2010.04.24: Morocco RPCV Karen Smith gives humanitarian aid in Afghanistan and Sudan
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2010.04.24: Morocco RPCV Karen Smith gives humanitarian aid in Afghanistan and Sudan
Morocco RPCV Karen Smith gives humanitarian aid in Afghanistan and Sudan
Amid the death, destruction and poverty, Smith gets small victories in the form of smiles, simple gratitude from needy people and, as she put it, "days I'll never forget." They're reflected in the faces of the children in African refugee camps who followed Smith around like she was a rock star, or the Dinka tribesmen who treated her like a princess as she taught them how to vaccinate their livestock. "I love my life and my work," Smith said during a wide-ranging 75-minute interview from her "hooch," a converted double-decker shipping container she calls home at the embassy compound in Kabul. "We're helping women and children, and helping people have a voice in their governments."
Morocco RPCV Karen Smith gives humanitarian aid in Afghanistan and Sudan
T.O. woman gives humanitarian aid in dangerous places
* By Brett Johnson
* Posted April 24, 2010 at 11:44 p.m.
Caption: Karen Smith, a humanitarian aid worker who grew up in Thousand Oaks, stands near an abandoned Soviet tank outside Kabul, Afghanistan, in February.
As if Karen Smith needed any more reminders that she works in the world's most dangerous places, two suicide-bomber blasts have rocked her new world near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in the three short months she's been in Afghanistan.
"They were both definitely close enough to shake the building," Smith said from the capital city during a recent interview.
Around this time a year ago, Smith was taken out of Sudan over fear for her safety after papers there named her as fanning anti-government flames. In Pakistan, she once stood at the rubble of a school where 175 children had died, crushed in an earthquake's wreckage.
Life's been full of gut-check twists for Smith. Growing up in Thousand Oaks, she rode horses and competed in jumping contests, winning enough ribbons to fill two plastic storage tubs in her parent's garage. After getting a degree in equine science at Colorado State University, she was all set to breed racehorses as a career.
But a stint in the Peace Corps in Morocco a decade ago convinced her that the world's people need help and its problems need fixing. Humanitarian aid work carries risks - often highest precisely in the places that need help most - and it doesn't get much dicier than Darfur, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Smith's been to all three in the past four years.
In Afghanistan, she's helped open schools and health clinics, train midwives and establish literacy programs. In the notorious Darfur region of Sudan, she supplied water and sanitation to refugees in the Kalma camp, which held 96,000 people when she was there from late 2007 through most of 2008. Smith shepherded earthquake relief and rebuilding efforts in two isolated northern Pakistan provinces in 2006.
Her current tour in Afghanistan runs through January. After that, she's slated to go to Ethiopia.
Amid the death, destruction and poverty, Smith gets small victories in the form of smiles, simple gratitude from needy people and, as she put it, "days I'll never forget." They're reflected in the faces of the children in African refugee camps who followed Smith around like she was a rock star, or the Dinka tribesmen who treated her like a princess as she taught them how to vaccinate their livestock.
"I love my life and my work," Smith said during a wide-ranging 75-minute interview from her "hooch," a converted double-decker shipping container she calls home at the embassy compound in Kabul. "We're helping women and children, and helping people have a voice in their governments."
‘I'm good in a crisis'
Back home, her friends think she's crazy, the 35-year-old Smith acknowledged. Her parents, while supportive, would rather have her settled down in Thousand Oaks and "are incredibly worried every time I go out." Afghanistan, she said, was "an especially tough one for them."
But, she said, "I've found my niche. I'm good in a crisis. It doesn't scare me."
Despite the recent events at the Kabul embassy, Smith said, "I don't feel like I'm in danger."
But reminders of that latent threat are all around. Armed guards line the compound walls. Smith can't take a simple walk or run without being watched. Dinner out in Kabul? She needs permission.
When she leaves Kabul to visit one of the projects she manages out in the countryside, a security detail accompanies her and her staff workers. She wears a helmet, and a flak jacket made of Kevlar.
