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Rural conditions bring great rewards for grad volunteering in Afghanistan

By Drew Brown. (From Spring 2003)

If you’re one of the many PLU friends of Cory Heins ’77, don’t be offended if you haven’t heard from him lately. He’s been a bit hard to reach, living in Afghanistan and working for World Concern, an international relief organization that has helped the country that has been torn by civil war and famine for 20 years. Communication comes via battery-powered satellite phone, from a dark, quiet, electricity-free office that doubles as his home.

Afghanistan became even more dangerous for American relief organizations in the months following September 11, as the U.S. and its allies fought the ruling Taliban government. Heins started participating in the Afghan relief project in December 2001 and January 2002 as the distribution coordinator, responsible for providing logistical support and assisting in the distribution of food and emergency supplies in the northeastern Afghani province of Takhar.

One of the first projects he coordinated was the distribution of 5,000 pairs of boots and shoes to boys and girls between the ages of 3 and 14. At the time, Heins was the only westerner in the remote district of Chah Ab.

Heins returned to Afghanistan last November, overseeing projects that include building roads, repairing schools, building schools from scratch, building bridges and constructing water systems for villages.

"With over 5,200 local people working on our projects, we are quite busy," Heins said.

Then there are the days driving out to the sites.

"It’s a bone rattling adventure," Heins said, via e-mail. The roads are a disaster, and there are the inevitable challenges of snow, rain and deep, voluminous mud.

In northeastern Afghanistan, transportation is by donkey, and there are no road signs. Distribution is very detailed and time consuming. Compensation is a combination of wheat, oil or lentils. There are no telephones, newspapers, running water, postal service, music or television. It’s the most remote place Heins has ever been.

But the people are grateful and loving, despite their circumstances.

"It’s truly the Land of the Greeting," Heins said. "Many people approached me in the streets to welcome me. It is always a handshake and a placing of the hand over the heart." Heins is frequently asked if he fears for his safety, and the answer is always "no."

"The Afghan people surrounded me with their world-renowned hospitality," Heins said. "They wouldn’t allow a visitor to venture out alone. Unthinkable."

Heins compares his feelings about people of Afghanistan to that of those at PLU.

"What stood out were the people at PLU and the friendships that I made," he said.

He has also done relief work in Nepal and Vietnam, and worked on a development project in Bangladesh for World Concern in 2001. His involvement in international relief began in the early ’90s, when he helped build a school and 172 clean-water wells in Cambodia. In 2003, Heins plans to shift his relief efforts to famine-stricken East Africa.

Heins lives in Edmonds, Wash., and works as a real estate broker when not volunteering for World Concern. He encourages everyone to help in any way they can. "Even the smallest effort can have a great effect on someone’s life. I know. I've been there."



© Scene 2004  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Summer 2004

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