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Guest Commentary: Remember Those Left Behind

A Philly school teacher and veteran who helped create literacy programs in Afghanistan reflects on the incredible people he encountered—and urges help for those who are arriving in our city

Guest Commentary: Remember Those Left Behind

A Philly school teacher and veteran who helped create literacy programs in Afghanistan reflects on the incredible people he encountered—and urges help for those who are arriving in our city

I was a member of the U.S. Army Reserve and served a deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2010-11. I’ve never been one to share “war stories” but with Afghanistan back in the news I want to share at least one man’s story from there and how deeply affecting the experience was.

I enlisted as a psychological operations specialist. Our focus was on “winning hearts and minds.” We wanted to make clear that we were not there to break things and occupy the country. We wanted to be seen as a partner with the population. During my deployment, my commanding officer, Captain Trent Hickman, had some interesting insights about how to connect with local populations, and he was keen on recognizing the talents of his people. He knew that I was a teacher in the civilian world.

Captain Hickman realized that so much energy and resources had been wasted building “schools” which were never put to use and served only as photo-ops for ribbon-cutting ceremonies. What those who build those schools don’t recognize is that security going to and from school is an issue; gender is an issue, educating boys and girls together can be problematic, even educating girls separately; finding qualified teachers who are willing to go to far-flung regions is hard.

My only concern is to humanize the plight facing some of the most wonderful people on the globe caught in a firestorm neither deserved nor of their own making.

But their one window into the world is radio. So Captain Hickman said, Why don’t we teach them over the radio? He tasked me to create a literacy program to utilize radio broadcasts for educational purposes. I was flattered and honored, and intimidated: How would I even begin to do that? 

I had to find people proficient in the language; develop lesson plans; find resources; develop relationships with bureaucracies of the Afghan government; bridge cultural divides to get permission. We wanted to make it out like a project of the Afghan government, to try to create trust in hearts and minds. The population had never learned to trust their national government, never earned any affection for government. It’s a society based on family and tribe. I think that’s partly why it fell so quickly. 

Our target audience was rural women. Overall, the national literacy rate was around 31 percent. It was many times lower for women, because of the gender divide, which prevented girls from being educated. So we were doing something a little sly and clandestine: Given gender roles, women were going to be home listening to the radio and hearing our distance learning lessons. Then it trickled out to other audiences, as well. 

We piloted the program in Kandahar, then had requests from units embedded in small provinces outside. We created some simple benchmarks: We tagged some people, and found out if they could read and write their own name. I came to realize in a really humbling sort of way that that is an accomplishment. We had done something of value for the people. 

Afghan girls near Kabul, 2012.

By the time I left that deployment 10 months later, there was another civilian teacher who came in after me, and I felt confident leaving it with him. But I was so enamored by the Afghan people with whom I worked that I returned a year later as a civilian on a UNESCO project and worked with a team to develop teacher training programs.

While living in Kabul, an amazing, delightfully chaotic city of five million and not a single working traffic light, a colleague and I wrote a training manual for best practices in teaching. Then, with several Afghan master teachers, we led a conference that brought around 20 teachers from across the country to Kabul to learn about better, more engaging ways to deliver literacy lessons. 

They would go on to return to their home provinces and teach more teachers, and ultimately bring literacy programs to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), whose literacy rate was around 20 percent. (Just imagine if your law enforcement officials were unable to read and write.)

This is my heartfelt plea: If your communities receive new Afghan refugees, welcome them wholeheartedly, talk to them, make them feel at home.

I’m, of course, just scratching the surface of the experience I had, but I hope I can convey what an indelible mark it has left on my heart and mind and how the connection to the country and its people is life-changing and life-lasting. Right now there is an awful lot of finger-pointing, blame game-playing, second-guessing, and political-posturing. I have no desire for any of that. My only concern is to humanize the plight facing some of the most wonderful people on the globe caught in a firestorm neither deserved nor of their own making. 

During my time in Kabul I met so many ambitious, intelligent, and generous Afghans and their families: 

  • The members of the Afghan rock band, Kabul Dreams, who are all safely in the Bay Area. (Please support these guys. Listen to their music and buy their merch!) 
  • The carpet salesman who I tutored for his TOEFL and went on to study at Lehigh University as a Fulbright Scholar, and last I heard is still in the U.S.
  • The aspiring young entrepreneur who went on to study at University of Rochester and is now a logistics specialist in Canada.
  • The Kabul University students I hung out with behind iron gates with armed guards for fear the wrong people might find out that men and women were socializing together.
  • The kid who ran the little store across from my guest house (No, James, please only speak English to me!), whose brother was in the Afghan special forces.
  • The UNESCO coworkers who would drive us around the city and even take us on weekend journeys into the Panjshir Valley to see where the national hero Ahmed Shah Massoud held off the Soviet military, as well as his home and tomb.
  • All of the random people on the street, the cab drivers, the vendors, the shopkeepers, all of whom at the time were actually enjoying a semblance of peace and hope for prosperity.
  • All of the teachers who took their profession seriously and returned home to pursue their passion with a little extra knowledge I can feel a bit responsible for giving them.

I have no idea what the fate of all those people, and so many others I met, is going to be. I’m in touch with some Afghans who are here and have family there who have reached out to me to ask if there was anything I could do. I feel like I owe these people so much, just because of how heartwarming and welcoming they were. I have fever dreams of going all Chuck Norris, parachuting in and rescuing as many of my Afghan friends as possible. But I know I can’t do that. I have little power, or influence; it just makes me sad on a human level.

Here in Philadelphia, we are resettling a good number of Afghan families. And I think a significant number of them may be settling in the Northeast, near where I grew up, in Oxford Circle and Mayfair. We’re the birthplace of this country—how could we live up to our status if we weren’t welcoming? 

RELATED: Ways you can do your part to help Afghans

I don’t want to be political. We can have reasonable intelligent policy conversations about the logistics of bringing refugees in. And I don’t think everyone who has that conversation is a racist. On both sides of this, it’s like there’s no intelligent discourse at all. As a veteran, I think a majority of the people who served in the military don’t have either of those unshakeable viewpoints, especially xenophobic ones.

This is my heartfelt plea: If your communities receive new Afghan refugees, welcome them wholeheartedly, talk to them, make them feel at home. If you’re not from a community where Afghans are being settled, give something, anything you think could make people feel at home. I really can’t emphasize enough how polite, kind and generous the Afghan people are—one kind gesture will typically result in your being invited into the home as an honored guest surrounded by an appreciative extended family. 

I myself have signed up to volunteer with the Nationalities Service Center, a main point of contact for refugees in the area. They have several ways to help. And there are other groups you can support as well.

Let’s show our new neighbors we do care about them, despite everything that’s happened.  Let’s do what we do, as Americans: Welcome people to our home.


James Daniels is a history teacher in Philadelphia and a former Army Reserve soldier in Afghanistan, where he was deployed in 2010.

The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.

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