For Czechs, a Far Reach to Afghanistan

04/06/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Continuing on my Eastern European trip, after Austria and Ukraine, I passed through the Czech Republic. Twenty years ago, Czechoslovakia became a democratic nation as a result of the Velvet Revolution. In 1993, the country peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Ten years ago it became a member of NATO and last year became the first Eastern Bloc country to achieve World Bank recognition as a developed country. Although it joined the European Union only in 2004, the first half of this year, the Czech Republic holds the EU presidency.

As impressive as this meteoric rise to a stable and thriving country has been, equally noteworthy is how, as Czechs have risen upward, they've reached outward as well.

While in the Czech Republic, my able assistant Erin Loughney and I had the opportunity to spend a day meeting with Radio Free Europe, People in Need, and Berkat. The three NGOs differ in their size and sophistication, the macro or micro levels they target, and their modi operandi. But they share a common passion: Afghanistan.

At the offices of Radio Free Europe, founded in 1949 (in part by the CIA) and today reaching 25 million people, I met with the Afghanistan branch known as Radio Free Afghanistan, or Radio Liberty. RFA began with funding from the U.S. Congress in 2001; in the years since, they have become the most popular radio station in Afghanistan. In most parts of the country, they are the primary source not only of outside news, but also of education and inspiration. I explained to the nine men standing in the center of the room my keen interest in promoting the voices of Afghan women. On cue, four women came forward from their carrels and joined the group.

My next meeting was with People in Need. PIN was one of the first Czech NGOs formed after the fall of communism, to address social needs such as poverty and lack of housing. We met with three staff. One had lived and worked in Afghanistan three years, focusing on education, health, jobs, water, and sanitation in 14 districts and more than 500 communities. When we probed, we learned that People in Need doesn't focus on policy and other macro changes; rather, they're committed to direct help such as microloans and microenterprise. I asked about the role of women in his work. He let me know that he had not worked with women in Afghanistan, since the culture made it impossible for women to be involved in decisions outside their homes. I remarked that that's too bad, since the life expectancy of an Afghan woman is 44 -- and 36 years shorter than that of a Czech woman. One reason for that is that males tend to see males. But women leaders are more likely to notice, understand, and address the needs of all women. After my host insisted a third time that there were no women with whom he could work, I offered to send him names, pictures, email addresses, and cell phone numbers of 50 female lawyers, judges, entrepreneurs, accountants, and human rights workers.

The most unique NGO we met with, Berkat, is housed in a warm, cozy house in the middle of downtown Prague. There we sat around a table, enjoying a home-cooked meal of traditional food, prepared by an Afghan member of Berkat. Through a twist of fact, Berkat came to help children receive corneal transplants. The story's this: A Czech woman saw an article about Afghan children starving. There was a particular picture of a little boy named Adzamal, who was blind. Going only on the name and the photo, this woman decided to find him and help him - with $20. She contacted the couple running Berkat. Using fliers with the photo and his name, after months, they tracked down the boy. Back in the Czech Republic, a young doctor agreed to come during his vacation to do the operation. As the cornea was being prepared for transplant, a concerned government official asked the religious affiliation of the dead donor. Eventually, the infidel cornea arrived. The boy's operation was not successful, but his case inspired others. Berkat has delivered more than 100 corneas - sometimes carried in their laps. To help with expenses, elderly Czech women are making and selling dolls.

These three meetings were sobering and uplifting. Jaromir Štětina, co-founder of People in Need, beautifully described what seems to be a general Czech attitude: "When the Czechs needed a helping hand from the world, we got one. Now that we're better off, it's our moral responsibility to help others."

So they are.