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WAR TORN: Cure hospital on the day of the shooting.
Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
WAR TORN: Cure hospital on the day of the shooting.

A rebuilder of cities

Afghanistan | Laborers like Jerry Umanos are doing the unsung work of a generation

Issue: "Believing in Iraq," May 17, 2014

Nehemiah knew that it took two kinds of workers to rebuild a city, especially in the face of armed opposition: the ones with the weapons, and the ones with the hammers and shovels.

The Israelite prophet’s enemies jeered, “Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” But in spite of enemies, Nehemiah returned to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem—where “half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail” (Nehemiah 4:16).

Where Afghanistan is concerned, politicians, journalists, and most Americans focus on the workers with the weapons. The builders have blunter instruments and have to work steady, day by day, their toil often hard to quantify, and for a journalist difficult to comprehend, less glamorous perhaps. It’s not the work of a presidential election cycle; it’s the work of a generation.

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During a trip to Afghanistan in 2010 I did military embeds over part of several days then tried to spend the rest of those days at Cure International Hospital in Kabul. 

With the military I had to provide my blood type, and an officer inked it on the helmet I had to wear. We rode in up-armored vehicles loaded with bomb jammers that zeroed out my cell phone, a “truck commander” in the front passenger seat with a weapon at the ready, and a memorized description of particular cars to watch for. 

At the hospital I showed up with a pen and notepad and a scarf over my head, often by taxi from the U.S. base. I had to win permission to keep my camera, but otherwise the guards seemed friendly, if armed. Inside were the builders, and pediatrician Jerry Umanos was one.

The hospital was clean and sunny, but had its grim wards. The day I arrived to walk rounds with Jerry two newborns had died in the last several hours, and a 14-year-old boy weighing 37 pounds had arrived from Jalalabad, clearly dying, Jerry suspected of tuberculosis. 

For nearly a decade Jerry and other builders battled diseases and ailments that in his native Chicago were treatable, trying to lift the health of a war-torn nation. On April 24 his labors ended when an Afghan police guard assigned to the hospital shot the 57-year-old physician to death, along with another American colleague and friend, John Gabel, 32, and Gabel’s visiting father, Gary. John Gabel’s wife, Teresa, was wounded in the attack.

All were from the Chicago area. Jerry for years divided his time between the Kabul hospital and a clinic in Chicago—a 7,000-mile commute. When the Lawndale Christian Health Center in the mid-’80s opened in a former Cadillac showroom, Jerry Umanos was one of the first doctors it hired. Starting salary: $25,000. 

Nearly 90 percent of the patients at Lawndale have incomes below the poverty level. Similarly, Jerry was drawn to Afghanistan because it was the world’s most dangerous place to be born. The Cure hospital specializes in maternal health and pediatrics, and Jerry did two important things in his time there: He helped Afghans to dream they could reduce their infant mortality rate. And he trained hundreds of Afghan doctors, midwives, and other health specialists in ways to improve care.

Jerry was a builder writing one of Afghanistan’s (many) good news stories, the ones you don’t hear. When the Taliban ruled, the country had less than 500 medical facilities serving 8 percent of the population. Now there are over 2,000 and they reach 85 percent of Afghans. The infant mortality rate, still one of the highest in the world, is falling.

But the builders need protection as they work, and after the billions invested in training Afghan army and police (I saw both), the United States should have zero tolerance for the kind of insider attacks that killed Jerry and seem to be on the rise. 

Even in the church, we should find more ways to esteem and promote the work of builders like Jerry who set aside top salaries and safety nets to work in the world’s hardest places. As in Nehemiah’s day, “The work is great and widely spread, and we are separated on the wall, far from one another.”

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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