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A Friend In Memphis

The Memphis-Afghan Friendship Summit is making a difference on the other side of the world.



Cindy Taylor, a nurse at St. Francis Hospital, visits with Dr. Fahima Khalil at the Malabi Maternity Hospital in Afghanistan.
If the world were a high school, Afghanistan would be the poor kid who's bullied because his hand-me-downs aren't quite cool enough; the kid who appears shy and quiet, but who is filled with deep and churning emotions due to years of battling the inner demons that develop from being picked on. It'd be the kid who looks like he could really use a good friend but whom everyone's scared to get too close to for fear of what the other kids might think.

The members of the Memphis-Afghan Friendship Summit (MAFS) are taking a stand and reaching out to that troubled kid. A grassroots organization of local health-care providers, educators, business leaders, and concerned individuals, MAFS is working to provide Afghanistan with much-needed assistance and, perhaps more importantly, to provide friendship. Members of the group have collected money and medical and school supplies and have put their lives at risk to see that they're delivered directly into the hands of the Afghan people.

According to the organization's chairman, Mark Morris, the Afghan people have been given so many empty promises from other countries and nongovernment organizations, they don't put too much faith in assurances of foreign aid. They practice the I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it mentality to avoid getting let down, as they have time and time again. Memphis has been one of the few U.S. cities to reach out to help the ravaged country rebuild. As a result, a friendship between the Afghan people and the members of the Friendship Summit has blossomed. Morris says Afghan people are beginning to really put some faith in Memphis.

War and Oppression

Afghanistan hasn't seen a good year in decades. After the collapse of Russia's imposed Marxist regime in 1991, the various Islamic factions collectively known as the mujaheddin, which had united to overthrow the Soviet occupation, began to quarrel as their deeply rooted religious differences began to resurface. Out of the fighting, a group of religious students known as the Taliban emerged victorious and eventually took over 90 percent of the country.

The Taliban ruled with an iron hand and used religion as a means for furthering its ideological and political goals. Military matters were given primacy over humanitarian ones, and strict rules that resulted in the oppression of women were enforced. Girls' schools, such as the Mariam School for Girls in the capital city of Kabul, were boarded up and women were forced to wear long, cloth coverings called burqas when they appeared in public. Failure to wear a burqa could result in a brutal beating. Women were also denied medical care since men were prohibited from viewing nude females other than their wives. And women were prohibited from practicing medicine or holding any type of job.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks on America by the Taliban-supported al Qaeda, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power. Now, after two decades of war and oppression, the country is starting over, attempting to rebuild its government and its education and health-care systems. Under the leadership of President Hamid Karzai, a timeline of reconstruction has been outlined that includes drafting a new constitution and holding elections in June 2004.

"As Americans, we have difficulty understanding and sympathizing with other countries in their struggles," says Rusty Griffin, MAFS' event coordinator. "For two years, we argue about political candidates, when either one of them is probably going to be doing about the same job. The day after the election, we say, let's quit arguing and we'll talk about this in another two years."

Griffin, who's made several trips to Afghanistan to assist in health-care-related missions, adds, "That's not the way they've lived over there, so we can't impose that kind of mentality. People here think they should be happy now because they've got an elected leader, but why should they be happy? They've never been happy before. Stability is a new experience for them,"

Help Is on the Way

On a chilly March day in Herat, Afghanistan, Dr. Zack Taylor of St. Francis Hospital lectured to 35 men on the medical team of a local hospital about his specialty -- gastroneurology. According to Griffin, basic medical education is greatly needed, since over 80 percent of the country's health-care facilities were destroyed during the decades of war.

MAFS members had collected more than 1,000 stethoscopes from Memphis hospitals and doctors to hand out on this trip. Afghan doctors had been sharing stethoscopes with three or four other doctors. After his talk, Griffin and Taylor handed out a stethoscope and pinlight to each doctor.

"It was like little children at Christmas. They were getting something they've had to totally do without," says Griffin. "These doctors have stuck around through 23 years of war with no training, no updating, no new equipment, no medicine. They've fallen that far behind, and now all of a sudden this great box has been opened to them, this world. Stick your hand in and take whatever you like. They don't know what to grab for."

Members of MAFS' medical sector come from all over the city -- Christ Community Medical Clinic, Methodist Health Systems, Baptist Health Systems, to name a few. Each group is doing something different, but all are working to ensure that Afghan medical workers are receiving updated equipment and medical education.

Afghanistan has the highest infant mortality rate in the world, and St. Francis representatives are collecting materials for training in midwifery in hopes of curbing that statistic. A group from Baptist Health Systems is trying to convert some very complicated material on traditional birthing assistance into an easy-to-understand illustrated format, since many Afghan midwives are uneducated. And Methodist Health Systems recently put together a number of birthing kits to be sent over in the next few months.

"Their health-care system is archaic. The labs at their hospitals are fairly nonexistent, and there's not a respirator in the entire country," says Cindy Taylor, a nurse from St. Francis who's been on two health-related missions to Kabul. "They don't really need high technology right now. They just need the basics. China sent them a CT scanner, and they don't even have the electricity to use it. It's still sitting out in their parking lot in a big box."

