Giving Afghan students a chance at a better future
Top: Foundation Trustee Vice Chair Stephen R. Brown. Bottom: Brown has used his ingenuity and gift for raising funds to build schools in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Rotary Images
“I gave it my best shot,” says Rotary Foundation Trustee Vice Chair Stephen R. Brown about his humanitarian work.
Succinct yes, but it doesn’t begin to hint at the scope of Steve Brown’s intensive and productive efforts in Africa and Afghanistan, or the single-minded drive that motivated him to travel 12 times over a decade to the home of the Taliban, in one of the most dangerous countries on earth.
But that self-assessment captures Brown’s unassuming approach to helping distant strangers whose lives have been ravaged by war. “This is not a path I ever saw for myself,” he says. “After 9/11, though, I saw the need, and I saw that I had something to contribute.”
He knew little about the plight of displaced Afghans in 2001, but Fary Moini, then a new member of Brown’s San Diego-area club – the Rotary Club of La Jolla Golden Triangle – brought it to his attention. Moini, a trained nurse who was born in Iran, had just returned from two months in the refugee camps of Peshawar, Pakistan, where she helped care for uprooted Afghan families.
Dari, commonly spoken in Afghanistan, is a dialect of Farsi, Moini’s native tongue. That shared language allowed her to establish a bond with many refugee families and learn that their primary concern was for the welfare of their children. “We have no school for them,” displaced parents told her. “In Jalalabad, across the border, we need to construct a new one – not here in Peshawar, because soon we’ll be returning to our home, and these buildings were destroyed.”
A man of his word
Moini brought that message back to her club, and specifically to Brown. She knew that Brown, a past governor of District 5340, had been involved in international projects through Rotary, and she’d observed that when he set out to accomplish something, he’d achieve that goal with little fanfare and considerable speed.
Even so, she says, nothing prepared her for the extraordinary skills that Brown would exhibit in the coming years, whether by raising funds or negotiating the turbulent political waters of Kabul and Jalalabad to help educate Afghanistan’s younger generations and make current technology available to them.
“One of the things I admire most is a man of his word. Steve never promises anything until he’s thought it over. But when he comes back and says, ‘Yes, I can do it,’ you can count on it,” Moini says.
The goodwill that Brown, Moini, and teams of other La Jolla Golden Triangle club members have fostered in Afghanistan is difficult to itemize, but the funding that Brown has raised through Rotary Foundation Matching Grants and other sources – over $400,000 – is simpler to calculate. That figure doesn’t include the nearly $1 million in governmental aid that he’s helped direct to education.
The project in Afghanistan began in 2002, when Brown and Moini met with the governor of Nangarhar Province in Jalalabad, just on the Afghan side of the Khyber Pass. They were looking for a site to build a new school. Based on secondhand reports, Brown expected to encounter a bulwark of bureaucratic resistance. Instead, the governor gave his full and eager cooperation.
He set aside a site where, at that moment, two tents had been erected to create a makeshift school; boys studied under one and girls under the other, all seated on the ground. Brown then approached Rotarian leaders who were involved with an Afghan refugee relief fund, and the William H. Donner Foundation, based in New York. He contributed $10,000 of his own money, obtained $30,000 from the relief fund, and received a $50,000 grant from the Donner Foundation. Returning to Afghanistan with $90,000, Brown and Moini met with the governor again. Four days later, they attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the school. Two years later, it opened. “I’ve never seen any construction go up that fast,” Brown says. “With the previous lack of reliable electricity and everything else, it was even more remarkable.”
Today, more than 6,000 students attend the school – six times as many as the buildings were designed to accommodate. It serves 1st through 12th graders, who attend in three shifts. Girls’ classes used to end in the sixth grade; after that point, according to Afghan tradition, girls must receive separate instruction. At first, the school had no female teachers for them. But Brown learned that for $600 each per year, he could fund eight female instructors, and he raised the funds to do so. The first all-female class graduates this year.
Building the school, as Brown would later explain, was less complicated than ensuring adequate staffing and equipment over the long term. An ongoing issue has been the lack of sufficient training for female teachers. In a girls’ class that Brown visited, a student could locate California on a map, but her teacher could not.
As Brown and teams of Rotarians from San Diego and elsewhere became more familiar with Afghanistan’s educational needs, they discovered that one of its leading academic institutions, Nangarhar University, did not have a single computer, and that professors were relying on 20- and 30-year-old lecture notes. But teacher training was only one of the myriad hurdles to overcome. An array of issues – potable water, functioning electricity, polio immunization, structural renovation after bombing – confronted him and his colleagues in Afghanistan, as they had elsewhere.
