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Retired Vancouver doctor founds, nurtures school in Afghanistan under Taliban rule

By , Columbian staff writer
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Girls receive backpacks from the United Nations Children's Fund, also known as UNICEF.
Girls receive backpacks from the United Nations Children's Fund, also known as UNICEF. (Photo contributed by Green Village Schools) Photo Gallery

As he paced the crowded streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, Dr. Mohammad Khan Kharoti’s phone buzzed relentlessly.

He had arrived in Afghanistan, only a few weeks before chaos enveloped the region and emergency evacuations began at the city’s airport. The phone calls came from a handful of friends, family members and co-workers who wondered if Kharoti had managed to flee the country before Aug. 31: the deadline for Americans to leave.

He hadn’t.

Kharoti tried to enter the airport four times, the first three to no avail. It wasn’t until an associate from London reached the doctor and instructed him to find his way to Doha, Qatar, that Kharoti found the time to breathe a sigh of relief.

From there, he was able to get a chartered flight Oct. 17 to his home in Portland, where he founded Green Village Schools, a non-governmental charity that helps provide resources for children in his home country of Afghanistan.

In the weeks that preceded his stress-inducing departure, Kharoti had been checking up on a school he started over 20 years ago in Shin Kalay, a small village of just 11,000 in southern Afghanistan.

Kharoti, the son of nomads who could not read or write, opened the school in 2001 while the country was under Taliban rule, with the goal of educating girls and young women throughout the village. At the time, he said, there wasn’t a single woman in the town who could read or write.

“I was told that with the Taliban there, we could not do such a thing. So I said, ‘Let’s talk to them,’” Kharoti said.

In speaking with the Taliban’s minister of education, Kharoti pleaded that educating the town and its women fulfilled a necessary service that would benefit the area for generations to come. Eventually, they struck a deal.

“You always have to listen and then try to convince them that education is a gift,” Kharoti said. “You have to work with their philosophy to find a way.”

The school was permitted to open, and it began with just 16 students: 10 boys and six girls.

Two decades later — with countless changes and a period of total rebuilding after a rebel faction descended on the school and destroyed it — Kharoti’s school still stands, amid Taliban control yet again.

Now, with as many as 2,600 daily students, including as many as 1,100 girls, the Green Village School in Shin Kalay serves as a force of change in Afghanistan, he said.

Kharoti’s journey

It was just a few days before July 4, 1970, when Kharoti — who just went by Mohammad at the time — arrived in the United States for the first time. He sought an education in medicine, after which he would find a job elsewhere or return to Afghanistan.

He and a friend agreed that they’d one day become doctors and move to Portland when they were older.

“I did not know what Oregon was, to be honest,” Kharoti said, chuckling. He would graduate in 1975 and return to Afghanistan as a doctor.

When he returned to the United States in 1989, this time in Oregon, he worked for just $5 per hour at a Spaghetti Factory while looking for jobs in medicine at night. Eventually, he landed a job in orthopedics at Kaiser Permanente. He eventually retired from nuclear medicine from Kaiser and PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver.

As he continued to go between the U.S. and Afghanistan, Kharoti wondered what legacy he would build. He thought of his mother and father who spent much of their lives traveling throughout Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. He thought of the village of Shin Kalay, where women could not access education. It was then that the idea for the school — and the nonprofit to support it — struck him.

“When I told people in Portland I had created a school in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, nobody believed me,” Kharoti said. “I found out how to start the charity organization and started with just $5,000 of my own money, which I donated year after year. I told people it was the cause worth paying for. You have to pay for the cause, not the person. That is how you convince people.”

Green Village today

Since then, a number of additional international charity organizations have helped to expand the operation, including the United Nations Children’s Fund, also known as UNICEF.

In addition to the money, Kharoti said he gave his own land to build the school in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Today, the school has expanded to include 72 rooms, latrines, running water, English and Pashto libraries, an auditorium, teachers, and about an acre of walled-in space for girls to run around and play soccer.

When the Taliban returned two years ago, Kharoti agreed to split office space with them in the school, a deal he described as a win-win.

“I don’t necessarily agree with their politics, but when it comes to providing education I will do what it takes to work with them,” he said. “I had to ask myself, ‘How can I work with these people to be able to educate the children of Afghanistan?’ ”

Kharoti’s previous connections with the Taliban allowed for the school to continue running without major hiccups. At one point, he drove up north to negotiate the removal of an artillery tower that had been constructed near the school. Seeing his honesty and dedication, he said, they agreed to remove it.

“I have to win this war with education,” he said. “The biggest enemy in Afghanistan is illiteracy. Taliban are not the enemy, nor is any other party. The biggest win for me is to bring peace by educating the people as much as we can. We must know the value of our women, our daughters. We must understand that there is no difference, everyone is equal.”

During his most recent visit, Kharoti reported that as many as 1,600 girls and women in Shin Kalay now read and write. Older girls in 11th and 12th grades at the school now teach the younger girls, something he describes as a critical cycle in education.

“This is the most important thing, to keep the cycle going. No matter how high the mountain is, the kids will always get to the top of it,” he said.

As he continues to support the school from afar, Kharoti hopes to spread knowledge of his school to those in America. In 2013, he spoke at TEDxConcordiaUPortland about his development of the school and goals going forward.

Kharoti hopes to return to Shin Kalay and the Helmand province in the spring, barring any travel restrictions regarding COVID-19 or any other reason. Next, he hopes to expand the school’s auditorium to host more events and invite parents to student-led assemblies and concerts.

“It is my turn to give back to those who need it,” Kharoti said. “But I am not doing it myself; I am not a big man. I am thankful to the international community that has helped with this cause.”

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