People & Places

Mohammed H. Anees, a teaching assistant at the University of Georgia, would seem to have an auspicious name: in his mother tongue Persian, the name Anees means “friend.”

But in Afghanistan, the Muslim-dominated country where he grew up, being a friend was not always easy, especially across religious lines. “I am a Muslim, but my fellow-countrymen do not see me as one if I make friends with people belong to other faith.”

That was one reason why Anees decided to move to the United States. He applied for a Fulbright scholarship in 2011 in order to study in the United States. His application was approved and he arrived in Georgia last year at the age of 26.

Before coming to UGA, Anees taught English at Takhar University in Afghanistan. There, he became friends with an Irishman. They hung out together and exchanged small gifts.

Not surprisingly, the Irish friend was a Christian. This created difficulties with the locals. “Since the town was small and every one could see us being together, they thought that I had either converted to Christianity or I was a spy.” He said that if the people in the town suspect an Afghan of not being a Muslim, it can put him in serious danger.

“If anyone wants to kill me for my friendship, I accept. But once someone is my friend, I will not deny it.”

He has reason to be fearful. His twin brother was killed in 1998 at the age of 13 by local Afghan commanders.

The commanders got the title by being leaders of the insurgency that drove the Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. They have clung to that power ever since, despite the fall of the Taliban regime, the arrival of the American military, and the establishment of an elected government.

According to Anees, the commanders have, in effect, a license to kill.

Even in recent years, before he came to the United States, whenever he wanted to go out at night, friends would come and escort him, until one day they all quit, saying they feared that one day something bad might happen to him, and his mother would accuse them of taking him away.

It’s a long way from Afghanistan to Georgia. Even so, Anees does not feel that he is totally safe. Here, the danger is instigated more by fanatical Islamic clergy than by commanders.

Like many Facebook users, he posts photographs to his page. One such picture that was added to his page in this country shows him giving a woman a hug. Back in Afghanistan, neighbors viewed the page and condemned him for his lack of “modesty.”

He has since heard that his experience was used as a cautionary tale for children. “Parents told their kids, ‘do not act different, otherwise you will end up like Anees.’”

In the area where Anees grew up, there were few schools and many adults are illiterates. As a result, even uneducated people can hold key positions in the government.

Anees has a life-long love of science. He majored in physics and math in college, then taught general physics at Takhar University in 2007 and 2008.

“One can develop critical thinking by learning physics,” he says.  If he couldn’t answer a student’s question with information available at the university he often called experts in capital for help. “I just loved learning while teaching,” he said.

Unfortunately, science teachers were not paid well in Afghanistan. He would earn about $3 per hour for teaching physics, while English teachers were paid over $10 per hour.

As the eldest son in a family of five brothers and sisters, he is in line according to tradition to become the family patriarch with special responsibilities. With this in mind, he became a professional college English teacher in 2008.

This weighed favorably in his application for a Fulbright scholarship, because experience of teaching English in another culture is a prerequisite for the program.

The first question that most students in UGA ask him, is if people in Afghanistan speak Persian. As a matter of fact, 50% people in Afghanistan speak Persian, another 30% speak Pashto. Persian and Pashto are both official languages.

Anees is more than willing to share his culture by answering questions, and is glad for the experience he’s gaining by living in a different country. “Although Fulbright only gives stipend,” he said. “It helps you to stand on your feet and see the society.”

Naturally, he has learned new things about American culture, too. Among other things, he finds American students to be more diligent than he expected. “I have a mixture of students in my class, some of them are heritage Persian speakers, others are Americans with no Persian background” he says. “In my class, the best students are not heritage speakers.”

Anees appears calm and brave as he fields questions from students and colleagues, but there is always an undercurrent of worry. “I’m not sure about my future; I am frankly scared,” he says.

One of his memories from Afghanistan stands out in particular. “The only thing my mother told me when I was leaving town was, ‘protect yourself, please.’”