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Originally published March 27, 2014 at 4:36 PM | Page modified March 28, 2014 at 9:22 AM

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An educator’s optimism for Afghanistan

Educator and author Suzanne Griffin has been a witness to change and progress in Afghanistan. Her ground-level experiences give her optimism.


Times editorial columnist

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Voters in Afghanistan go to the polls next week to elect a new president and provincial leaders. An actual democratic transfer of power — a first.

I was reminded of the April 5 election because Taliban suicide bombers Tuesday attacked an election commission office near the home of a presidential candidate.

So it has been with Afghanistan. President George W. Bush took the U.S. into war in 2001, and then was quickly distracted by his other war, in Iraq.

Operation Enduring Freedom, the war in Afghanistan, has claimed 2,175 U.S. military lives and wounded 17,790.

President Obama put Afghanistan back in the news with a military surge in 2009. Subsequently, more than 30,000 troops were withdrawn by 2012. He now occasionally mumbles about a U.S. departure at the end of 2014, but with a remaining military presence. Leaving, but not really.

Events in Ukraine and Crimea pushed other turmoil aside, trumping Syria, Yemen, Mali, South Sudan and Israel, Palestine and Gaza for headline space.

The most optimism I have heard about Afghanistan in years was at a book reading this past Saturday at Pacific Crest School in Ballard.

The author was a dean of instruction at what’s now called South Seattle College, who turned a three-month sabbatical into a dozen years of transformative work in Afghanistan’s education system.

Suzanne Griffin’s new book, “Lessons of Love in Afghanistan,” published by Bennett & Hastings Publishing, traces her connections to the country from a 1968 Peace Corps assignment with her husband, her return in 2002 and her evolving duties toward the highest echelons of Afghan education and humanitarian endeavors.

Subtitled “A Lifelong Commitment to the Afghan People,” Griffin explains the book is organized by cities and parts of the country. It’s an ode to her husband, who died in 1999, their shared experiences in Afghanistan and her experiences for the past decade. The book features the photography of Peter Bussian.

Griffin speaks Dari, one of the country’s two primary languages. She is also keenly aware of customs and cultural norms in a conservative nation, with only more conservative regions.

Appropriate dress and behavior are not only a part of a respectful way to carry out business, but also to survive. Walking alone was not safe, and trips to remote regions dictated various levels of security.

Griffin was part of a powerful and successful effort to educate Afghan girls during the last dozen years. School attendance climbed from 800,000 students, and no girls, to 7.9 million students, and 40 percent girls.

She helped rebuild schools that were destroyed in years past because their courtyards were a convenient place to bivouac soldiers.

Over the years, Griffin worked with American university projects, U.S. government programs, nongovernmental organizations and legions of generous civic groups. Northshore Rotary and Emerald City Rotary helped build and equip schools, and provide college textbooks.

Another Seattle-based leader in building and sustaining schools in Afghanistan is Ayni Education International, whose executive director, Ginna Brelsford, hosted the session in Ballard.

Griffin is having another meet-the-author session on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Island Books, located at 3014 78th Ave. S.E., on Mercer Island.

Her work in Afghanistan included starting and equipping elementary schools, and convincing parents to send their daughters. Griffin helped expand medical education, build Internet reference links and promote English language instruction that was more vocational based, and could help land a job.

Those demonstrated skills have her doing work for the U.S. State Department in Armenia.

Her optimism for the future of Afghanistan is grounded in the desires and impatience of the nation’s middle class. Yes, Afghanistan has a middle class. I never thought about that either.

The national bitterness and resentment of the Taliban far exceeds any anger with a U.S. military presence that claimed lives with errant drones. Terrorist IEDs kill many times more Afghans. Griffin survived a 2008 terrorist attack.

Political and economic aspirations of ordinary Afghan residents combined with a nascent democracy fuel Griffin’s outlook. A confidence gained by living and working alongside them throughout the country.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is ldickie@seattletimes.com



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