Beaver native lifts children's hopes in Kabul
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Leslie Wilson was back in Beaver this past week for her 35th high school reunion. While at home, she was her mother's daughter, vacuuming carpets, doing dishes and keeping the house clean as a daughter might.
Bob Donaldson, Post-GazetteLeslie Wilson
During the rest of the year, Ms. Wilson works as the head of Save the Children USA's mission in Afghanistan.
Her family's airy Beaver home stands in contrast to her living quarters in Kabul, a bungalow she shares with one other person at Save the Children. To enter her home in Beaver requires passing a tree and a porch; to get into the Kabul home requires passing a 12-foot wall and an unarmed guard.
Still, it's comfortable enough, Ms. Wilson says. The only trouble is the harsh Kabul winter, which Ms. Wilson and her housemate survive without central heat.
"We use compressed sawdust," she said, which is burned in a little barrel drum stove she and her housemate put in the living room.
Ms. Wilson, who heads back to Kabul today, said she was happy to be home.
"It's nice to come back and have a touchstone. It's part of what makes it possible to do what I do -- remembering where I came from, and where I learned how to care about the world," Ms. Wilson said.
It has been a long journey. When Ms. Wilson set off to school at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind., she thought she wanted to become a teacher. She decided to major in social work, following the path of her mother, but actually ended up doing fund-raising and alumni relations work for universities.
Then, at age 35, Ms. Wilson joined the Peace Corps. She was sent to Thailand, then worked in Moldova as an administrator. After some domestic work for Save the Children, she went to Afghanistan in 2003.
The Afghanistan mission of Save the Children focuses largely on health and education issues. Afghanistan's maternal mortality rate is one of the worst in the world, and children's education has been hurt by years of Taliban rule and war.
Ms. Wilson is cautiously optimistic about the organization's progress.
"Despite all the political chaos, the military chaos," she said, "on the social front, on the health care front, there are good things happening."
Save the Children's strategy has been to try projects on a local level that, if successful, can then be applied on a larger scale.
One recent project worked with community health workers who were largely illiterate. Ms. Wilson said that the illiterate workers learned over the course of 18 months how to educate communities about drugs to prevent post-partum hemorrhages in mothers, one of the most common ways women die in Afghanistan.
Ms. Wilson said the drugs and the program have been very successful and will be expanded to an entire province. She hopes it can become a tool for all Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is a patriarchal society, which at first glance might present some difficulties to a woman in a position of power. But Ms. Wilson said that "there are a lot of really strong, powerful women in Afghanistan," and that it's not as hard as might be expected.
"And in the humanitarian sphere, you sort of get excused for being a woman," she said. "It's like you're a third gender or a third entity, different from Afghan women and Afghan men. You're sort of forgiven for your gender if you're doing good work."
But Western women are still the highest-profile kidnapping target in Afghanistan. After an Italian woman who worked for another aid organization was kidnapped two years ago, Ms. Wilson said that security procedures were increased dramatically.
"You can't do work like this and be a fearful person," she said.
Even so, Ms. Wilson said she doesn't have a family, but if she did, she wouldn't want them in Afghanistan with her.
Despite the difficulties, she still finds the time for Friday golf outings with some friends.
Golf in Kabul? That's right -- it's a legacy from the British colonial days. The greens are black with oil, but that doesn't keep Ms. Wilson from hitting nine holes.
For those who want to get involved in international aid, Ms. Wilson suggests joining the Peace Corps or even just working with immigrant communities in the United States.
But above all she thinks people need to be aware of the world around them.
"Read the paper," she said. "Just make yourself aware so that you can be a citizen of the world and be conscious."
First Published June 9, 2007 11:17 pm