Growing up on the streets of Kabul, Fawad Mohammadi never imagined he would one day be a student in Ohio’s Oberlin College. He was one of the many children selling trinkets to support his family and thought his future would go no further than Chicken Street.
Using his quick wit and charm — and the English he learned not from school, but from the streets — he managed to befriend foreign journalists, NGO workers and filmmakers like Mina Sharif.
His precocious enterprise would put him on a path that would put him on the guestlist for the 2013 Oscars. Mohammadi’s determination had inspired Andrea Busfield’s novel “Born Under a Million Shadows.” This led him to star in a short independent film “Buzkashi Boys,” a coming-of-age tale of two best friends in war-torn Kabul who dream of a better life.
Produced in 2012 in Afghanistan and the US, this film went on to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. Fast forward to now, Mohammadi is living the dream he played in the film.
He has earned himself a scholarship to Oberlin College, Ohio that will cover his tuition fees. “If I was nominated for an Oscar at age 13, I believe I can win one by the age of 26. I need a chance to express myself and tell my stories without fearing for my life, and prove that dreams do come true if one is persistent against all the storms,” he says in his college application.
Below we go behind the scenes with Mohammadi to learn about his youth in Kabul and his inspiring journey since:
What made you choose to study abroad at Oberlin College in the US?
Back in Afghanistan, I had hoped to study abroad. Upon graduating high school, I took the SAT and TOEFL tests. After applying to a few colleges, I received two acceptances and two waitlists. However, when I spoke with the admissions officers at Oberlin College, I found them to be genuine and honest so it spurred me to choose that college.
Walk us through the Oberlin College scholarship application. What was the process like?
I didn’t have an institution to guide me with the process. There was only one Turkish teacher who not only helped me but also helped a few others in our applications.
First, we studied for the SAT and TOEFL and then applied to colleges that gave financial aid to international students. It wasn’t easy without an institution, stable internet, or even power most of the time.
I remember there were days where we had to wait a long time for electricity. When we had power, we only had it for a few hours so we would charge our computers and phones to use them to study and look for colleges.
We also had a very short amount of time between graduating high school and the application deadlines. Overall, it was a difficult process to overcome.
Tell us about the film “Buzkashi Boys.”
The nomination was a huge achievement as it was the first movie from Afghanistan nominated for an Oscar and my first starring role. I will never forget the trip to the US and the Oscars ceremony.
It was one of the first times I found the opportunity to represent my country in a good way, not how the media portrays it. How I got that role was a very interesting story.
I was working on Chicken Street (full of shops where you could buy almost anything). I befriended many foreigners there and one of them was the director of the indie film, Sam French. He offered me the role and I accepted.
It was my first time acting and it was a bit difficult but with the help of the crew and especially French, I got better day by day.
How many languages can you speak and how did you learn them?
I can speak four languages. Persian/Dari (my first language), Pashto (another local language spoken in Afghanistan), Turkish (which I learned in school), and English (which I learned during my time in Chicken Street). I used to communicate with a few words that I knew in languages like Russian, French, German, Italian, and a few others.
What’s the local food like? Tell us your most and least favourite.
The food is so different from our food and as I am Muslim, I can only eat halal meat. So, I don’t have many options but at Oberlin, the chicken is halal which is what I eat when I want meat. I also go to halal restaurants with college friends.
My least favourite thing would be iced tea and my most favourite would be the french fries.
Is there anything from the US you’re planning to bring back to your friends and family?
There are many things I can bring my country to the US and vice versa. One thing would be the idea of respecting people for who they are and not judging them according to their beliefs or the way they dress.
What advice do you have for international students looking to start a new chapter in the US and to apply for scholarships?
Don’t feel that you don’t have anything to contribute. You always have something to add to the bigger picture. Many people would love to hear different perspectives from another country.
You can practise your beliefs, stick with your culture and still have a great time in the US. There are many things you can teach and at the same time, many things you can learn.
Lastly, give us three fun facts about yourself.
One of my American friends bought my tooth when I was 12 (like a tooth fairy), I am the first Afghan to attend Oberlin College, and I started my first business when I was only six on Chicken Street in Kabul.