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Her home country, half a world away: Fahima Vorgetts speaks at St. Rose in Albany

Photo: Alicia Solsman

A Fresh Perspective

As the war in Afghanistan escalates, an Afghan activist comes to Albany to discuss her home country

Fahima Vorgetts, an Afghan-American peace activist and women’s-rights advocate, came to Albany this Tuesday—exactly a week after Obama’s polarizing announcement that he will be sending 30,000 more American troops into Afghanistan during the first months of 2010—to speak about the implications of United States foreign policy on women living in that region.

Vorgetts spoke at several venues in the area, including the College of Saint Rose and the Unitiarian Universalist Society in Albany.

Vorgetts, who grew up in Afghanistan during the 1960s and ’70s, got involved with women’s rights at the age of 10, when she became aware of the difference in freedoms available to herself and her brother. Even though the Afghan Constitution granted civil rights to women in 1969 and allowed them to run for public offices, Vorgetts and her friends often discussed the inequalities that still existed between their mothers and fathers, especially in the more religious families. As notable as those inequalities were at the time, she said, they are nothing compared with injustices that Afghan women are experiencing today.

Vorgetts said that she believes that U.S. funding of Muslim fundamentalist leaders during the Cold War led directly to 9/11 and to the current situation in Afghanistan.

“We supported the wrong people in Afghanistan. We created our own enemies,” she said. “We supported thousands of madrasas, gave them weapons, and told them to go fight the infidels.” When the Soviet Union dissolved, she said, the “fundamentalists, warlords and drug dealers” that had been supported, trained and armed by the United States and others against communist influence came into power, setting civil rights back 100 years.

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 at the behest of that country’s newly Marxist government, to help protect it against constant attacks from the local mujahideen (militant Islamists), which had evolved into a civil war, she said. In response, the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, along with Saudi Arabia, the People’s Republic of China, Iran, and several Western European countries financed and armed militant Islamist forces against the Soviet occupation. Support of the mujahideen became official foreign policy under the Reagan Doctrine, which committed the United States to supporting anti-Soviet movements across the globe.

Vorgetts fled Afghanistan at age 24, during the Soviet invasion. At that time, she said, women enjoyed far greater freedoms than they do now. The Marxist government supported women’s rights and, while they still had less freedom in religious households, women were allowed to hold office, attend school and work outside of the home. When the mujahideen (many of whom went on to form Al Qaeda and the Taliban) came to power in the ’90s, Vorgetts said, they used religion against women in much the same way that they had been trained to use it against the infidels. They denied them education, occupation and freedom of dress. Rapes, abduction and forced marriage skyrocketed. Women became afraid to leave their homes.

The equal-rights law remains in the Afghan Constitution, but few judges will uphold the law. “Violators are not being punished, there is no legal protection,” said Vorgetts. “People have said that they would support the Afghan women, but this has not really happened.”

Vorgetts said that she believes a continued U.S. military presence will only exacerbate problems that have been convulsing the country for years, ever since extensive oil reserves in northern Turkmenistan made the region globally significant. She estimated that only 10 percent of Taliban members actually believe the fundamentalist rhetoric, and that the other 90 percent have joined in angry retaliation against U.S. military force.

“I have 92 first cousins,” she said. “First cousins. Now, if one of those cousins was one of the innocent civilians killed by U.S. troops, I would be angry. And so would 90 other people. Some of them might even fight back.”

Comparing the war in Afghanistan to the Vietnam War, Vorgetts said that the situation is essentially the same.

“They say if we leave, there will be chaos. But we are there, and there is chaos. So why not leave?” She said she believes that, if the United States truly wants to help the people of Afghanistan, the government should withdraw the weapons and send in teachers, doctors and engineers. “Peace cannot be brought by the army and the military mind,” she asserted. “And we need to work for peace.”