In education, the University of Memphis and Craigmont High School, the only optional public school for international studies) are playing a big role.

Students at Craigmont, which hosted representatives from the Afghan government last fall, have formed a partnership school with the newly re-opened Mariam School for Girls. Craigmont has been raising money and collecting school supplies to be shipped via FedEx, and according to Casey Williams, the school's ambassador core sponsor, students are planning to travel to Afghanistan once the war in Iraq is over.

"The students had a day where they could pay a dollar and not wear their uniform, and over $500 was raised," says Williams, who teaches Japanese and history. "That money is going into a fund for the purchase of school supplies. Also, each seventh-period class had a contest to see which could bring in the most school supplies to donate. The class with the most got a pizza party. They get so excited about getting to help in a situation they hear so much about."

The Mariam School for Girls has more than 9,000 students, so classes are split into three shifts. According to Morris, who's been involved in numerous overseas missions, there's a lack of desks and chairs, so students often sit in tents or outside under trees for their lessons. Their physics lab has no equipment. They have one computer, and their library only has about 500 books.

"Most of the textbooks they have are dated from 1979 to the early 1980s. They were developed during the days of the mujaheddin when they were trying to overthrow the Russians, so a lot of the illustrations are very anti-Russian. They have a very outdated curriculum," says Morris.

The University of Memphis is working to get federal grant money to help fund technology and distance learning, as well as the development of a new curriculum for students at Mariam and other schools in Kabul. Dr. Wali Abdi, an associate professor of science education and a native of Afghanistan, is leading the effort, along with faculty from the university's provost office. The next education-related trip is planned for May.

From Memphis with Love

Morris, the pastor for missions and ministries at Germantown Baptist Church, spent a little time in the Arab world prior to 9/11. He first visited Afghanistan in 1989 as a director for a nongovernment organization called Global Partners. At that time, the Russians still ruled the cities but the mujaheddin controlled the rural areas. He bonded with the country and its people. After the 9/11 attacks, he was naturally concerned about Afghanistan's future.

"My mind was just clicking all the time, trying to think of ways we could do something tangible, because I've seen so many efforts in that part of the world turn into [ways] for nongovernment organizations to make money," says Morris. "You'll see these Toyota Hiluxes and these huge salaries being spent on Westerners going there and living off the development funds. I really wanted to be able to do something tangible to make a difference rather than sending money off somewhere not really knowing where it was going."

Morris talked with several Memphians -- county sheriff Mark Luttrell, his pastor at Germantown Baptist, and some friends at FedEx -- and they developed the idea of forming a friendship with Afghanistan. The group created an organization called International Friendship Summits which would enable them to invite Afghan leaders to Memphis. Morris, Griffin, and a few others then made a trip to Afghanistan in August 2002 to discuss the concept with some Afghan friends in Kabul.

The group originally planned on inviting 20 to 30 Afghan leaders, but the newly formed organization lacked the funds. They ended up inviting nine -- three from the ministry of health, three from the ministry of education, one from the ministry of water and natural resources, and two members of the Afghan embassy in Washington, D.C. -- for a summit in Memphis in October 2002.

An Afghan delegation tours the Med in Memphis.
A Friendship Is Born

On October 9th, the various Afghan leaders flew into Memphis International Airport. Despite the fact that they all worked for the same government, the men had not met until they boarded the flight. As they stepped off the plane, they were greeted by a group from the Friendship Summit.

They spent the night at the homes of various summit members. At Zack and Cindy Taylor's house, the deputy minister of public health and his adviser learned to putt golf balls.

"They had a little competition going on between them," says Cindy, laughing as she thinks back to her hosting experiences. "We even taught them how to say y'all. Now in all their e-mails, they start with 'Hey, y'all.' We really formed a neat relationship with them."

The next few days were spent touring local facilities that pertained to their fields of interest. Ministry of public health officials toured Memphis hospitals and talked about health-care issues in America versus those in Afghanistan. Others visited the FedEx Leadership Institute, where they attended a seminar in business leadership. Education officials visited Craigmont High School for an interactive schoolwide assembly.

Several students, faculty members, and school board members joined the men for shish kebabs in the school's tea room and then went to the gym, where students, who had previously submitted questions regarding education conditions in Kabul, heard them answered by Zabuillah Asmatey, Afghanistan's deputy minister of education.

"The students wanted to know how many days Afghan students went to school, how many years, how many hours a day. They wanted to know what people do for fun, and how things have changed since the Taliban is gone. They were curious about cultural things and women's status," says Casey Williams.

One student wanted to know about technology in Afghanistan. Do the students there use computers in the classroom like they do here?

"First, we need to put a roof over a computer. Many of our students are learning while sitting on the ground, so the question of educational technology is a bit far away," Asmatey replied.

Afterward, Griffin, seven Afghan diplomats, and 23 members of the police department's SWAT team went to Graceland. One Sunday, the Afghan delegates went to Christian churches with their host families, then that night, the host families took the men to a local mosque.

