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Proceeds from locally made film help Afghanistan

BRIDPORT — Jill Vickers still remembers walking into the small hotel in a remote town in northern Afghanistan shoulder-to-shoulder with a handful of other young American women. Snowdrifts, she remembered, had accumulated in the halls of the hotel, and when the women made their way to their door, they realized they would be spending the night in their sleeping bags on the floor in an unheated room.
Welcome to Afghanistan in 1969.
The women — volunteers with the Peace Corps charged with vaccinating Afghans against smallpox — had landed in the country just a few weeks earlier. The winter of 1969 would prove to be brutally cold. For Vickers and the rest of the volunteers, a chilly night on a hard floor was just the beginning of what would be months of strenuous travel and unpredictable living conditions.
Altogether, Vickers, now a Bridport resident and retired English teacher, spent 18 months in Afghanistan in 1969 and 1970, traveling among the small villages in the north of the country. She and 17 other Americans, accompanied by Afghan partners, helped hasten the eventual global eradication of the smallpox virus, one vaccination at a time.
But their remarkable story fell on deaf ears when the vaccinators returned to the United States. It was an era of tumult and unrest, Vickers said, and all eyes were turned toward Vietnam.
“No one knew where Afghanistan even was,” Vickers recalled in a recent interview, “just like we didn’t know when we got our assignments.”
So for more than 30 years, most of the Peace Corps volunteers set aside their tales from the remote villages of rural Afghanistan.
That’s all changing. Vickers and some of those women are turning their gaze back toward the country where they once walked from town to town armed only with vaccines. It started when Vickers and co-producer Jody Bergedick, along with videographer Katherine Wheatley, turned the vaccinators’ story into a film in 2008 called “Once in Afghanistan.”
Now, in the wake of a positive reception to the film on the heels of the film’s debut, Vickers and some of the former Peace Corps volunteers are sending the proceeds from the film back to the country they helped protect against disease decades ago.
Since the film’s debut in Castleton in October 2008, Vickers and her husband, Jerry Charboneau, have been showing the film at screenings ranging from the Vermont International Film Festival to small house parties of just a handful of viewers. They’ve raised $10,000 so far.
Vickers will next screen the movie at the Ilsley Library on Sunday, Jan. 24, at 2 p.m. She’ll speak alongside Kristina Engstrom, who prepared Peace Corps volunteers for work in Afghanistan, as well as Afghan native and Middlebury College student Shabana Basij-Rasikh.
Some of the proceeds from the Jan. 24 screening — which is free, though DVDs will be sold and donations will be accepted — will go to Basij-Rasikh, who is studying international studies and women and gender studies at the college.
When she isn’t hitting the books, Basij-Rasikh is running the nonprofit organization Hela, which means “hope” in Pashto, a language spoken in Afghanistan. Basij-Rasikh founded the nonprofit to raise money to build a high school for girls in her ancestral village of Qalatik, in Laghman Province.
Supporting Basij-Rasikh’s mission dovetails nicely with Vickers’s philosophy about aid in Afghanistan. She and three other former Peace Corp vaccinators have been selecting organizations to support with “Once in Afghanistan’s” small earnings, and so far they’ve doled out about 70 percent of the proceeds the film and DVDs have brought in.
On the one hand, the women are dedicated to serving some of Afghanistan’s neediest residents. They’ve given money to Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan (PARSA), a 14-year-old non-governmental organization that works to improve social services for the disabled and destitute, widows and abandoned or orphaned children.
But Vickers explained that the group also wants to help leaders on the other end of the spectrum: Afghan’s most promising young people. So some proceeds have gone to support students studying in America, as well as the Vermont-based Peter M. Goodrich Memorial Foundation, which also supports exchange students from Afghanistan.
“(These) are the ones we hope will go back eventually and go run the organizations that provide social services,” Vickers said.
Vickers has high hopes for “Once in Afghanistan.” She intends to continue showing the movie, with an eye toward raising more money for charities in Afghanistan. But she also hopes to have the film screened this year in Geneva, Switzerland, where the World Health Organization is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the global eradication of smallpox.
“The film gave us a chance to tell our story,” Vickers said, though she’s quick to say she and the women vaccinators played a tiny part in a worldwide effort to eradicate the disease.
As their work in Afghanistan continues to develop, so, it turns out, does that story.
To see the trailer for “Once in Afghanistan,” view images from the movie, or order a DVD, visit www.dirtroaddocumentaries.com.

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