She gets rides in vehicles called MRAPs, specially designed to survive and blunt the force of roadside bombs. They cost about $800,000 each, Smith believes, adding, "They have saved so many lives."
In Iraq, roadside bombs and other explosive ambush devices once caused almost two-thirds of all U.S. combat-related deaths, the Washington Post reported in 2005.
The day of this interview, a gunman opened fire on a group of aid workers in eastern Afghanistan's Khost province while they were inspecting a high school under renovation. The gunman killed one person and injured several others.
"I felt less safe in Darfur," said Smith, who is the rare person who can compare such things.
A few weeks ago, Smith said, a similar attack left six World Vision humanitarian aid workers dead in the northern Pakistan city of Mansehra, where she was once based.
"You do not for one minute take your security for granted," she said. "No one is under any illusion that they are completely safe, but you can't live in a constant state of fear. You just live with an awareness."
Works 10 to 12 hours a day
Smith's hooch is one of many built around the main U.S. Embassy building in Kabul.
She's there as a foreign services officer for the United States Agency for International Development or USAID, an independent agency that provides assistance and aid while furthering U.S. political and economic interests.
She works 10 to 12 hours a day "minimum," six days a week (typically, Friday is her day off). It is, Smith said, very intense and stressful duty.
"It's sometimes hard to really feel like you are making progress," she admitted, "but the amount of work we've accomplished is tremendous."
Her living space is maybe 1 1/2 arm spans wide and six paces from end to end, Smith said. She has a twin bed, a private bathroom with a tiny shower, and a dresser. "But we don't spend a lot of time in here anyway," she noted.
The embassy compound has three gymnasiums - "people work out a lot here; there's not that much to do" - and two cafeterias. Movies are available; there are yoga classes and volleyball teams. "They try very, very hard" to make it livable, Smith said.
She has the Internet, which she called "a godsend" (she's on Facebook), an iPod and a TV.
Mail is also a godsend. Said Smith: "It's the highlight of my week when I get something from home."
Communication a lifeline
Almost 7,700 miles away in Thousand Oaks, her parents feel the same way when they hear from their daughter.
"That's what keeps us going, the communication," said her father, Joe. "Without it, we'd have a lot more worries. I can attribute the white hair I'm getting to her. She goes off to these places, and we lose sleep."
Said her mother, Betty: "I'm absolutely concerned about her safety, but she's smart and has a good head on her shoulders."
Fretting mixes freely with pride. They told stories of their daughter's many deeds that she didn't mention, like the time she rounded up chickens and eggs for an orphanage in Darfur, and how grateful the nuns there were for the gesture.
Her daughter, Betty said, had a goal, has stuck with it and bravely goes forth.
"She's been to countries that don't look up to women that much," Betty said, "yet she's been able to command the respect of these men there, like tribal chieftains."
Betty, who is from Calcutta, India, can relate to her daughter about being a stranger in a strange land. She met Joe, a New Jersey transplant who has lived in Southern California for 50 years, in the early 1970s while she was studying at Mount St. Mary's College and he was working at Xerox, and she happened to walk into his office one day.
For more than 20 years, they've operated Smith's Trophies, which supplies awards, ribbons and such to area sports teams.
Now, they'll be sending their handiwork to Kabul. They are supplying 250 ribbons - in Afghanistan's black, red and green colors - for a marathon that will be run in May at the embassy compound.
The Smiths are well-known in the community. People "are constantly calling" to see how their daughter, a 1993 Thousand Oaks High School graduate, is doing, Betty said. Some offer a little more.
"She's been prayed for by a Buddhist monk, Latter-day Saints, Elks members and practically anyone who comes in here," Betty said with a laugh in their Newbury Park shop.
‘Knots in our stomachs'
The phone call about her daughter's exodus from Sudan last March was a little trying, her parents said. They were on vacation when they heard about it. "It gave us knots in our stomachs. It was kind of scary," Betty said.
Daughter Karen remembers "a lot of silence" on the other end of the line.