But Steve Brown, now 65, is not a man to become easily ruffled or dissuaded by daunting tasks. In fact, he seems to thrive on them. A successful bankruptcy lawyer and partner in a San Diego firm for close to 30 years, he began to back away from his practice to devote more time to his personal interests in the late 1980s. He took a yearlong sabbatical that, he says, “did permanent damage to my attitude.” Soon after – he retired in 1990 – Brown found himself directing his energy and talents to Rotarian projects that satisfied a deep need to be of service. After a chance meeting with an Eritrean in San Diego, he decided to help start a Rotary club in the tiny English-speaking nation, which borders Ethiopia, Sudan, and the Red Sea. When he arrived in the country, he posted a notice about Rotary at his hotel and drew more than 40 men to a sign-up meeting in the lobby. He asked one of them, “Doesn’t it seem a little strange that someone from halfway around the world is over here talking to you folks about Rotary? Don’t I seem a little suspicious?” The man replied, “Oh no, the farther you come, the more important people think you are.”
Brown’s mantra for a project: show up, work with the local people, and leave the place in better condition than you found it. An abbreviated list of his accomplishments outside Afghanistan includes a water system for 10,000 people in Kenya (a country he’s visited 10 times), 10,000 dictionaries for Eritrean students, and a hippo fence on an island in Lake Victoria. “When you show up in these destitute places, you can’t help but think, ‘That malnourished baby I’m looking at could have been me,’” Brown says. “Once, long ago, I attended a lawyers’ luncheon in San Diego and a guy named Red Scott asked the group, ‘How many of you feel lucky today?’ Just a few hands went up. Then he said, ‘You guys don’t realize that it’s not because you’re smart that you’re sitting in this room. It’s because you happened to be born in this country. Do you have any idea how lucky you are?’ I got that. I carry it with me wherever I go.”
Few people appreciate Brown’s empathy, generosity, and industriousness more than Mohammad Ishaq, who first met him through the governor of Nangarhar. With Brown’s encouragement, Ishaq organized the Rotary club in Jalalabad, his native city. It was chartered in 2004, and he became its first president. Having worked with UNESCO and numerous foundations, Ishaq knows how many nongovernmental organizations operate in Afghanistan: “They walk around with armed bodyguards and make promises about ideas that don’t go anywhere. Steve gets up at 6 a.m. and runs, runs, runs until 6 at night, no bodyguards, driving his own car, and he never makes a promise he doesn’t accomplish. It’s really something. He’s more than a brother to me.”
Among the many efforts Brown and Moini have undertaken, one of the most impressive to Ishaq is their work on behalf of Nangarhar University. With help from Matching Grant projects and the non-Rotarian contributions that Brown has steered there, in addition to his own donations, the university in seven years has advanced from a deteriorating institution to a well-funded and well-staffed contemporary educational hub of activity. Because of the support Brown has enlisted, a two-story dormitory for women has been constructed, as well as a new international learning center named in his honor. In essence, what Brown has managed to do with significant help from Moini, Ishaq, the La Jolla Golden Triangle club, and the University of California, San Diego, has been to bring Nangarhar University into the 21st century. It now has a thriving computer lab, offers training for computer and civil engineers, and provides housing for women whose families would not let them attend if they had to live in an off-campus apartment.
“There is also now a global connection and exchange program,” Ishaq explains. “You see so many misconceptions and misunderstandings fall away daily, just by Facebook interaction. At UC San Diego, our American partner, a student asks about Ramadan – a naive question, maybe, but understandable. The student at NU explains its place in Muslim religious practice, and the American says, ‘I didn’t know any of that.’ Hundreds of times every day this goes on. And even better, we now have 16 Afghan high schools connected by Internet to this learning center. This is a great forum.”
Brown’s projects also have focused on medicine. Since 2008, he has teamed up with Dr. Pete Killcommons, CEO of Medweb, to provide CT scan transmissions from a Jalalabad clinic to UC San Diego radiologists for expert interpretation. One of the most active members of the medical team in San Diego is Dr. Stephen Dorros. “In the first six months of looking at these CT scans, I probably saved as many lives as I did in my previous 30 years of practice,” he says. Though challenges remain – the single-slice CT scanner in Jalalabad dates back to the mid-ʼ80s – Dorros says he feels privileged to provide critically needed help.
A legacy of hope
While Brown’s tally of achievements and awards, including the RI Service Above Self Award and The Rotary Foundation Distinguished Service Award, suggests the breadth of his commitment and depth of his involvement, the true measure of his work is the legacy of hope and resilience he leaves everywhere he goes.
Whether he’s assessing a shortage of potable water in Kenya or the devastation after a 2008 earthquake in Afghanistan, Brown begins to calculate the resources needed to make things right while others are just beginning to grasp what’s wrong. It is the instinct of a born can-do leader that sets him apart, combined with generosity and the interpersonal finesse required to persuade local power brokers to act on behalf of the greater community.
“When you provide an opportunity for people to donate their time and talent, when you offer a path and a social network for folks who want to help, it brings out qualities that are very rewarding for me to tap into,” he says. “Whatever I do from here, with other programs and Future Vision, I’ll always be energized by that.”
Moini considers herself blessed, she says, to have Brown as a mentor: “He doesn’t just see what he’s looking at. He sees what could be. That’s why children who never before saw a computer are now Skyping in Jalalabad. They’re so intelligent; they just need a little push. And that’s Steve, the one who makes it happen.”
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