My Turn: Life in Afghanistan more hopeful than the headlines

Posted: Thursday, January 29, 2004

I returned to Alaska from Afghanistan in June 2003 after completing the construction of two girls schools in the Northern Afghanistan province of Jawzjan. I had been back for a couple of weeks and began to get e-mails from friends about girls schools burned down by extremists. I was naturally concerned and began searching the Web for related stories. Googling yielded dozens of results that related to a single incident. As I carefully read the text I realized that the scary headlines revealed the "girls school" was a temporary UNICEF tent that can easily be replaced. The children had not been in school for a month because of the summer heat. So someone torched an empty tent.

My reaction was not concern or fear for the safety of schools we just completed, but frustration with the media for focusing on a singular isolated incident. Does the burning of a tent school reflect the general mood in Afghanistan? Are all of our efforts over there just a waste of time? These are the questions that someone who isn't in the field may ask themselves when reading these articles.

Having spent more than seven months in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in November 2001, the reality on the ground is quite the opposite from what the headlines infer. In the north, the vast majority of Afghans hate the Taliban and are open to women's education. They are hopeful and actively working to rebuild their shattered country. Of course there are pockets of resistance to Western influence. In the southern regions around Kandahar and near the Pakistani border there are active Taliban operating. These extreme elements don't represent the general mood and philosophy of most Afghans.

Last year there was an incident where an Afghan aid worker was shot in his home in Mazar-I-Sharif by "unknown attackers." The incident made international papers. What didn't make the papers was the aid worker was sleeping with another man's wife and the incident was purely personal and had nothing to do with extremists. Of course, the aid organization wanting to protect their employee's credibility never informed the media of this juicy detail.

Working in northern Afghanistan is easy. They have competent masons, carpenters and electricians. We employ local builders, use local materials and hire local coordinators. Trusted Afghan friends make sure we don't get ripped off. The average Afghan is just like you and me. In fact, the children's eagerness, enthusiasm and hunger for education surpasses most of the children I meet in the States. They don't take education for granted.

This is an important and critical time in Afghanistan's modern history. They still face many problems with warlords, a ruined infrastructure, Taliban extremists and an economy based primary on the sale of opium. Even with these challenges the majority of Afghans are hopeful and ready to rebuild their country. They just need a little help.

Juneau is the last stop for the Solace International and the Afghanistan Girls School Project before we return to Jawzjan province on Feb. 12. We are determined to build six new girls schools next year raising funds by selling Afghan carpets, silks and embroideries. We are holding an auction at the Elks Club in downtown Juneau on Thursday, Jan. 29, at 6:30 p.m., where we hope to raise the funds to build a girls school in Northern Afghanistan. It will be named the Juneau School.

• Nathaniel York is the founder of the Anchorage-based nonprofit organization Solace International.

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