Monday, April 13, 2009

Friends of Afghanistan Vice President Nancy Cunningham

Nancy Cunningham shows a saddle bag she purchased while serving in the Peace Corp in Afghanistan. (Eric Curl/Savannah Morning News) (Photo: Savannah Morning News)

Former Peace Corps volunteer continues aiding Afghanistan

By Eric Curl
Created 2009-04-12 23:30
Published on
Former Peace Corps volunteer continues aiding Afghanistan

Nancy Cunningham's experiences in Afghanistan have stuck with her and play a significant role in her life today.

During a two-year Peace Corps assignment in Afghanistan in the mid-1960s, Cunningham worked as a scrub technician, which led to her working in a hospital beset by a serious lack of resources.

While in the United States, she prepped modern operating rooms. In Afghanistan, she found herself doing things "above her head" as a result of that nation's limited resources.

The resourceful Cunningham was forced to use bicycle spokes as stabilization pins to mend broken bones.

She had local tailors sew scrubs so medical staff no longer worked in their street clothes.

Now, Cunningham works as an anesthesiologist assistant at St. Joseph's/Candler hospitals in Savannah, but she has not forgotten Afghanistan's people. As vice president for Friends of Afghanistan, Cunningham continues to lend a hand to the war-torn country.

Friends of Afghanistan is a national nonprofit group with about 300 members. Most are former Peace Corps volunteers who served in Afghanistan - although anyone can join.

The organization, through annual dues and fundraisers, pays for outreach programs, medical intervention projects and educational support.

Some of the group's activities are simple, such as the purchase of a sewing machine for a woman. Other contributions are more widespread - the group recently gave funds to help build a school.

Cunningham's Peace Corps work took place in the eastern city of Jalalabad between Kabul and the Pakistan border. Afghanistan then had a flourishing fruit trade and was not known simply for opium poppy farms. Women had not yet been forbidden from pursuing an education.

Afghanistan also had not yet been overrun with the Taliban, who turned the country into a "nightmare."

"There is no such thing as a moderate Talib," Cunningham said. "They are serious as death."

When she returned in 1995, the fruit orchards had been destroyed from war. The Taliban were taking control, and civil rights were quickly evaporating. Then the U.S.-led invasion put the Taliban on the run in 2001.

Afghanistan native Habib Salih, a friend and co-worker, said he was impressed when he saw Cunningham's presentation on his nation after she returned from her 1995 trip. She had an understanding of Afghanistan that most foreigners lacked, Salih said. Her assistance to his homeland came as no surprise to Salih.

"She is a nice person," he said. "It is in her nature to help."

Cunningham said she would like to return to Afghanistan, but it is too dangerous now. She is hoping the U.S. government's renewed focus there will lead to beneficial and lasting changes. At least now, she said, people are aware of Afghanistan's people and its struggles.

"When I went to Afghanistan, people thought it was in Africa," she said.

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