Cover Story

Their future is now

"Their future is now" Continued...

Issue: "Beyond the body count," Nov. 5, 2011

Of approximately 150 graduates, 10 percent have received scholarships to study abroad, including Fulbright stipends to study in the United States. Two who undertook advanced studies overseas already have returned to Afghanistan-one to teach literature at Herat University and another to serve as a program manager for the UN.

Another campus organization, Afghans for Progressive Thinking (APT), also is focusing on leadership. Earlier this year, with funding from the Dutch and U.S. embassies, it brought over a U.S. championship debate team to teach competition skills to Kabul University students. Now APT has a full fall schedule of debate competitions within Kabul University and with other schools. "We want to help students think rationally, argue respectfully, and create a culture of acceptance where we value differences," said organizer Aref Dostyar during an October open house for the group.

Josh McCormick, a Yale graduate student who led the visiting team, told me, "Directing the debate project in Kabul this summer was one of the greatest experiences of my life. The students were very eager to learn, and they made remarkable progress even in the short time we had with them." Some of the Afghan women, he said, "had never done any public speaking so it really encouraged them to see the women on our team speak in public and lead by example."

Women are increasingly active in such groups. ILD seeks them during the selection process and they make up a small percentage of each class. Wazhma Rahimzay heads a research foundation for issues related to women and children where she has 25 employees, male and female. She is 27, single, and lives with her family. She told me she feels welcome to discussions in the mostly male class but has had to "change my family's ideas" about attending. "We feel it's so important now for women to have opportunities, to be part of solutions for our country, to travel overseas and have an education."

Rahimzay fears talk of compromise with the Taliban and their becoming part of a future government: "We fear what will happen to women like me. It would be tragic." Rahimzay said the most important thing she's learned so far in class "is identifying my own good qualities and ones that I need to work on."

ILD was founded by Morning Star but is now run in partnership with several NGOs. When the instructor asks a question ("Who fills your tank?" he throws out at one point), a dozen hands go up and several start answers at once.

"The most urgent need for Afghanistan," said Morning Star's Batchelder, "is trustworthy leadership. These young people are hungry to learn how to become good leaders."

An ILD class near Jalalabad was slated for 20 students, and over 70 prospects showed up. Morning Star is in discussion with government officials to use ILD to train Afghan National Army and Police units. But because of security issues, teachers, and funding (tuition of $1,500, often paid partially by an employer, covers most expenses), not enough classes are scheduled to meet demand: "We are trying to be poised so that, should the security issues melt away, we are ready to expand this training," said Batchelder.

Many of the longest-serving NGOs in Afghanistan are faith-based enterprises that began long before the 2001 U.S. invasion. Organization leaders I spoke to-despite rising incidents of violence-say they have no plans to scale back their operations when the U.S. military completes its withdrawal in 2014. In fact, most report increased interest in Afghanistan by Western aid workers over the last year. That's surprising, given the August 2010 attack in Nuristan Province that killed 10 workers with International Assistance Mission (IAM), including six Americans. On Oct. 11, four French aid workers were kidnapped in northern Afghanistan.

Morning Star, which employs 50 expatriate workers and about 120 Afghans, has had 11 new U.S. prospects inquiring about work in Afghanistan this year. In the last month, two newly trained couples joined its staff in Kabul.

IAM has been in Afghanistan since 1966. The organization kept its teams in place even after the devastating attack last year (see "Work and death," Aug. 28, 2010), and spokesman Warrick Gilbert said, "We expect a slight increase" in staffing in the next year. IAM has 500 paid Afghan staff and 50 expatriate volunteer workers in Afghanistan.

SERVE Afghanistan began working with refugees at the Pakistani border in 1980. It employs 12 expat workers and more than 200 Afghan workers. It began with health services for the disabled and recently helped some of the first disabled students to enter Kabul University, according to SERVE community development director Victor Chen. It also trains medical residents, sponsors a micro-savings program among Afghan women, and hosts rural eye-care camps. "As a Christian agency we also focus on character and values development," said Chen. "We try to work on worldview, peace-building, honesty-ultimately issues of hearts and minds. What we don't want to create is dependency."

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