Half a world away
This Reno couple is making a difference in Afghanistan
Gay Le-Clerc, who’d just returned from a trip to Afghanistan days earlier, still suffered from jet lag as she worked on a laptop behind the counter of the One-Stop Burger Shop on South Virginia Street last week. Nearby a customer chowed down on a juicy hamburger. Sher Dil Qaderi, a former Afghan freedom fighter and Le-Clerc’s husband, paused from his work at the grill for a minute to explain to the customer why you don’t see camels in Kabul.
“It’s too cold,” Qaderi said.
That the climate of Afghanistan is similar to that of northern Nevada was news to the customer, who chatted on about international politics as he ate.
The spicy smell of kabobs was in the air.
It was almost exactly a year since Le-Clerc, the founder of Friends for Afghan Redevelopment, last visited Afghanistan. Then, she’d been working to help find a location and recruit teachers for a girls’ school. This time, she and her husband were back to meet with government officials and representatives of other non-government aid organizations. They also selected six entrepreneurial-minded women to come to Reno in late January or early February for an Afghan Women’s Business Development Program. The women will attend workshops at the University of Nevada, Reno, tour local enterprises, talk to political leaders and take a trip to the Bay Area.
Le-Clerc said she has noticed a tremendous difference in the cultural, physical and political landscape of Afghanistan in just one year.
“You hear all the non-government organization people say, ‘Oh, redevelopment’s not going fast enough, it’s too slow,’ “ Le-Clerc said. “But this is incredible!”
Girls are now uncovering their faces in public. Le-Clerc, who wore a simple chiffon scarf over her head, said she received dirty looks from a bearded, turbaned man who looked like he might be Taliban. And when she and Qaderi were taking their six female recruits to get photographs taken, she was approached by a stern member of the Office of Vice and Virtue who wanted to know what was going on. This group would once have gone out and beaten women in the streets, a practice that’s no longer observed.
Last year, she noted, few cars were out on the street.
“Everyone was scared,” she said. “There was a feeling of repression in the air. Now, it’s just frenetic. You can’t get in a shop; it’s so busy. The traffic is appalling. Everybody driving everywhere.”
She described Afghan driving habits—like pulling out into oncoming traffic to pass a slower vehicle—with a happy grin on her face.
“Nobody follows any rules,” she said. “They haven’t had any rules for 25 years.”
But things are getting better as law enforcement officers try to establish some norms for traffic.
“You don’t get a ticket, but someone will slam on your window and yell at you.”
Change is happening so fast in Kabul that Le-Clerc noted improvements just in her three-week stay. When she arrived, the road lanes were demarcated by rocks painted white with red stripes. By the time she left, lines had been painted directly on the roads.
“In that short amount of time!” she exclaimed.
Qaderi took an order from a new customer, then stepped back to the grill, where he cooked up what looked like falafel balls.
Qaderi, who is an Afghan by birth, began training as a soldier when he was 13 years old. Under the leadership of Afghan freedom fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, aka the “Lion of the Panjsher Valley,” Qaderi helped keep the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. When his family moved to Pakistan, Qaderi got a job driving an ambulance for a humanitarian group called Freedom Medicine. That’s where he met Le-Clerc, who was then co-founder and CEO of the organization that trained medics to start clinics in the Afghan interior.
After delivering the customer’s order, Qaderi stepped back to his wife’s side.
“The city of Kabul lifted the curfew,” he added to her list of things that were changing in Afghanistan.
“Yes, they’ve had a curfew for the last 20 years,” Le-Clerc said.
“The last 30 years,” he corrected.
“It used to be 9 p.m., then it was midnight, and now it’s gone,” Le-Clerc said. “It’s a psychological thing: ‘Our country’s free; we don’t need that.’ “
The couple started FAR last year after the American military responded to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 by sending troops to Afghanistan. But the more militaristic troops are gone now, and in their place are civilian-affairs units that take on many projects to help the country get back on its feet.
These individuals aren’t part of what Le-Clerc called “the shoot-’em-up bang-bang guys.” In fact, even when these units had run out of financing for available projects, many paid expenses out of their own pockets and worked to raise funds for such endeavors as the rehabilitation of an orphanage, which needed a roof and new mattresses and blankets.
FAR pitched in with clothing—jackets and blue jeans—left over from earlier drives to outfit schoolchildren. FAR also pitched in with money for school supplies, shoes and desks—an area it could use help with.
FAR has commissioned Afghans to build desks for schoolchildren at the rate of $13 each. Now they just need a few Nevadans to come through with some cash. Le-Clerc and other FAR volunteers set up a booth at the Sparks Hometowne Christmas parade on Saturday, selling certificates for “Lucky $13 School Desks” to be given as stocking stuffers. Each desk will be numbered, and donors can track their desk online at the FAR Web site, www.friendsforafghanredevelopment.org, to see what Afghan village it ends up in.
There is still plenty of work to be done in Afghanistan, Le-Clerc says. Things aren’t perfect, but they are better—"by leaps and bounds.”
It irks her when the media fly into town looking for salacious stories about violence and corruption.
“There aren’t any blood and guts shoot-’em-up stories," she said. "There are very positive, good stories. But nobody’s interested in doing those stories. … I think we should be proud as a nation of what we’ve done to help Afghanistan."