Afghan friends fight for freedom
Reno restaurant owners kick off the Friends for Afghanistan Redevelopment
Like so many others, the Afghan girl has never been to school.
This month, 12-year-old Nadia will start first grade along with as many as 900 other girls at the Lycée Faye Maskan in Kabul. In part, Nadia has her aunt and uncle, who run a burger shop in Reno, to thank for their work in hiring a teacher and sending loads of school supplies donated by Northern Nevadans.
“Schools that have been closed for the past six years have nothing,” says Gay-LeClerc Qaderi, a longtime international activist who came to Reno with her Afghan husband, Sherdil, about two years ago. “No windows—the glass is broken out—no desks, no chairs. No books—the Taliban burned the textbooks—and certainly no school supplies.”
In February, the Qaderis and a few other concerned Renoites, including Reno City Attorney Patricia Lynch, formed a new organization to help out in a two key areas of Afghanistan’s redevelopment: education and medical care.
“This drive to hit the basics could go a long way toward letting the people in Afghanistan know that other people in the world care about their plight. … We can develop a mutual understanding, and that’s the basis of peace.”
If you head down South Virginia Street to the strip mall that’s home to Comp USA and follow your nose into the One Stop Burger Shop, you may meet Sherdil Qaderi, 35. He’s the smiling guy behind the counter, taking your order and cooking up Buffalo Burgers or any of several newer items on the menu: kabob sandwiches, falafels and gyros.
Afghan landscapes adorn the walls of the burger joint—and one wall features the portrait of Afghan freedom fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of the Panjsher Valley.” An ornate, fringed weaving, a pardah, hangs over the portrait.
Qaderi fought for Massoud, who effectively held off the Soviets during the 1980s, then continued campaigns later against the Taliban. Massoud was seriously injured in a suicide bombing on Sept. 9 last year and died just days later. The assassination seemed ominous to the Qaderis—and it should have alerted others in government, they say.
“We knew the shit was going to hit the fan,” Gay-LeClerc says. “[Massoud] held on to the dream of Afghanistan for the Afghans. He believed in democracy. … He got killed.”
Sherdil began training as a freedom fighter when he was 13. Between tours of fighting, he and others in his commando group went to surrounding towns to train villagers in guerrilla warfare so that they could defend themselves against the Soviet Union—and survive in the attempt.
The teen spent the next six years caught in that cycle.
“Fight, train, fight, train,” Sherdil says reflectively, sitting at a booth with a red-checkered tablecloth. “And I survived. Only two of us in my original group of friends survived.”
War had taken its toll on Sherdil’s family, who lived in the Panjsher Valley as well.
“There wasn’t any place for my family to stay,” he says. “Russians had destroyed my family’s home nine times. We’d fix it each time. But my father was getting older. And my mother said there wasn’t any place in Afghanistan to live.”
So the family moved to Pakistan, where Sherdil got a job doing the only thing that he knew other than guerrilla fighting. He became a driver. In a short time, he was driving an ambulance for a nonprofit group called Freedom Medicine. That’s where he met Gay-LeClerc, co-founder, president and CEO of the organization.
In the mid-1980s, Gay-LeClerc’s group trained Afghan freedom fighters to become medics, and then sent them into the Afghan interior with the supplies to start clinics. She remembers loading up horses with carefully wrapped boxes containing medical supplies. The trip took 15 days over 12,000-foot high mountain passes. But the clinics were desperately needed.
“The Soviets had destroyed what rudimentary health care system there was,” she says. When the Soviet Union’s forces left the country in 1989, it seemed that Freedom Medicine’s job was done. Now married, the Qaderis came to the United States, where Sherdil received training in the culinary arts and Gay-LeClerc became the executive director of an AIDS agency, and then moved on to serve as the executive director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s New York branch. The couple has lived in Washington, D.C., and New York. But Gay-LeClerc dreamed of moving to the Western United States. And when Sherdil saw Reno, it felt like home.
“Reno is so similar geographically to Kabul,” Gay-LeClerc says. The couple lives in the north valleys and commutes to south Reno daily. During the drive, Sherdil nearly always comments, “God, this looks like Kabul.”
“Without the tall buildings,” Sherdil tells me.
When Gay-LeClerc visited Afghanistan in November, she was driving from the north into Kabul and saw the city through her husband’s eyes and agreed that, yes, Reno could be Kabul.
“Minus the glitter of casinos,” she says.
Both mountainous desert regions face some similar kinds of problems as well, she says, such as scarcity of water and disputes over land management. Currently, mining techniques in Afghanistan can be rudimentary, Gay-LeClerc says. “Take dynamite, shove it into the side of the hill and blow the hell out of it.”
She’d like to see some attention paid to crafting solutions that fit the technological and cultural milieu of the struggling nation. For example, how do you create sustainable, environmentally sensitive mining? She trusts that Afghans, with a few suggestions, can find solutions for any problems.
“Afghans are ingenious,” she says. “They can fix anything out of nothing and make it work.”
At the front of the Qaderis’ restaurant is one of several barrels around town used for collecting school supplies for the students of the all-girl school in Kabul. The barrel, as of Sunday, was packed with markers, notebooks and hair clips. The Qaderis want to get things packed up and sent in time for the opening of the school.
Future plans for the Friends for Afghanistan Redevelop-ment include opening another girls’ school in the Panjsher Valley on land owned by Sherdil’s mother. The couple has already found a building—or actually a shell of a structure, stone walls topped with canvas. And they also hope to open a medical center in the valley as well. Gay-LeClerc is putting her nonprofit agency experience to use writing grants to get funding for these projects.
Sometimes people ask the Qaderis why Americans would want to help Afghanistan.
For this couple, the answer’s simple. Education and medical aid are tools to help the self-sufficiency of people living in an impoverished, war-torn nation. Building secure, peaceful, prosperous nations is a first line of defense against terrorism.
“If people have food in their bellies and farm lands to work so they can feed their children, they won’t fight," Gay-LeClerc says. "They won’t need a gun."