Alum helps build schools
for girls in Afghanistan

Alaskan architect donates time, talent to summer 2003 project in war-torn country

Though Texas A&M architecture graduates have long influenced the design of schoolhouses across the United States, one former student is lending his architectural talent to the war-torn nation of Afghanistan and a special project aimed at building schools for Afghan girls who were denied an education under the nation’s former rulers, the Taliban.

Thomas Faulkenberry BED ’75, traveled to Afghanistan in the summer of 2003 to assist the Afghanistan Girls’ School Project, a grassroots effort initiated by a small group from Alaska where the architect currently practices. The group’s effort to re–establish women’s education has already resulted in the construction of two schools that replaced dirt-floor tents with no furniture where the young students previously gathered to learn. The schools are located in the town of Sheberghan and the ancient village of Qarkin near the Turkmenistan border.

The projects, Faulkenberry said, were a logistical nightmare because Afghanistan is still suffering from the effects of almost 30 years of constant war. The country has no infrastructure, no banks, and no public services, he said. All of the roads and bridges have been bombed out and there are land mines everywhere.

Just to get to the project site was a Herculean effort.

“It took almost 28 hours to drive 268 miles from Kabul to Marar-I-sherif and two more hours to drive the 83 miles from Marar-I-sherif to Sheberghan where we were based. It took us another seven hours to drive the 90 kilometers from Sheberghan to Qarkin.”

Along the way, the group had to cross the Hindu Kush mountain range, “the toe of the Himalayas.” That journey, he said, included passing through a dark, two-mile-long tunnel at 11,000 feet.

The two schools Faulkenberry assisted with were constructed of sun-dried or fired adobe bricks. Because the area is highly seismic, the group abandoned the traditional log beams and thatch/mud roofs and used steel roof beams.

“We tried to provide a structure that would have a much longer life span than the typical Afghan buildings,” said the architect, noting the thousands of people who have died in Afghan earthquakes.

After graduating from Texas A&M, Faulkenberry worked for JPJ Architects for three years before moving to Alaska where he has practiced architecture for the past 23 years. He said he found himself working on a number of “different” projects including constructing an indoor water park and industrial complexes on the Alaskan coast.

It was this “something different” work what drove Faulkenberry and the rest of the group members to take on the task of improving the education of women in Afghanistan. To accomplish the task, the group organized fundraisers and then slipped into the country “under government and religious radar.”

“Right now,” Faulkenberry said, “a lot of money is being spent in Afghanistan, but only a few individuals are getting rich and very little is actually being accomplished.”

He has seen representatives from non-governmental organizations — the United Nations, UNICEF, and others — driving around in shiny new $30,000 Toyota Land Crusiers, “but they don’t seem to be doing anything of real significance.”

The architect said the head of one such agency expressed disbelief — “that’s impossible; it can’t be done” — when he heard what the Afghan Girls’ School Project had already accomplished with its own funds.

“Well we did it,” he added, “and we are going back.”

Faulkenberry said the organization, with six schools and “a medical clinic or two” on its agenda, plans to continue its focus on Afghanistan for the next five or six years.

“There is just so much that is needed here,” Faulkenberry said. “We would also like to help them develop small businesses to stabilize the economy. The idea is to ‘teach them to fish’ not ‘give them fish.’”

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