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'Not Going Anywhere': Revered 87-Year-Old Aid Worker Has Given Her All To Afghanistan 

Afghans "seem to be so well-balanced, personally, between mind and heart," says Mary MacMakin, seen here in Kabul.
Afghans "seem to be so well-balanced, personally, between mind and heart," says Mary MacMakin, seen here in Kabul.

In February 1961, Mary MacMakin arrived in Afghanistan with her husband and four children, landing on a snow-strewn runway in the capital, Kabul. It was a trip into the unknown for the 31-year-old aid worker and her family.

Little did MacMakin know that her trip would kindle a decades-long dedication to Afghanistan, a country MacMakin has now long called home.

A Boston native who majored in physical therapy at Stanford University, MacMakin had lived a privileged life in the United States. But it was in impoverished Afghanistan where she says he found her true calling as a humanitarian worker at the height of the Cold War.

“I have always felt…home here,” says the 87-year-old, who lives in a cramped, shared apartment in Kabul. “I have been in love with the mountains and the people.”

She tries harder to explain her fascination, recalling a shared taxi ride with three young men in Kabul many years ago. She says conversation naturally turned to why MacMakin, so obviously a foreigner, felt so at home in Afghanistan.

“I told them I have been trying to figure that out for decades, why I like living here. And one of the reasons I'd discovered,” she says, “is because the people seem to be so well-balanced, personally, between mind and heart. Americans live in their head/mind so much they have forgotten their core being, their heart.”

It was no surprise when MacMakin finally decided to apply for Afghan citizenship last year. Due to her lifelong commitment to the country, she was presented with her documents by none other than President Ashraf Ghani and first lady Rula Ghani on Norouz, the Persian new year, in March.

The decision was as much practical as it was emotional, she says.

“Getting my residence visa renewed every six months became a big hassle after I reached 65 because the government does not issue work permits to people over 65,” says MacMakin, who speaks Dari, one of the two national languages in Afghanistan.

Since first arriving 56 years ago, MacMakin has witnessed history, living through the overthrow of the monarchy, a communist coup, the Soviet occupation, the rise and fall of the Taliban regime, the U.S.-led invasion, and the international military withdrawal in 2014.

But she almost didn’t make it.

Back in 1961, the family had first flown from San Francisco to New Delhi. They then boarded a Douglas DC-20 with a dozen others for the trip to Kabul, only to make a perilous emergency landing in the Indian city of Amritsar because of engine trouble. A week later, MacMakin finally made it to the Afghan capital, where she remembers the snow was piled so high on each side of the runway that airport personnel had to shave the tops off the highest drifts so the plane's wings could clear them.

Mary MacMakin (right) with Betty Tisdale, founder of HALO (Helping and Loving Orphans), in Kabul in 2014
Mary MacMakin (right) with Betty Tisdale, founder of HALO (Helping and Loving Orphans), in Kabul in 2014

The family settled in. Her husband had been sent to Kabul to start an education publishing house, and MacMakin said she soon began learning the language and getting to know the city.

“I started exploring the bazaars as soon as we had a few days of Dari lessons,” she says. “An American woman who had lived in Kabul for a few years had a horse and persuaded me to get a horse, too. The two of us then rode all around Kabul exploring the city.”

MacMakin ran projects for humanitarian groups like Save the Children and CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere).

In 1967, the family moved back to the United States. Four years later, MacMakin returned to Kabul alone to continue her aid work while her husband stayed behind to raise their children.

The 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the brutal 1992-96 civil war forced her to leave. When she returned again to Kabul, in 1996, she said she was "shocked" by what she saw. Most of the city had been reduced to rubble. Kabul resembled a wasteland. And there was a new fundamentalist militia in power -- the Taliban.

But that did not stop her from opening PARSA (Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan), a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women and children made widows and orphans by the wars.

During its five-year reign, the Taliban banned girls from going to school and women from working outside their homes. At great risk to her safety, MacMakin set up a secret, makeshift school for girls.

In July 2000, the Taliban arrested her on charges of spying for the United States and of attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity, allegations she firmly denied. She was held in a juvenile prison for four days before being deported to Pakistan. She returned only after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 overthrew the Taliban.

In 2006, MacMakin stepped down as head of PARSA and handed the reigns to Marnie Gustavson, a fellow American who has worked in Afghanistan for the past 15 years. Gustavson describes MacMakin as a “maverick” and “a little crazy” but also deeply compassionate.

“Afghans think that Mary is theirs, certainly more theirs than the Americans’,” says Gustavson. “She fits into how Afghans appreciate anyone of her age and who has done as much as she has done. She’s quite revered.

“This is a person who immersed herself in this country and she learned and she received as much as she gave,” adds Gustavson. “We are ambassadors for the Afghan people because so much of the media and so much of peoples’ perspectives outside of the country don’t fit with what we see and know.”

Most of the thousands of international aid workers, diplomats, and security contractors who came to Kabul following the fall of the Taliban in 2001 have since left, especially after the withdrawal of most international troops at the end of 2014. But despite the escalating violence and political turmoil, a small number of foreigners, including MacMakin, are committed to riding it out in their adopted home.

MacMakin, whose husband died seven years ago, says she spends "every penny" of her monthly $1,500 U.S. Social Security check on living expenses and on another aid organization she has founded, Afzenda, which enables impoverished women to earn extra income from sewing.

“I’m not going anywhere,” says MacMakin. ““It is hard for people, even Afghans, to imagine why a foreigner would want to live in Afghanistan, but it has an undeniable attraction."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.