Raising funds through speaking engagements and the sales of Afghan crafts, Vorgetts has raised enough money to build five schools, two clinics, 15 clean water wells and 22 irrigation systems, and put together hundreds of literacy and computer classes. She has also gained the support and respect of many Afghan men, who help to build the classrooms and teach students. Saying that it is her “passion and life’s work is to reclaim and rebuild Afghanistan so that women can be free and equal, and can live a life of dignity, literacy, and financial stability.”

Vorgetts is the director of the Afghan Women’s Fund and an advisor to Women for Afghan Women, a grassroots organization based here in New York state.

—Ali Hibbs

Empty-Pockets Blues

Albany County battles over layoffs in a tough budget year

“Reality is that the budget that we adopted wasn’t even a balanced budget,” said Albany County Legislator Chris Higgins (D-Albany). “We are asking everyone in the county and in this country to tighten their belts and make tougher decisions. At the same time, we in government are unwilling to do that.”

On Monday night, the Albany County Legislature passed, by 27 to 12, a budget that included a 5.9 percent tax increase and restored many of the 109 layoffs that Albany County Executive Michael Breslin had originally proposed. Seventy-four of those proposed layoffs were targeted for the county nursing home, which has been the focus of a long-standing battle between Breslin, who wants to move the county away from institutional care for the elderly and disabled, and the legislative majority, which wants to build a new home.

Higgins broke with the majority of Democrats in the legislature, voting no on the budget. He said that he was concerned that the budget didn’t go far enough to balance the budget by stripping costs in the way of jobs. “I hate to say it, but there probably should have been some layoffs in the budget, to keep the county on sure footing.”

“It was a very difficult budget, because you are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t,” said Richard Mendick (R-Selkirk), who also voted against the spending plan. “Going forward, we have a very tough fiscal situation not only this year, but a significantly dire situation in 2011.” Part of Mendick’s concern is that the legislature has dipped into budget reserves “to the tune of eight million dollars.”

Further, Mendick said the he sees significant concerns facing the county in 2011. Specifically, the $9.2 million in stimulus money that was accounted for in this budget will be gone. “And that is only one of several major items. The pension costs will probably increase. There will be a significant increase in health care. And there is money coming from the state that will drop by four million dollars.”

He estimated that in the 2011 budget, there will be approximately $20 million of additional deficit.

“This isn’t about the future; we are in dire straights now,” said John Rodat, commissioner of Albany County Department of Management and Budget. “[Albany County] is an operation that operates at a more than a half- billion dollars a year, and there have been weeks this year when we’ve had, in cash, less than four million. That’s a rounding error. We’ve been juggling cash all year. We have no margin for error. None.”

Sales-tax revenues are down substantially this year, he said. “As we look down the road, well of course we’re going to take a hit from the state. With the budget the county executive submitted, we tried to take all of that into account. Economic circumstances have driven us to a cliff. And although it personally pained the county executive to propose layoffs, he did, to at least turn the wheel so that we parallel the cliff. But the idea was, until there is an economic recovery worth noting, we’ll try to dance along that edge. What the legislature did is turn us back toward the cliff and arguably accelerate.”

The legislature did allow some layoffs and included some new ones, he said, but “more than half of the legislature’s changes rely on one-shot monies—use of reserves—and once those are gone, they don’t come back immediately.”

“They are probably right,” said Legislator Gil Ethier (D-Cohoes), about impending economic catastrophes. “But my concern is the 2010 budget.” Ethier voted in favor of the budget, pointing out that the budget only slightly increased an already low tax levy. A $100,000 home in Cohoes currently pays $500 a year in county taxes. Now, the same house will pay around an extra $25.

For Cohoes legislator Shawn Morse, a Democrat, this budget succeeded in balancing demand with tight fiscal constraints. “One of the things that is unique about county government is that it was created to provide for those people who cannot provide for themselves. We take care of the seniors, people who cannot take care of themselves, children who have been abandoned. We are the social-safety network for the people who are in the most dire need for the most basic resources to survive.”

