Helping Afghans helps Americans, too
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
Unlike military soldiers, the armaments Budd MacKenzie and Khaled Hosseini carry into battle are words.
On Dec. 13, the two foes of the nearly 33-year war in Afghanistan will align themselves at the Acalanes High School Theatre to issue a call for courage in the fight to unite Afghan and American hearts and minds.
MacKenzie founded Trust in Education in 2004, after reading a magazine article about an Afghan community's desperate need for a school. The Lafayette resident and his friends raised $60,000 for Greg Mortenson's Central Asia Institute, a Bozeman, Mont.-based nonprofit providing educational support in remote regions of Afghanistan. Shortly thereafter, he read "Charlie Wilson's War," a book about America's covert support of Afghan mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
"Originally, I thought we went into Afghanistan to protect them," MacKenzie said in an interview. "Reading that book was when my education process began."
Nine years later, he's just returned from his 17th trip to that country. Trust in Education has grown to support 1,250 students with 23 teachers and new computers, classrooms and playgrounds in eight villages. TIE sends food, clothing, and solar cookers to 12 Afghan refugee camps. Instead of serving full-time as a lawyer for Bay Area entrepreneurs, MacKenzie now spends 80 percent of his time as a messenger.
"There's so much media emphasis on death and destruction that here, the assumption is that Afghanistan is about terrorism. And their idea of Americans is terrible; they think we're all about oil. If all you read is the exchange between our governments, the perceptions will be negative," he says.
Because people are either saturated with news or ignorant -- he confesses that 10 years ago he was completely uninformed -- he said Americans are turning away from Afghanistan, and that it's increasingly difficult to find support.
In Afghanistan, TIE's work is actually easier. From the beginning, TIE asked the Afghans what was needed, instead of telling them. While funding the priorities, they expected the Afghans to do the work, knowing a community would be more invested in a school or program they built themselves. With the number one priority being gender equality for women, they reached out to men. ("You have to reach the men: you don't have trouble convincing the women they deserve more rights," he says.) Primarily, Trust in Education placed hope in education and allowed themselves to make mistakes.
The changes in Afghanistan are tangible -- 210 girls now sit at desks built by Afghan villagers instead of on the dirt floor at their Farza school; other students will go from computer classes without computers or a ration of only 30 minutes per week to nine weekly hours of computer time this December; several newly-built classrooms replace living rooms and hold 50 students, a village's worth.
Perhaps the only thing more remarkable is the growing transformation in the Bay Area. Packing parties in 2012 resulted in five tons of clothing and rice for 180,000 meals being sent from local homes to Afghan homes. Nearly 100 local high schools are engaged in building the solar oven program. In Afghanistan, firewood for cooking is extremely expensive (it costs more to heat a classroom during winter months than to pay the teacher) and smoke is a main cause of pollution-related illnesses. Solar ovens eliminate smoke and are used to pasteurize water, saving both money and lives.
"This whole thing has taught me the joy of giving. I wasn't raised as a giver: I was an accumulator. I tell kids I don't want a dime from their parents. I want them to earn the dollars themselves. It's easy to be antiwar, but we need to be pro-victim and proactive."
Hosseini's novels ("The Kite Runner," "A Thousand Splendid Suns," "And The Mountains Echoed") reach into his native country's past to draw logical lessons out of what is happening there now.
In an interview in June, Hosseini described parallels between the work his Khaled Hosseini Foundation is doing to combat the massive refugee problem and his childhood experiences, before political asylum brought his family to San Jose. Using both memory and present-day realities as measuring sticks, he said Afghans have resourcefulness in their DNA and that despite "egregious conditions," they will persevere.
MacKenzie will moderate the conversation with the award-winning Hosseini, asking him about his writing process, how his life has changed since the time when he was a practicing physician, what he wants Americans to know about Afghanistan and if he believes a book about the Taliban could be written without fear of reprisals.