US troops, civilians volunteer to help Afghan needy
By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 5, 2016
KABUL, Afghanistan — Twice a month, Jerry Farkas, a retired Air Force flight chief from Utah, greets two Catholic nuns who come to the NATO headquarters here to collect donations for orphans at their Missionaries of Charity home and needy families the nuns help support.
The nuns’ visits coincide with a weekly meeting of volunteers, primarily American troops, who organize the donation drive — one of several initiatives the volunteers are engaged in to help underprivileged families and orphans in the Afghan capital.
“Many people want to try to help,” said Farkas, 54, who works for Combined Security Transition Command — Afghanistan’s contracting enabler cell. “They’re here in Afghanistan and they’re trying to figure out: what can I do?”
Appeals for donations have resulted in a steady stream of clothes, school supplies and other items arriving at the NATO base from companies and citizens in the United States. People living on the Resolute Support base also make some donations.
Volunteers sort through the donated items in a shipping container used as a storage unit, preparing them for collection.
About a dozen volunteers help with the sorting and packing of the nuns’ car. The volunteers tend to rotate from week to week, but Army Capt. Rachel Campion, 27, with the 82nd Airborne Division, participates regularly.
It breaks up the monotony of work, she said while sorting through a box of donated pencils and calculators. “Our main mission here is to train, advise and assist. So, this is my way of assisting the Afghans directly.”
The nuns take the donations to their home in Kabul, where they care for 11 orphaned, handicapped children. What they don’t need, they distribute, along with dry rations such as flour and rice, to hundreds of families. Anything that the nuns cannot distribute, they sell to buy other needed items such as medicines.
Cooperation between volunteers at the base and the Missionaries of Charity started 10 years ago, but the nuns say they have never needed as much support as they do now. After NATO ended combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban stepped up attacks across the country, forcing many families to flee their homes for Kabul. Afghanistan’s Labor Ministry has put some of these families in touch with the sisters.
“We started in 2006 with only 15 families, and this year we have 342,” said one of the nuns originally from the Philippines, who did not want to give her name for security reasons. “For us, we are happy that somebody is sharing our work. Ever since we arrived in Afghanistan in 2006, American soldiers have been supplying us with things.”
For the servicemembers at Resolute Support headquarters, Friday is a “low battle rhythm day,” which offers a rare period of downtime. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Dustin Brown, 34, of the 338th Recruiting Squadron, said he uses the time to help others.
“We get an extra four hours to ourselves every Friday and Sunday and I want to give back,” the Kentucky native said while packing donations into the nuns’ vehicle. “I think that things like this will only help to strengthen our relationship with the Afghans and help them to understand that maybe we’re not here to cause harm. We’re here to protect; we’re here to assist and help.”
In addition to the general donation drive, the volunteers at Resolute Support run “Operation Backpack,” which encourages people to donate backpacks full of school supplies for Afghan students, and mentor Afghan scouts. A fourth project is called “Operation Warming Hearts,” for which volunteers make paper bricks that can be burned for heat during the winter.
After they finish with the donation drive, the volunteers work on the bricks, pressing shredded paper that has been soaked in water overnight into molds of cereal bowls or buckets, or they use a metal press designed for making bricks.
After the bricks are made, they are placed outside for a week to dry and then are collected by Americans based at the U.S. Embassy who initiated the project. The group eventually delivers them to the Missionaries of Charity.
About 4,000 bricks should be able to heat the nuns’ orphanage for the entire winter. Volunteers expect to produce twice that many and the extras could go to needy families.
“I heard that this will save the orphanage about 14 bucks a day, which isn’t a lot to us, but it’s a lot to them,” said Army Capt. Gavin Maguire, 32, from Maryland as he packed the wet paper into a mold.
Unlike most people living at the NATO base, Maguire, a financial management service member with language and cultural training for the region, gets to leave the heavily-fortified compound and see what life is like outside its towering cement walls.
“When I go out on mission I see so much poverty around the vehicles as we’re doing convoys,” he said. “We’re doing this (volunteer work) not to get praise for it, but just to do it and hope it goes to the right place.”
Air Force wing chaplain Lt. Col. Dwayne Jones, 51, who oversees all four of the charity initiatives on the base, said the initiatives could use more volunteers.
“What it does, is it really forms a sense of unity between us and the host nation,” he said. “It shows that we really care about the people of Afghanistan.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Chad Garland contributed to this report.