“Guess what happens during these difficult times? People fall into the most hard-luck spots of their lives,” Morse said. “When these people turn to the government that is supposed to provide these services, what are we supposed to tell them? ‘Sorry, these are difficult times so we don’t have these services, so you people just have to go to church and pray that you hit the lottery?’ ”

Breslin’s office told Metroland that they are still reviewing the legislature’s changes to the budget, and haven’t decided whether or not to use their veto power.

Of course, even if Breslin does veto the spending plan, with 27 legislators supporting the budget, the legislature could simply override a veto.

“I have no doubt that Breslin is considering vetoing portions of this budget,” Higgins said. “And quite frankly, to be a responsible county executive I don’t see how you can’t. But I’ll tell you what, Breslin is going to get the last laugh. Reality is we are looking at huge hole. You can’t save jobs every year without raising the property tax levy 10 percent, 20 percent. That’s what is going to happen. This government is not sustainable on the property tax levy that we set.”

—Chet Hardin

Extracurricular Activity

UAlbany students join the fight for community policing in Albany

More than 30 University at Albany students packed into the chambers of the Albany Common Council for Monday’s night meeting. The effort, organized by UAlbany sophomore Sam Frumkin, aimed to demonstrate to lawmakers that, as Albany searches for its next police chief, the students see the adoption of a community-policing model as a top priority.

Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings is currently searching to replace former Police Chief James Tuffey, the mayor’s fifth chief during his 16-year tenure. Under Chief Tuffey’s watch, the city moved away from the utilization of beat cops and community outreach efforts. The department closed two police precincts and began relying more heavily on computer modeling of crime statistics. Many members of the community have decried this strategy, saying that it has robbed neighborhoods of their healthy relationships with the Albany PD.

During last year’s elections, it was a constant refrain among candidates for the Common Council, as well as Jennings’ mayoral challenger, Corey Ellis: To reverse the alarming trend of violence that plagues much of Albany, the city must change the strategy, and leadership, of the APD.

And the violence has not spared the university or the believed-to-be-safe neighborhoods where many of its students live: Last October, UAlbany student Richard Bailey was shot and killed while walking home in the Pine Hills neighborhood, across from Washington Park.

Frumkin, who volunteers at Achievement Academy Charter School and is studying to be an elementary school teacher, was first introduced to the issues surrounding Albany’s gun violence by Rev. Joyce Hartwell, a longtime local activist, during a class assignment.

“It became immediately clear that the time had come to do something. It was time for students to get involved. And the time had come for the whole city to do whatever it takes to put an end to the gun violence that is spiraling out of control,” Frumkin said.

Frumkin started a petition, calling for community policing, and took it around the UAlbany campus, going to organizations, classes and his friends, telling them that “to fight gun violence we need community policing. We need a new police chief who is going to work with the people in the neighborhoods, to maintain public safety.”

On Monday night, he presented the council with more than 500 signatures.

In formulating his call to action, Frumkin said, he spoke extensively with longtime community-policing advocate Terry O’Neill. Frumkin pointed to Albany Common Councilwoman Barbara Smith (Ward 4) as a mentor in this process, as well as Dr. Alice Green. Green, the founder of the Center of Law and Justice, is serving on the advisory committee established by Jennings to aid his search for a new chief.

Green is impressed by Frumkin and the students who turned out Monday. “I haven’t seen student engagement like this in a long time.” She added that it is critical that the community rally now, when there is such a significant chance for change.

Frumkin is focusing on finals this week, and will be returning home to Ithaca for the holidays, but he said that his activism in this issue will extend into next semester.

“I want to get this action into the mindset of every large group on campus,” Frumkin said. “We have several hundred members of the on-campus NAACP. We have several members of our on-campus Latino organization. We have a strong college Democrats organization. And I know that they care about this issue. There is no reason we can’t turn out several hundred students to demand for this.”

—Chet Hardin

Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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