Scientist walks political tightrope: He deals with Taliban to help his native land rebuild

Immunologist Mobin Karimi, MD, PhD, runs a research lab at Upstate. (photo by William Mueller)

Immunologist Mobin Karimi, MD, PhD, runs a research lab at Upstate. (photo by William Mueller)

BY JIM HOWE

An Upstate faculty member who lost his mother as a baby and grew up in a refugee camp hopes he can help his war-scarred homeland, Afghanistan.

To do this, he has secured the permission of the local tribal and religious leaders and the local Taliban insurgents to create a school for both girls and boys, a clinic and a midwife training program to help war widows support themselves.

Immunologist Mobin Karimi, MD, PhD, said he was shocked that the Taliban would allow girls to attend school but noted they likely agreed because the local tribes are involved, while governmental authorities are not.

Karimi knows something about the power of Afghan tribes, as the grandson of a tribal leader in the poor, rural area where he was born, in Ghazni province, about 75 miles from Kabul, the Afghan capital.

To ensure that his project would not be viewed as a tool of any government, he has accepted no governmental aid and wants only private donations to the charity he and some friends created in 2017. Called Education for the Afghan Children, it is registered as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization with the Internal Revenue Service and can be reached at https://educationforafghanchildren.org/.

He plans to build a modest complex that will include classrooms, a clinic and a mosque. There will be coed classes through sixth grade, then separate classes for boys and girls through high school, eventually serving as many as 500 children.

The school building, still under construction. (photo courtesy of Mobin Karimi, MD, PhD)

The school building, still under construction. (photo courtesy of Mobin Karimi, MD, PhD)

The clinic would provide limited medical services and maybe some vaccinations. A doctor could see patients and help train war widows to become midwives, which would give them an income and also address problems of maternal health. If the midwives can read and write, they could be trained as nurse practitioners and donate work to the clinic.

To help the project become self-sustaining, it would also ask for 2.5 percent (a common charitable donation in Islamic countries) of local farmers’ harvest to provide free lunches for the children, which could be prepared by one cook.

The local residents are poor, so they can’t be expected to give money, but maybe they can donate labor and crops, Karimi says.

“I always wanted to do something, establish a school, a midwife training center, something that could move the country forward,” he says, noting that the country lacks schools and clinics because nothing was built during decades of wars.

Since Afghan government corruption siphons off much of the money for any project, Karimi says, he prefers to keep this operation private, with money going directly to the people involved.

In the past year, he and some friends have sent about $4,000 to build the school, but they need an estimated $70,000 for the full project. Their first aim is to get the school building completed and operational by winter, since the children are sitting on the ground to take classes now. Karimi is hoping for some grant money as well as individual donations.

He is trying to manage this on a shoestring budget while steering clear of any government involvement, keeping the tribes and community involved and not provoking the Taliban.

“We’d rather be poor and secure,” he says. “You could achieve your goal in a quicker way, but eventually you will get into trouble.”

Classes are held outdoors for now because the school building is not yet ready. Organizers are hoping the classrooms will be ready before winter sets in. (Photo courtesy of Mobin Karimi, MD, PhD)

Classes are held outdoors for now because the school building is not yet ready. Organizers are hoping the classrooms will be ready before winter sets in. (Photo courtesy of Mobin Karimi, MD, PhD)

From Afghanistan to Syracuse

Name: Mobin Karimi, MD, PhD.

Position: Associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Upstate. Runs an academic research lab that studies cancers and bone marrow transplants.

Born: 1979, in a poor, rural village in south-central Afghanistan. His father was a university professor. His mother died of severe bleeding two days after he was born, and his twin sister died at birth. He lost 35 members of his family, including his father and three brothers, to war.

Childhood: His family fled wartime violence to a refugee camp in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region when he was 6. He learned English by working for an English-language publication at the camp and by age 14 was a translator and guide for the Red Crescent, the Islamic version of the Red Cross, in Afghanistan.

Career: He studied medicine in his home country and came to the U.S. in 1999 with the help of a California doctor he met who headed the International Red Crescent in that country. Karimi became licensed to practice medicine in the U.S. and also earned a PhD from the University of Massachusetts.

Upstate colleagues’ comments: Timothy Endy, MD, professor and chair of microbiology and immunology, praises Karimi for “coming out of a war-torn country and working his way up as a lab tech to graduate school and now a faculty member with a research program.”

Gary Winslow, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology, notes Karimi is “genuinely interested in helping people, in many ways, with his clinical research and, of course, with his activities in Afghanistan.”

Upstate Health magazine summer 2018 issueHealthLink on Air logoThis article appears in the summer 2018 issue of Upstate Health magazine. To hear Karimi describe his Afghan project in a podcast/radio interview with Upstate’s “HealthLink on Air,” click here.

 

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