Baltimoreans asked to help Afghan city

Supplies for schools, hospital and training in agriculture sought

May 03, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - One of the most prominent members of Afghanistan's exile community in America is asking Baltimore residents to come to the aid of a war-ravaged city in the former heartland of the Taliban.

Qayum Karzai, a Baltimore restaurateur, hopes to enlist the help of city institutions to refurbish a hospital, establish a farm for training agricultural workers and build a vocational school in Tarin Kot, a city of about 40,000 in the mountains of Oruzgan Province north of Kandahar.

The region helped give rise to the Taliban movement, although under the leadership of Karzai's brother - Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's interim head of state - it was also one of the first places in southern Afghanistan to expel the fundamentalist militia's government last fall.

Qayum Karzai said he was inspired by an encounter in January with a poor boy selling almonds on a frigid sidewalk in Kabul. The child, dressed in filthy rags, sneered when the successful businessman offered a few words of encouragement. "Don't bother me," he said. "Your stomach must be full."

The 54-year-old owner of the Helmand Restaurant on Charles Street said he realized that thousands of Afghan boys like that one are doomed to become bandits, drug runners or soldiers for hire if they don't get an education. And Afghan girls need places to study after years of being barred from schools.

Karzai decided to start by building a training center where boys and girls could learn practical skills, in a country deserted by all but a few of its skilled workers. And he would try to do it under the umbrella of Afghans for Civil Society, a group based in Maryland that he founded four years ago.

As for the school's location, "Oruzgan is where the Taliban were born," he said between answering calls to his satellite phone in the weedy back yard of a compound near the former king's residence in Kabul. "All of them were there." Besides, he said, his brother Hamid had started his long struggle against the Taliban militia in Tarin Kot.

"What better place?" he asked.

Qayum Karzai visited Tarin Kot recently, touring its hospital with the regional governor, Jan Mohammed. The 50-bed facility is little more than a shell, stripped of equipment and supplies. There is no electricity or glass in the windows. Most of the beds lack mattresses. It is nearly vacant, while people in the city die of minor illnesses.

"How is it possible to get worse than this?" asked Karzai. Since his return to Afghanistan on Dec. 22 for his brother's inauguration, he says, he has been overcome by the scale of the suffering of the country he left 31 years ago to make his fortune in the United States.

"This is too gigantic, this is too much," he said. "It feels like butting your head against a cement block. The only thing you can do is hurt yourself. But the point is, if not you, then who?"

Afghanistan's big cities will probably get most of the Western aid, he said. Tarin Kot is a provincial town, likely to be overlooked. Oruzgan Province shelters many ethnic groups, including Afghanistan's largest, the Pashtuns, and one of its most persecuted, the Hazara. One aim of the school would be to bring together students from different clans, tribes and ethnic groups.

"School would be a good place for developing harmony," Karzai said, "for building a case that things are possible."

Karzai and a small group in Baltimore first hoped to create a sister city relationship between Baltimore and Tarin Kot. Stan Heuisler, former editor of Baltimore Magazine and a Fulbright professor in Kabul from 1972 to 1975, says the city is no longer interested in setting up these partnerships.

So instead, the sponsors - including Marc Steiner, a radio talk show host - hope to forge what they call a "citizen-to-citizen partnership" outside of government channels.

Some fifth-graders at Ellicott City's Centennial Lane Elementary School have pitched in, thanks to Karzai and his wife, Pat, who live in Howard County.

The kids' efforts began after Ginette Serrero showed her daughter, Sarah Hayashi, a Jan. 30 Sun article about many students in Afghanistan lacking pencils or paper for schools.

The Howard pupils started a schoolwide poster campaign, with slogans emphasizing how lucky they were compared with Afghan students, and asked their parents and the community for donations. The first: a half-used crayon from a well-meaning kindergartner.

Serrero got financial help from co-workers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (she's a scientist and professor there, as is her husband, Jun Hayashi). And Pat Karzai spent about $800 adding to supplies the kids had gathered.

The first shipment, eight boxes of supplies, went from Andrews Air Force Base to Germany, and then to Kabul. From there, a U.S. diplomat got the goods on a military plane bound for Kandahar. Then, British forces took the supplies to Tarin Kot by helicopter.

The second shipment, which the Central Maryland Red Cross has agreed to transport with its Afghanistan school supplies, will be delivered in the next few weeks. There are five more boxes of pencils, crayons, paper and the like. Other Baltimoreans can help, organizers say, by dropping notebooks, pencils, rulers and other school supplies into collection boxes at Karzai's two city restaurants - the Helmand in the 800 block of North Charles St. and Tapas Teatro at the Charles Theater in the 1700 block of North Charles. They're also asking for crayons, drawing paper, new soccer balls and other items.

More information on the drive is available through Afghans for Civil Society, which can be reached through a Web site: www.afghansforcivilsociety.org.

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