Giving back by going back

Afghanistan, April 9, 2002

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    Photo: Scott Heidler/Mercy Corps. Photo:

He comes from a place called Sheen Kallay, or green village, but after fours years of drought there are only small patches of green near the southern Afghanistan hometown of Dr. Mohammad Khan Kharoti.

Kharoti, who has lived in Portland since 1989, has spent the last six weeks in the province of Helmand assisting Mercy Corps by meeting with government officials, assessing medical facilities and evaluating programs.

Giving back to his community in Afghanistan and helping the Mercy Corps programs there is not new to Kharoti. He has visited Mercy Corps program sites over the past several years on his trips home and provided findings and observations to Mercy Corps headquarters upon his return.

But the trip home this year was special for several reasons. It was Kharoti’s first trip back to Afghanistan since September 11th and the first opportunity for him to visit a school that he and his brother Gul Habeb started one year ago this month.

The Sheen Kallay School sits just next to the Kharoti family compound in the agricultural area of Nad-e Ali district west of the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah. With special permission from the then Taliban leaders, Sheen Kallay School was the only school in the area allowed to teach girls.

When the school first opened, it only had 10 boys and 6 girls. Last week the school population was near 200 and received school supplies donated by Mercy Corps and transported to Afghanistan on an Evergreen humanitarian flight in February.

In addition to basic curriculum taught in the mornings, Sheen Kallay School conducts English classes in the afternoons and students received new English lesson books during Kharoti's visit this month.

Kharoti is very pleased with the growth and progress of the school despite being shut down by the Taliban for two and a half months during the early days of the bombing in October. As soon as Taliban rule fell, the school was reopened.

He has big plans for the school. Looking over a field behind the main mud brick building, he extends his arm to map out the site where he wants to build another building to house classrooms for girls and an area for the teachers.

Born into a nomadic life that his family maintained until age seven and illiterate until 12, Kharoti is a classic example of local boy making it big. While working as a nurse at Lashkar Gah Hospital, his dedication and drive were recognized by an American doctor.

It was the help of Dr. Roberts that lead Kharoti on the path to fulfilling his father’s dream of him learning to read and write. Roberts helped him gain acceptance to a high school in Lebanon and then later to a college in Iowa where he received his bachelor’s in medical science.

After college, Kharoti returned to his country and attended medical school in Jalalabad in northeastern Afghanistan before returning to Lashkar Gah Hospital. This time he entered the hospital as a doctor.

He will never forget the trust and support that Roberts showed him. While taking a tour of Lashkar Gah, pointing out Roberts' house was just as important to Kharoti as the Governor’s house. As he stood in the operating room of Lashkar Gah Hospital, Kharoti fondly remembers Roberts finding him scrubbing the operating room walls at one in the morning. Roberts' reaction, "Why don't you go home and see your family."

At the hospital it’s impossible for Kharoti to walk down a corridor or poke his head in a room without running into someone he worked with as a nurse, doctor or both.

This hospital is as much his hometown as Sheen Kallay. As the hospital’s assistant administrator Dr. Nassar Barak put it "Dr. Kharoti knows every corner of the hospital and the pain of the people."

Kharoti's family, with four children ranging from one to 10, fled Helmand for Quetta, Pakistan during the war with the Russians in 1987. This is where he was introduced to the Mercy Corps family. He was hired by Mercy Corps to train and teach paramedic techniques to medical staff who transported Afghans to Quetta with injuries or illnesses that required specialized treatment not available in Afghanistan.

After a year with Mercy Corps he joined the US Consulate in Karachi where he learned the process of how he could take his family to America. Kharoti’s family immigrated to Portland in 1989 as refugees and he now works in nuclear medicine for Kaiser Permanente.

Kharoti is the only member of his family in Sheen Kallay to live outside of Afghanistan. He appreciates all that America has to offer, but he feels the pull of his homeland. "In a perfect world I could spend the days in Afghanistan helping the people and the nights with my family in Portland."