as you like. Heck, even Saudi Arabia might be a preferable option to Afghanistan.
posted by redlines at 8:59 PM on May 8, 2014

I would consider trying it, if you don't have to stay there forever. Like for a year, maybe? You only live once.
posted by winterportage at 7:02 AM on May 9, 2014

From the OP:
Hi everybody, OP here. Thank you all very much for your responses. They were really helpful and gave me a lot to think about. My best friends also followed up, sending me this poem ( and instructing me to meditate on it.

And so, though I was offered the position, I decided to turn it down. Maybe a more suitable adventure will come along later. Thanks again--I knew MeFi wouldn't let me down!
posted by jessamyn at 6:05 PM on May 11, 2014

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