In December 2021 Syed Bilal Hashmi ACCA had to make the hardest decision of his life. Should he stay in a Taliban-run Afghanistan, or leave his home in Kabul, uprooting his wife and four children, and start a new life in a new country?
As the deputy auditor general of Afghanistan, Hashmi knew leaving would bring an end to a career into which he had invested more than 12 years of his life and mean starting again from zero. It was not an easy decision.
‘It was very difficult, but I had no choice. I knew I had to do something better for my children,’ he says, speaking from the offices of Dublin-based accountancy firm Dillon Kelly Cregan, where he now works as an audit senior.
‘When I left my beloved country, we left everything behind’
He continues: ‘When the Taliban entered Kabul, it was a very critical situation. I decided initially to stay and help, but it was not good for me, so we decided to leave. When I left my beloved country, we left everything behind, without saying goodbye. Everything changed.’
All he took with him were two three-piece suits, which he still has with him today.
It wasn’t a straightforward journey. When Hashmi and his family decided to leave, they first travelled to Dubai, where they lived for 11 months in a refugee camp. ‘It was a tough time, but at least we lived in peace, not fear,’ he recalls.
He is at pains to stress the valuable help he received from ACCA officers while in Afghanistan and the UAE, and ultimately in Ireland. ‘It was my ACCA qualification that enabled me to come to Ireland,’ he says. ‘The ACCA leadership have supported us all the way through.’
‘We chose Ireland because it is culturally rich and beautiful, with good education and health systems’
Hashmi arrived in Ireland on 27 September 2022, and now works as an auditor in the private sector across a number of industries. ‘It is an opportunity to share my experience,’ he says.
So why Ireland? In Afghanistan and UAE, he had been made aware of opportunities in Australia, Canada and the UK. ‘I never imagined I would need to resettle anywhere else. But when we moved, we did our own research based on things that were important to us. We decided to come here, to Ireland, because it is a culturally rich, beautiful place, with very good education and health systems, things that are valuable to me. Again, I was thinking of my children.’
Hashmi and his wife, whom he describes as his ‘adviser’, have three boys, aged 14, 12 and nine, and a girl of three. ‘We always tell them the positives so that they don’t think about the negatives. My wife helped to teach them English, and in fact they were able to act as interpreters when we were in the camp in Dubai.’
The children are now back in school for the first time in two and a half years and have so far settled in remarkably well; one of his sons has even created his own YouTube channel. Hashmi adds that the schools in Dublin have dedicated resources to help them in their new environment.
Audit senior, Dillon Kelly Cregan, Dublin, Ireland
Deputy auditor general, Supreme Audit Office of Afghanistan
Vice chairman/deputy minister, Afghanistan Telecom Regulatory Authority
Deputy head, CPA Afghanistan
Audit senior, Yeap Cheng Chuan, Malaysia
CFO, Kabul Bank receivership
Senior finance officer, World Council of Credit Unions
Audit senior, Zia Massoud, Kabul
It is all a far cry from the start of his career with Kabul-based accountancy firm Zia Massoud, which he joined in 2009 (see CV box). He later became CFO for Kabul Bank, which was in receivership at the time, before heading to Malaysia to work with audit firm Yeap Cheng Chuan, where he completed his ACCA qualification. ‘I sat eight papers in nine months,’ he says.
But he was soon back in Kabul, where he was asked to become deputy head of the nascent accountancy regulator, CPA Afghanistan. ‘My country was really deprived of professional accountants,’ he says. ‘Everything is just a memory now, but in five years we significantly developed the profession, achieving among other things the passing of the first ever accountancy law, the first bachelor degree programme at Kabul University, and a reimbursement programme for students passing the ACCA exams.’
In all this, Hashmi highlights the contribution made by ACCA.
‘ACCA advised CPA Afghanistan at every stage in the development and regulation of the auditing and accounting profession in Afghanistan,’ he says. ‘With their support and assistance, CPA Afghanistan obtained associate membership of the South Asian Federation of Accountants and had started the process to gain IFAC membership.
‘We significantly increased the number of accountants in Afghanistan,’ he recalls. ‘We even hosted the first international accountancy conference in the country, to which we invited the ACCA president at the time.’
‘I was helping my people by improving transparency and contributing to the fight against corruption’
Reflecting on his work in Afghanistan, he says he felt he was working not only for himself, but for the country as a whole. ‘It was not just about money; it was about inner satisfaction. I was helping my people in the fight against corruption and contributing to the regulation of this profession that ultimately will bring transparency. We could see significant outcomes.’
So what has become of his fellow accountants? Is he still in touch with his former colleagues? ‘Everything changed overnight, it was a doomsday situation. While many were evacuated, some are still there in Kabul. But contact is very difficult.’
Would he ever return to his homeland? ‘I am loving Ireland – it has given me a lot in this short time and I can see great opportunities here. But I would never have previously thought of settling somewhere else, so I want to return and continue my work in Afghanistan if the situation gets better. I can’t leave my people.’