"It's been really neat to break down the stereotypes and see that they're real people," says Griffin. "One night when they were here, one of the guys and I were talking after dinner and he said, 'All Americans are rich. All Americans are Christians. All Americans are arrogant.' "I looked at him and said, 'All Afghans carry machine guns. All Afghans ride in the back of trucks. All Afghans have 10 wives.' He just looked at me and laughed. He knew I was as off-base as he was. It's amazing when you cut through all that stuff and really get down to two people talking."

No End in Sight

The people of Kabul have gotten used to seeing visitors from Memphis, and Morris says they're always shown the utmost respect from members of the Afghan government. In a follow-up trip to the October summit, students lined the sidewalk outside the Mariam School for Girls and threw rose petals at the American delegation. Last month, when the medical team arrived, they were taken out to dinner by the cabinet minister of health. Memphians are being treated like royalty by the leaders of Afghanistan because of the friendship and respect MAFS representatives have shown to them.

It's a friendship so deep that the nearby war in Iraq can't faze it. "People seem to want to continue being involved. We're definitely not stopping or slowing down," says Morris. "Certainly, if there's a dangerous situation, we're going to encourage people to be wise. If people decide to travel, we're going to make them aware of the travel advisories and government warnings. We want them to know this is not like traveling to Chattanooga."

But it appears war is not going to stop the MAFS efforts: "As long as they'll fly us in and fly us home," Cindy Taylor says. As part of the medical team that traveled over in March, both Griffin and Taylor were in Afghanistan the day the U.N.'s Hans Blix announced Saddam's deadline to destroy his alleged weapons of mass destruction.

There is no end in sight for the MAFS. They're hoping to expand their efforts to other areas of assistance. Afghanistan is in great need of reforestation, since wood is used for cooking, heat, and building. MAFS has had talks with International Paper about ways to help the situation.

How to deal with the country's huge opium cash crop is another MAFS concern. During the Taliban rule, 64,500 hectares of prime agricultural land were used to cultivate opium poppies, which serve as the country's biggest cash crop. MAFS plans to attempt to help the country develop a cotton industry. Since Memphis is a center for the U.S. cotton industry and cotton is needed in the neighboring countries of Pakistan and India, MAFS leaders think the idea is feasible.

But for MAFS to expand its mission, it must recruit more help. Morris says he would love to see the Memphis and Shelby County governments get more involved, as well as local businesses.

"If we would all quit griping about the way the world is and start doing something to make it better, we could," says Griffin. "I'm convinced that every organization in Memphis -- every church and every civic group -- could really make the difference if they got serious and got involved. Americans are too comfortable blaming the world's problems on somebody else. I'm so thrilled that there are people in this city who actually believe they can do something."

Afghanistan, you've got a friend in Memphis.

Afghanistan Aid Controversy

It's been over a year since the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan resulted in the overthrow of the oppressive Taliban government. The U.S. and the world community pledged billions in assistance to help the war-torn country rebuild. The U.S. has been accused of dragging its feet in its reconstruction efforts by some aid organizations and development experts, but the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) reports that the U.S. has actually exceeded its monetary pledge.

At the Afghan Reconstruction Conference in Tokyo, held in January 2002, $5.25 billion was pledged by international donors to be distributed to Afghanistan over the next five years. At that conference, the U.S. pledged $297 million for the first year. According to a March 13, 2003, report released by USAID, the U.S. spent more than $531 million in 2002, almost doubling the proposed pledge.

One of the reasons the U.S. has been criticized by the world community is that the administration was late in outlining an Afghanistan aid budget for 2003. In fact, in its 2003 budget proposals, the White House did not ask for specific money to go toward rebuilding Afghanistan. A spokesperson for the USAID later said the request was not made because it was too early to say how much money was needed. So far this year, however, more than $65 million has been spent in U.S. humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. Media reports about the administration's "oversight" may have led some to believe the U.S. was not fulfilling its pledge.

President Bush has also received criticism over his August veto of a bill calling for $5.1 billion to go toward supplemental international aid. Of that money, $174 million was slated for Afghanistan. Instead, Bush is proposing a "Marshall Plan" in which funds would be aimed at strengthening the country's economic superstructure rather than going toward more humanitarian efforts.

Although the U.S. exceeded its 2002 pledge and appears to have a plan for future aid, there is some concern from the world community as to whether or not the war in Iraq will have an effect on how much is given to Afghanistan this year. Assuming the U.S. wins the war, Iraq will be in great need of foreign assistance.

Since the war effort was led by the U.S., this country will be expected to lead rebuilding efforts. Afghan president Hamed Karzai spent the first week in March lobbying in Washington for increased U.S. support in the wake of the Iraq war.

"A war in Iraq now would just take more attention away from Afghanistan, when the job is very far from completed," Paul Barker, a director for CARE, recently told MSNBC. "The implications are a return to the pre-Taliban scenario of the early 1990s. If the world community doesn't make some tangible investments in Afghanistan's future now, Afghanistan -- and much of the region -- could descend back into chaos." -- BP

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