Relentlessly Motivated

You think you’re motivated? Meet Ahmad Jan Ali.

It takes motivation for any kid to make it through college and then to get a job in a Congressman’s office. But what if that kid first has to learn English without any help, risk his life repeatedly, and then make it through college in a foreign country despite never having gone past sixth grade?

Ahmad was born in Afghanistan and went to a school with no windows, no desks, paper or pencils—and one textbook that the dozen or so students took turns using. At the age of 12 his family fled from the Taliban to Iran, where Ahmad was not allowed to attend school. He decided he wanted to learn English, and talked his parents into allowing him to quit work to devote himself to the task. He bought 150 cassette tapes containing university lectures and political speeches, and studied eight hours a day, holding imaginary conversations with lamps and chairs, and imitating George Bush.

Of course, since he had no one to actually talk to, he didn’t know if his English was actually any good, until his family returned to Afghanistan and he approached some American soldiers. When they heard him, they asked him how long he had lived in the States. In one article, Ahmad said: “I felt like I was hit by an asteroid. That’s how empowering that was. I realized right then that hard work pays off.” (The article is fascinating. Go ahead and read it; I’ll wait.)

He became an interpreter for the troops and regularly risked his life on combat missions and negotiations with local leaders. In 2007, he jumped at the chance to take advantage of  a visa program for interpreters, although he first had to travel to Pakistan, evading Taliban patrols, to get the necessary papers. He moved to Oregon and lived in the home of Col. Bob Elliott, enrolled in the local community college and eventually graduated from Lewis and Clark College with a degree in international affairs. He now lives in DC and works in the office of US Representative Greg Walden.

It’s easy to write about motivation from the safety and comfort of an American middle-class life, so occasionally it’s useful to remind ourselves that many people face far greater obstacles than we do just to achieve what we already take for granted.

In a story written in the Bend Bulletin[1], Ahmad is quoted as saying: “I want to have a positive impact on what is going on.”

I would say he already has.



[1] This quote is taken from an excellent article about Ahmad in yesterday’s Bend Bulletin, but apparently it is only accessible to subscribers.

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