Ripton man teaches in Kabul

RIPTON — Ian Pounds had spent years writing and teaching in Ripton, a town with a verdant, pastoral, postcard-like setting.
He recently swapped all that for 140 days of teaching in one of the most dusty and dangerous settings in the world: Afghanistan. Recently returned stateside, Pounds is now telling the gripping story of his four months enlightening orphans in the war-torn city of Kabul — an adventure than seemed quite unlikely only a few years ago.
He will speak at Middlebury College’s Robert A. Jones House, located on Hillcrest Road off College Street, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, at 4:30 p.m.
Pounds had moved to Ripton in 1993. A writer and educator, he spent 13 years working for Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He also worked stints for the Counseling Service of Addison County and the Middlebury Union High School Alternative Education Program. He became further invested in his community as a member of the Ripton Volunteer Fire Department.
His life was proceeding on an even keel until a few years ago, when events far away from bucolic Addison County conspired to change his family’s fate. Inspired by a desire to help her country’s military efforts in the Middle East, Pounds’ spouse decided to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“This was kind of a shocker to me,” Pounds recalled.
They both shipped out to Virginia and the USMC’s base at Quantico. Unfortunately, their marriage went south. Pounds said his wife was eventually deployed to Iraq, leaving him at a crossroads.
“Here I was, a man in a classic mid-life crisis,” said Pounds, 48.
He decided to turn his confusion and catharsis into public service and wanderlust. Inspired by Barack Obama’s call to service, Pounds decided he wanted to follow in his wife’s footsteps in trying to help bring stability to the Middle East. But Pounds, more of an ex-hippie than a soldier, realized he was destined to make his mark with a handshake instead of a rifle. So it was about a year-and-a-half ago that he sat at his computer to scout non-governmental organizations that could put him in the thick of humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan.
His research led him to a few organizations willing to get him into Afghanistan, but under what he considered to be some unacceptable delays. Some of the organizations required lengthy waiting periods before bringing him in; others would only do so under the most secure and guarded conditions in which Pounds believed he would not be able to be of much help.
But he saw promise in a nonprofit organization called the Omprakash Foundation, which — among other things — sends educators to needy countries. Omprakash, in turn, linked Pounds with the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization (AFCECO). Based in Kabul, AFCECO is a nonprofit, non-political organization that provides food, clothes, shelter, education, healthcare and a safe environment for children in orphanages and schools.
As a writer and educator, Pounds thought AFCECO might be his ticket to providing the kind of help he wanted to contribute.
“I forwarded them my background and desire,” Pounds said.
He received initial word that he had been accepted to teach English, drama, photography and computer skills to 180 children in three orphanages in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Escalating hostilities in the nation forced trip organizers to rethink the wisdom of Pounds’ visit. But Pounds reiterated his desire to make the trip, and his hosts felt duty-bound to accept his help.
“In Afghanistan, when someone says they want to do something for you, it is an insult not to accept it,” Pounds said.
So, Pounds rented out his Ripton home and headed out to Kabul this past April for what would be a 140-day stay. He received a grant to cover his plane tickets, but paid his own expenses while in Afghanistan.
It nearly proved to be an abbreviated trip.
“When I arrived, it was almost determined that I would have to turn around and go back because the security was so bad,” Pounds said.
Adding to the concern was the fact that Pounds would not receive any kind of military escort, nor would he be living in any kind of fortress. Instead, he would be sequestered in an orphanage for girls and would disguise himself in order to make periodic trips in the back of a Toyota station wagon to the other two orphanages at which he would teach. He explained the girls’ orphanage was deemed less susceptible to attacks and visits from would-be kidnappers.
Pounds noted the living arrangement was extremely delicate, given the strict rules in Afghanistan/Muslim cultures governing associations between unwed men and women.
“You can imagine how problematic that was for me,” Pounds said. “But they trusted me and as time went by, they realized it was going to be a good working relationship.”
Indeed, except for the Internet, Pounds would have almost no exposure to his own culture.
“I visited with one westerner the whole time I was there,” Pounds said, referring to a United Nations worker from New Hampshire.
“Most of the westerners living there live in iron fortresses,” said Pounds, who added that living among the masses “was definitely deep immersion. It was an odd thing to experience.”
Odd, but very illuminating and educational.
Pounds would teach English to dozens of children, and would himself, by necessity, learn bits of the two principle languages of Afghanistan: Pashto and Dari. Only a few of the adults with whom he worked spoke English; two of his students had some rudimentary knowledge of the language.
“You just have to learn; there’s no other way,” Pounds said.
And Pounds’ students proved voracious learners.
Classes were held five days per week, from 8 a.m. to noon, and 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.
“They were all at different levels of learning, but all were very eager to learn. I had to kick them out of class at 7 p.m.,” Pounds joked.
The students also had different temperaments, languages and cultural backgrounds. They all adjusted well to get on the same learning page.
And they showed great learning skills in spite of having experienced the horrors of war. One of his 14-year-old female students had seen her father captured and taken away to be beheaded by the Taliban and her mother taken by another man. Another child was forced to smuggle drugs in her body, while another sustained burns to 50 percent of her body from an American bomb.
“These kids are proud and healthy,” Pounds said. “They shouldn’t be normal (because of what they have experienced and seen), but they are normal.”
“Orphan,” in fact, was a misnomer for some of the children at the three facilities at which Pounds taught. Some of the children had one or more living relatives who were unable to take care of them and agreed to have the orphanages become the children’s primary caregiver. Pounds explained the mission of the orphanages is to not only feed and clothe the children, but to educate them and encourage them to remain in Afghanistan to potentially become future leaders of that nation.
Caring for the children has not come cheaply. Pounds noted that AFCECO is spending $2,000 per month in rent for each of the three orphanage buildings. That’s because there simply isn’t much safe, unoccupied real estate in Kabul.
“They’ve got to get out from under these leases and purchase a piece of property,” Pounds said of AFCECO.
Pounds was able to survey some of the daily scenes of Kabul that have been hidden to other westerners due to security. Properly disguised, he visited markets and neighborhoods in the rougher areas of the city.
“What I saw was an extreme amount of poverty and unemployment, thousands of women in burkahs begging in the streets,” Pounds said. “The roads were horrendous and there was little law and order.”
He fortunately saw little violence, though he heard a car bomb explode and saw damage from some Taliban rockets.
“What was dangerous was the (Afghanistan) government itself,” Pounds said, noting inquiries about his presence in Kabul. One of Pounds’ friends was detained and interrogated about the American.
While U.S. newscasts have been focusing on security threats from the Taliban, Pounds believes the most disruptive elements are being marshaled by Afghanistan nationalists who want foreign forces out of their country and who view President Hamid Karzai as a puppet of the U.S.
“Most of the opposition they are seeing is from those who see the U.S. as an occupying force,” Pounds said.
Pounds returned to the U.S. on Sept. 7. He is spending the fall touring the country, telling his story to various groups, including the presentation in Middlebury on Tuesday.
Pounds is hoping to return next March to the same orphanages in Kabul to spend “a significant amount of time” teaching the same children.
“I liked my life very much over there,” Pounds said. “I found a sense of personal joy being useful and needed by that many people in one place.”
Time will only tell if his first trip will pay dividends in a country that continues to be torn by war.
“If one of those orphans grows up to not hate America or plant IEDs (improvised explosive devices), then the trip will have been worth it,” Pounds said.
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