An Ordinary Man in Extraordinary Times

We cannot alter our fates, but we can guide ourselves to choose wisely when coping with life’s hardships. The path we choose is the measure of our character and largely shapes what we become. In the end it is not the station fate hands us, but our character that defines us.

On a cool March afternoon in D.C., dressed in a tailored dark gray suit, Shafi Noori appeared at my office door at the appointed time we scheduled to meet. He is a trim man of average height with black hair and a trimmed mustache, giving him the appearance of being older. Shafi, who limps, entered the office. My assignment was to write a profile about him. Neither a famous artist nor scientist, information about Shafi was sparse – our meeting would be my only chance to become acquainted with him. I was soon to discover that Shafi is an ordinary man who has lived through extraordinary times.

Shafi is the first Afghan national employed by Creative Associates in August 2002 to support the firm’s projects in Afghanistan. He is currently the Assistant Finance Manager for the Creative-implemented Building Education Support Systems for Teachers project, a multimillion dollar undertaking funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. In 2006 Shafi received the DELTA 2006 work Award and In December 2009, Creative named Shafi Field Employee of the Year.

“My nature is to always be nice to people,” said Shafi. “But, Australia was not so kind,” he added with his eyes blinking slightly as he fought back a rush of memories.

In eighth grade, his father, a general, was killed, leaving his mother to provide for seven children. Excellent at math, Shafi graduated high school second in his class. But, the country was at war, universities were closed as were most opportunities for young Afghans like Shafi. It was the time of the Mujahideen and life grew increasingly dangerous and more difficult and he was not able to pursue his higher education.

Shafi left his native Afghanistan, at the time of Taliban for Pakistan and from there traveled to Indonesia and, finally, on a rickety 60-year old boat, to Australia, where he hoped to work and help support his mother and siblings. “It was a small boat with 40 people. We traveled for three days and three nights,” said Shafi. “I didn’t believe I would make it alive, we had no food or water; there was even a hole in the boat, water was coming and we threw it back with a bucket to the ocean.” After what Shafi described as a “very big storm, with very bad, big waves that rocked the boat,” they landed on a small island called Ashmore reef.

The landing turned out to be as rough as the seaborne journey had been. Shafi entered Australia as an asylum seeker and stayed just few months shy of three years in detention center.“I was a detainee, that’s what they called us,” said Shafi. The center held anywhere from 300 to 1,000 men with the number dependent on the number of new asylum seekers. “It was terrible, there was always fighting between detainees, and detainees were fighting with security guards and police. They even set the building on fire once.” Yet, during these days and endless hours of waiting for a visa, Shafi learned to play chess and most importantly, he worked to improve his English by working with other detainees to translate their pending asylum applications.

“Chess is very complicated, but I love it, it’s good for the mind,” said Shafi, who believes chess complements his proclivity for mathematics.

After his release from the detention center, Shafi was given the opportunity to fly back to Afghanistan, if he revoked his new visa. With the Taliban facing defeat in Afghanistan, Shafi returned home. Some weeks later in Kabul, while still getting his bearings, Shafi was told that there was an American woman named Bronwen Morrison seeking employees who spoke English. After making contact with the company, Creative Associates International, he was hired the next day to help the firm establish a regional office. Eight years later, Shafi is the Assistant Finance Manager for the Creative-implemented for the multimillion dollar education project known as BESST.

“Still I am studying, I have learned almost everything myself,” said Shafi.

According to Creative Contracts’ Director John Owens when Creative opened its first regional office in Kabul, it was a two person office, small, dark and heated with a kerosene lamp. After Creative led a workshop for ministry of education staff to develop a new curriculum for the country, the firm was awarded the Afghanistan Primary Education Program (APEP) in 2003. APEP provided more than 170,000 children and youths with the opportunity to obtain their primary education through three-year accelerated learning program, enabling students to complete six years of elementary school in three. The current Creative-implemented Building Education Support Systems for Teachers (BESST) project followed closely on the heels of APEP with Shafi supporting both projects’ accounting needs.

“Shafi has constant interaction with our partners in the field,” said Owens who has worked with Shafi since 2002. “He is the one who analyzes their reports, catches mistakes, communicates them and then finds a solution. His job requires a lot of diplomacy.”

“Every penny must be accounted for,” Shafi added. And, every penny has been accounted for says Owens, adding, “Shafi has always been someone of integrity. Integrity is unbounded by culture, class or ethnicity. Shafi is a man of great integrity in any culture.”

Though grounded in mathematics and accounting, Shafi’s position on education and literacy is clear — “without education a country cannot even build roads. The main problem in Afghanistan now is that people are illiterate – their minds are limited and they don’t know which way is the good way, which way is the bad way. If we do not help the people of the provinces then definitely they will go to the opposition, especially in insecure areas,” noted Shafi. “That’s why what Creative is doing in Afghanistan is so important. I have heard from my sources in Wardak province that people have benefited from the Creative education projects.”

Shafi’s hard work and honesty has earned him a stellar reputation in Kabul. He is often approached for recruitment by other organizations. “People just call me and ask me to work for them, they even offer me a bigger salary, but I refuse because I am committed to Creative. Generally speaking finding trustworthy people is very hard in the world,” he said.

“Creative brought changes to my life. I have learned starting from zero, everything from Creative.”

Now a happily married man with three young children, Shafi still struggles with the memories of thirty years of war and his time in Australia. “In my life, I haven’t seen a safe life. I have even seen a rocket thrown into a crowd of people gathered to receive free coal from the government. The carnage was terrible. I try not to mention these experiences in front of my children, to keep them happy so as not to affect their minds. If you look deeply at Afghanistan, you will see that 70 to 80 percent of the country is traumatized. “I am hopeful now, I will never give up and will try to do my best – this is why coming to the U.S. to see Creative is one of my dreams come true.”

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