By Claire Harlin
U.S. President Barack Obama made headlines recently when he met with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to discuss NATO’s withdrawal from the strife-torn country within the next two years. There’s also a local man who had a memorable meeting recently with Karzai, but the discussion this time was focused on a different war — the eradication of polio.
Longtime local resident Steve Brown has amassed numerous accomplishments in Afghanistan under the La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary, ranging in areas from education to health to technology. But one of the greatest feats he’s been a part of is Rotary’s polio immunization effort that’s amounted to more than $1 billion raised, which has helped eliminate polio in all but three countries since 1987. One of those countries is Afghanistan, and Brown met with Karzai in April to discuss how to get that country crossed off the list.
“Karzai said what we need to do is get the religious leaders more involved there,” said Brown, who was able to set up the meeting through Ryan Crocker, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan. Brown and Crocker are both from Spokane, Wash., and Brown connected with Crocker via email after filling in for him as a speaker on Afghanistan at a Rotary district conference in Washington. The fact that the Rotary has been a driving force in eradication in other countries was helpful in securing such a high-profile meeting.
“The Rotary has spent $1 billion of members’ money and has major legitimacy on this,” Brown said.
In Afghanistan, religious leaders are trusted and looked up to, and that’s why Karzai identified involving them as a solution to the country’s polio problem.
“The challenge is a communication challenge. Nobody is against the effort, but in some areas there is active fighting and suspicion. [Karzai] said he wants to do more to get this done,” Brown said.
Brown’s involvement in Afghanistan began soon after 9/11, when he made a personal promise to do his part in making another attack less likely. He stepped down as a partner and attorney at San Diego’s oldest firm, Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps, to work full-time as a volunteer Rotarian.
“I pay for an office, but I’m only doing service work,” said Brown, who spends his days corresponding about various projects with those on the other side of the world via Skype and email. “I spend more time on this type of thing than I ever did practicing law.”
One of Brown’s first major efforts, which he spearheaded with fellow local Rotarian Fary Mioni, was building a school in Jalalabad that houses more than 4,000 children.
He’s made 12 trips to Afghanistan to meet with representatives of the school and assess their needs. He said it’s important to make the trip for moral support, however, he has not been able to go there for two years.
“The school is in an area that’s now considered highly insecure … It’s dangerous, and I don’t want to put the school at risk if we were to go there,” he said, adding that it’s widely known in Jalalabad that the school is built by Americans. “The situation is probably not going to change for a while. The place is crawling with Taliban.”
Brown said education has been his primary focus in Afghanistan, and he’s made great strides at the Nangarhar University, located just outside Jalalabad. He’s created a female dormitory and a satellite-based computer lab there, and he’s also brought numerous professors to San Diego on exchanges.
He has also connected an Afghani man who owns a CT scan machine to a doctor at the University of California, San Diego, and put in place technology to send imagery from Jalalabad to La Jolla.
“The doctor said he knows in the last six months he’s saved more lives in Afghanistan than he’s saved in his 30 years of practice,” Brown said.
Brown has taken on the role of finding funding from various sources and making good use of funding that has been made available to Afghanistan. He has found that this is no small feat.
“I’ve never found a place that’s easier to raise money for than Afghanistan, and there’s two reasons for this,” Brown said. “One, because the story is fairly well told about the suffering of the Afghan people, especially the suffering of the women under the Taliban. Two, because the U.S. government has been pouring tons of money into Afghanistan.”
The possibilities are endless, the results are visible, and he said that’s what keeps him so driven.
“All the time people come to me and say, ‘Here’s a project we’d like to fund. Can you implement it?’ and it just keeps going,” he said.
For more information on Brown, visit www.stevebrownrotary.com.