She was working in south Sudan, on a separate aid stint after doing a year in Darfur, when Sudan President Omar al-Bashir was indicted for crimes against humanity. He ordered Westerners to leave the country.
Smith was escorted out over fears for her safety because she'd been named in newspapers in the north part of the country as someone who was inciting local townsfolk to rebel against the government.
"When your name starts getting mentioned in the paper," Smith said, "it's time to leave."
The day - March 8, 2009 - is burned into her brain. At the time, she was working for Oxfam, a British-based group with 13 other organizations under its umbrella that strives to end poverty and injustice. All staff members left Sudan, and they lost almost everything; the only thing they were able to save, Smith said, were tiny computer-file disks that women stuffed into their bras.
She didn't dare, or want, to tell her parents until she reached Kenya (where Oxfam has offices). "It was very nerve-wracking," Smith said. Later that month, Smith went to Washington to begin preparing for her Afghanistan work.
Her mom saw her in Morocco, but her parents were unable to visit her in Sudan or Pakistan, and doubt they'll make it to Afghanistan. Smith was last home over Christmas and thinks she might make it back to Thousand Oaks in June.
Moving across continents
It is serious work. But life abroad, even in Afghanistan, has its lighter moments, and Smith also displayed some surprising bits of humor.
Of her many travels to far outposts, she said, "Some people worry about moving across town; I worry about moving across continents." Complaining about the embassy cafeteria food starting to taste the same, Smith said, "I'm having my mother send over salad dressing."
On the afternoon of this interview, Smith attended a game of buzkashi in Kabul. It's a very traditional game, dating back at least 1,000 years, but it's unlike anything on ESPN.
"It's like soccer on horseback played with a headless goat carcass," Smith said, "It is really crazy to watch."
The "ball" is the headless carcass, which is still hairy. The players soak it in water for a week to make it heavy, and then fill it with sand, Smith said.
It sounds weird, but it's another small victory, she indicated.
"It was banned by the Taliban," she said, alluding to the group who ruled the country in the 1990s and into the 2000s. "Everything, any form of enjoyment, was banned."
That, she added, included kite flying, which she termed "a national obsession" in Afghanistan.
The country's long scars show. Not far from where Smith posed with an abandoned Soviet tank (from the invasion that started in 1979) is an Olympic-size pool. The pool has a high dive where, she said, the Taliban executed people, shooting them and letting them fall into the empty pool below.
The people, she said, have hope.
"They are very tired of war," she said. "They want peace, a chance at a good education for their children, and a future. Thirty years of upheaval was very demoralizing, but there is a new hope."
The vital step, Smith added, will be getting them to trust in the government again.
A cultural education
Smith misses horses the most. She rode at Fieldstone Riding Club in Moorpark for years. She also misses going on walks "and not having six Gurkhas watching you," alluding to the Nepalese soldiers who guard the embassy compound.
Ditto for wearing shorts. She has to cover up when she leaves the compound.
"Everyone wears conservative clothes in Afghanistan, because you are working with Afghanis," she said. "When you go to these countries, it's important to reflect and respect their cultures."
It's been a helluva cultural education for Smith. In Pakistan, where she worked for the International Catholic Migration Commission, she trained young people in carpentry and how to put in electricity and plumbing, taught women how to preserve food and arranged psychology sessions for women in tents. Many women lost their husbands and children in the earthquake. In places such as Pakistan, she said, women have few options.
With the Peace Corps in Morocco, Smith did more livestock training, counted wildlife in national parks and taught women how to be beekeepers. Honey, she said, is "incredibly valuable" there, fetching "something like $20 a liter."
Morocco, she said, wasn't all she hoped it'd be but it "certainly moved me" into international humanitarian work.
Smith thinks she'll be doing that type of work for the rest of her career.
"We are so blessed and so lucky in America," she said.
Smith said she speaks for all who do this, often with no fanfare.
"I know my life might seem unusual to many people, but there is a large community of people who do this day in and day out," she said. "And I've made a lot of friends out there."
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