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Thursday February 22, 2024

Peacebuilding with Persistence

Friends of Afghanistan continues to help youth, especially girls, thrive—even under Taliban rule

Tony Agnello (Afghanistan, 1972–75) moderates a panel at the Friends of Afghanistan General
Membership Meeting in 2023

As the world has shifted its collective attention to conflicts in Ukraine, the Middle East, and elsewhere, it might be hard to remember that it was only two years ago that American forces withdrew from Afghanistan after more than 20 years of waging war there. For the NPCA group Friends of Afghanistan, however, the fight for women’s rights, children’s education, health equity, and fair refugee policies hasn’t stopped.

In November 2023, Friends of Afghanistan proudly celebrated 61 years since the establishment of Peace Corps in Afghanistan in 1962. The program thrived for 17 years before closing its doors in 1979 following the assassination of U.S. Ambassador Adolph “Spike” Dubs. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan took place just eight months later, resulting in a war that would last a decade.

The origin of Peace Corps in Afghanistan is a storied one. When Sargent Shriver learned of a Vermont chicken farmer who happened to be fluent in Persian, he “ordered” the man, Bob Steiner, to Washington to help develop a plan for a program in Afghanistan. Beginning with just nine Volunteers assigned to work in Kabul, Steiner completed his tenure four years later with a corps of 250 PCVs spanning every Afghan province.

“Afghanistan’s history of occupation by foreign powers, even before the Soviet invasion and American intervention in 2001, led many Afghans to be suspicious of any foreign organizations, and that included Peace Corps,” says Tony Agnello, a Volunteer (Afghanistan, 1972–75) who serves as president of Friends of Afghanistan. “Our mission as an affiliate group has always been to counter that belief in Afghanistan and elevate intercultural understanding in America.”

“Afghanistan’s history of occupation by foreign powers, even before the Soviet invasion and American intervention in 2001, led many Afghans to be suspicious of any foreign organizations, and that included Peace Corps.” — Tony Agnello, president, Friends of Afghanistan

From its beginning as an unincorporated association, Friends of Afghanistan has remained focused on making a positive, impactful, and lasting difference in the lives of individual Afghan citizens and in small communities. One of the group’s most important goals is to give fair and equal attention to the humanitarian needs of Afghan women and girls.

Friends of Afghanistan created the Doc Rollins Scholarship Fund in honor of the Peace Corps doctor who served in Kabul from the late 1960s to the early ’70s. The scholarship supports equal science education opportunities for boys and girls living in Shin Kalay, a village in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, where a Green Village School has been established. The success of the endeavor was most evident in the recent ceremony for the first female graduates of the Green Village School, who completed the midwifery training pro- gram in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, through a scholarship funded by Friends of Afghanistan. These educated and skilled young women can now provide life-saving care to expectant mothers throughout the region. Friends of Afghanistan’s vice president, Nancy Cunningham, says, “Our commitment to equal opportunities for women in Afghanistan is a constant driving force.” She continues, “Regarding our midwifery pro- gram assistance in the Green Village Schools, we calculated that even the extremists in the Taliban government don’t want their wives to die in childbirth and would permit this advanced training. We were right.” Over the past few years, Friends of Afghanistan has supported medical, educational, and nutritional programs like awaken in Jalalabad, whose founder, Bibi Bahrami, was featured in the Academy Award-winning documentary film Stranger at the Gate; Code to Inspire, which provides coding and internet technology training for young women in Herat; and the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA), an English-language boarding school for girls in the global Afghan diaspora that represents Friends of Afghanistan’s longest and most durable relationship. (Following the Taliban’s takeover of the Afghan government in 2021, SOLA relocated to Rwanda, where it is now based. Friends of Afghanistan partners with these groups to fulfill its mission of continuing to assist the citizens of Afghanistan and to honor the Peace Corps’ Third Goal: to increase Americans’ understanding of other peoples and cultures.

Friends of Afghanistan also supports and partners with the following programs:

PARSA (Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Services for Afghanistan), which has evolved from its original role as a provider of medical services in the wake of the Soviet invasion to operate as a comprehensive community outreach organization.

The Bamiyan Weavers Project in the Central Afghan highlands, which employs women in the preservation of a prehistoric Mongolian weaving process.

The Afghan Children’s Songbook Project, developed by RPCV Louise Pascale, a collection of books and recordings of Afghan nursery rhymes and children’s songs that were nearly forgotten during two generations of warfare. Pascale has widely distributed her works throughout Afghanistan and among the children of recent Afghan immigrants to America. Author Khaled Hosseini calls the Songbook Project a cultural “treasure.”

The Taleem Project, led by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and RPCV Baktash Ahadi, which raises awareness about the plight of Afghan citizens worldwide and is Friends of Afghani- stan’s most potent ally in its support of the Third Goal.

Zarif Design, an employment center for women in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul, which represents the cultural, nutritional, educational, and employment outreach programs.

No One Left Behind and Operation Snow Leopard. These groups are made up of military veterans and concerned citizens dedicated to helping their at-risk Afghan counterparts and interpreters, with whom they worked side by side over two decades in Afghanistan, emigrate to America. Friends of Afghanistan supports these groups through an alliance with the Peace Corps Community for Refugees, another NPCA affiliate group.

Since incorporating as a 501(c)(3) organization, Friends of Afghanistan has sent nearly a quarter of a million dollars to Afghan-related initiatives in fulfillment of their pledge to make a lasting difference in the lives of individual Afghans and small Afghan communities, a commendable effort in building peace in a country where war has been the norm.

In addition to Agnello, the current team consists of Nancy Cunningham (Afghanistan, 1965–67), vice president and historian; Terry Dougherty (Afghanistan, 1972–74), chief of operations and membership officer; Jan West (Afghanistan, 1970–72), secretary and co-editor; Elana Hohl (Afghanistan, 1971–73), co-editor and author; Phil Smith (Afghanistan, 1970–72), provincial project coordinator and former treasurer; and Baktash Ahadi (Mozambique, 2005–07), cultural adviser and filmmaker.

When asked what has helped Friends of Afghanistan thrive, Agnello says that “successful RPCV groups collaborate with organizations that have common interests.” He suggests, “If you are a member of your RPCV country of service group or an issue- or cause-related group, consider joining your local or regional RPCV affiliate.”

Agnello continues, “Friends of Afghanistan invites you and your RPCV group to share your experiences and best practices with other NPCA affiliates. If the struggle for gender equity in Afghanistan and elsewhere is a motivation for you, please consider reaching out to the Friends of Afghanistan.”

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