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Queens Chronicle

A Queens man’s view of living in wartorn country

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Posted: Thursday, October 29, 2009 12:00 am

USAID is giving millions of dollars of grants to organizations that are active in southern Afghanistan. No one from USAID dares to visit those places to see if any progress has been made.

Grantees come back with some stories and pictures and after a year they get another grant for more money to do the same thing.

Mostly the grantee does nothing and takes pictures of other buildings or seminars and submits them as his own work. Or the grant is divided between the grant manager and the head of the group getting it. They come up with a way to write a good report and the few connected people get rich while the poor remain unaffected.

Last year I interviewed for a position with USAID, whose chief bluntly said the group was looking for someone to write favorable reports of the work USAID was supposed to do but never did. He was not impressed by my 20 years of public service and the fact that I have relocated to Kabul so that I can help people.

“I can think of many positions which I can use you for,” he said, “but this is a position with an acquired set of skills.” A couple of months after that interview, reports of USAID mishaps surfaced in the media.

Growing up in Afghanistan as a child and then in the United States as an adult, we were always thought to hate the Communists — a feeling that came naturally. Much to my shock and horror, when I returned to Kabul after 18 years abroad in 2002, I saw many pictures of Dr. Mohammed Najibullah, the former Afghan Communist president who was hanged from a traffic pole in Kabul by the Taliban in September 1996 when they took over the city.

While Afghanistan never had much wealth in its entire history, Afghans still pine for the Communist era. When in disbelief I ask why, they all agree there was a discipline back then; there was national identity and nationalism; there was a respect for the individual and for the law; and no one was above the law, not even the president, who only owned a five- room apartment in the Soviet-built district.

People admired Najibullah’s leadership, his government, the qualified and civilized public servants, the social justice and equality and the civic culture that everyone enjoyed almost equally.

Witnessing so much injustice from 2002 onward, I left behind my aspirations to become a diplomat and started to work for the fast-disappearing Afghan culture. Establishing the Afghan Communicator, as an arts and cultural organization, my colleagues and I focused on helping artists of Afghanistan.

After a three-decade war, art was not in the vocabulary of most people. Ancient artifacts were disappearing or being destroyed, the artisan class was extremely thin and respect for the arts and culture completely gone. Hoping to not only restore the lost prestige of artists and the arts, but also to make art part of the reconstruction and everyday life of the people, I started to work with the artists.

However, I first had to learn about the arts, as it was a new field to me. Through my research, I found that to make art matter, it must feed people. Thus I began with a seven-city North American tour of Afghan art and films in 2005, selling 80 percent of the items for exhibition and reviving an interest in the arts.

Then I had an opportunity through the Christiansen Fund to take four Afghan artists to the Istanbul Bi-Annual Art Festival later that year. In 2007, I sponsored two Afghan master artists from the United States and Canada to come to Afghanistan and share their experiences as successful artists. I also brought basic art supplies such as digital cameras, paint, canvas and mat boards, based on the artists’ requests.

I have been working with the artists directly for four years and trying to support their initiatives instead of enforcing my vision. I mainly, but not solely, work with large artist centers such as fine arts universities, collectives or master artists’ studios with many students. I empower the top leadership and encourage them to share their knowledge and resources with others.

Aside from supporting the efforts of the artists through in-kind donations, I inform them about marketing and provide venues where they can sell their work.

To date, I have sold more than $200,000 worth of art, which is a considerable amount considering the average daily wage is less then $1 in Afghanistan. The business I bring to these artist centers has attracted a lot more students, encouraged students and master artists alike to produce more art, to be exposed to new ideas and trends and to find sustenance and dignity in their profession.

It is both sad and pleasing that I am the only lifeline for many artists. Whenever I remember a certain master artist who lost his young wife to a road accident, but was able to save himself and one of his children from death, it brings me satisfaction to know he now lives through the sale of his works.

Still recovering, the artist moved me when he said that my assistance has made him believe in his craft and became eager to get back to work. After months of physical therapy, losing his home and counting on family to take care of him and his two children, he finally was able to buy a house, remarry and produce even better work that is still unrivaled in Afghanistan.

With love for Afghanistan, understanding and respect for people’s needs and very limited resources, I have managed to revive an industry to a certain extent. I am not alone in this, but my work more than feeds people, it revives a lost prestige and profession, it revives the culture of Afghanistan and it brings independence and dignity to people.

To those who believe in more troops, more money and more experts, I say to come and see my example and how easy it is to save Afghanistan. If you empower people who have done something in the past for Afghanistan and who care about the nation and its future, then with limited resources they will change this country.

Afghanistan was run by Afghans for 5,000 years, and the only people who can save the nation now are those who care for it and have contributed positively to Afghans and Afghanistan in the past.

Rameen Moshref Javid is a former Jackson Heights resident who returned to his native land in 2002.

If you missed Part I find it anytime in our archives at queenschronicle.com.

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