- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

KABUL (AP) - When Afghanistan’s hit singing contest “Afghan Star” holds its finale this week, one popular veteran of the TV series won’t be there: the show’s longtime host.

“Afghan Star,” an American Idol-style singing contest, sent host Daoud Sediqi to Utah’s Sundance Film Festival in January, where the affable Afghan watched a film in which he starred collect two prizes, including the audience prize for world documentary.

Sediqi never returned.

The same goes for a female athlete on Afghanistan’s Olympic team while training for the Beijing games last summer. And last month three players and a trainer on the country’s junior soccer (football) team disappeared in Europe.

For years, Afghans have slipped across the border illegally to seek work in Iran or Pakistan, where wages are several times higher than in impoverished Afghanistan. Others have fled endemic violence.

But in recent months even the country’s stars have sought a better life overseas.

“Everybody knows why they are fleeing _ they want to get citizenship in other countries. First, we have big economic problems, and we’ve also faced 30 years of war,” said Sayed Mahmood Zia Dashti, deputy chief of Afghanistan’s Olympic Committee. “They want to help their families. It’s difficult to control this.”

Last month Afghanistan’s junior soccer team traveled to Germany for training. But three players _ all aged 16 _ and a trainer disappeared. On future trips, the federation will ask players to give a financial guarantee they will return, said Karamuddin Karim, president of the country’s football federation.

“It’s a very big problem for us, and it give us a bad name,” Karim said.

Last summer, 19-year-old runner Mehboba Ahdyar, the only female on Afghanistan’s Olympics team, fled a training camp in Italy and sought political asylum in Norway.

Even the presidential palace isn’t immune. Last September during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, an aide in the media office, Ahmad Razi, skipped the flight back to Kabul and now lives in Canada, according to an official at the palace who asked not to be named because of the nature of the information.

A December study by the U.N. refugee agency found that widespread poverty and average annual salaries of just $800 send Afghan jobseekers to Iran, where wages are four times higher. They send back an estimated $500 million per year, some 6 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, the report found.

Defections overseas make some institutions hesitant to sponsor Afghans to go on foreign trips.

An international consultant who works on a ministry training project said he recently needed to send several Afghan employees to Canada for software training.

But Afghan officials asked that another destination be chosen, because they were afraid the Afghans would seek asylum, said the consultant, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to release the information.

One of the Afghans never came back, the consultant said. Because of that, and the ministry’s request, future training will be held in Africa or Southeast Asia, where Afghans might be less likely to flee, he said.

After the “Afghan Star” host Sediqi fled, it created a prime opportunity for Omid Nezami, his replacement.

The 24-year-old Nezami was a contestant on “Star” last year, placing sixth. This year he was asked to co-host. Now the show is his. This year’s finale is Friday.

“I started as a co-host, shoulder to shoulder, face to face, close to Daoud Sediqi, and he was explaining everything to me,” Nezami said. “And one thing is really interesting to me that Daoud was saying: ‘Pretend that next year I am not here. You will be the host. What will you do?’”

Nezami, who also works as a flight attendant, says he has had many opportunities to flee to Europe, but that he would rather live in Afghanistan, given Europe’s high cost of living.

“If there is another (overseas) program or festival, if Tolo sends me, I will come back, because I don’t want to escape,” Nezami said.

The new host said his predecessor on the Tolo TV program had a fiancee in Holland he may have wanted to be with, but that he hasn’t heard from him. “I think Daoud is happy,” he said.

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