Member interview: Jim and Roberta Graham on heroism in Afghanistan

Illustration by Monica Garwood

From the October 2015 issue of The Rotarian

Eleven years ago, Jim and Roberta Graham developed a personal connection to Afghanistan after their son Rick, who was stationed there with the Indiana National Guard, learned of an infant in a refugee camp who needed heart surgery. In a story that tugged at the heartstrings of Hoosiers and was recounted in The Rotarian (January 2011), the Grahams worked with Rotary clubs in District 6560 (Indiana) and others to bring the infant, Qudrat, to Indianapolis for surgery. Tragically, Qudrat died shortly after returning to Afghanistan, but in his memory, the Grahams have led an effort to help his father build and operate two schools. Last fall, Jim and Roberta, both 81 years old and members of the Rotary Club of Brownsburg, traveled to Kabul to assist with polio immunizations.

THE ROTARIAN: Afghanistan is a dangerous place. Did you fear for your safety when you were there?

JIM GRAHAM: I felt safe, although we dared not leave the hotel except in the company of our UN escort. We don’t know the language, and we would be easily identified as American by our conversation and our appearance. It is quite dangerous for Americans to walk the streets of Kabul.

TR: You visited several refugee camps and had an opportunity to observe the eradication effort. What impressed you?

JIM: They are constantly immunizing. They try to catch every child who enters the city fleeing from the Taliban, both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. At the east portal of Kabul, young men wearing Rotary caps would vaccinate children on the run. They would flag down all cars with children, and when the drivers rolled down the windows, they would reach inside and put the drops in the children’s mouths and mark their fingers to indicate to any future immunizer that they had been vaccinated. In an hour, there must have been 200 children vaccinated.

ROBERTA GRAHAM: They had to be in tiptop physical condition to withstand that rigorous work schedule. There were seven men paid by Rotary working a six-hour shift. After six hours, I’m sure they were exhausted. They would immunize a child within seconds. It was amazing how efficient they were.

TR: What would you like Rotarians to know about the polio eradication effort in Afghanistan?

ROBERTA: They can be sure their money is being well spent. We saw how heroic the immunizers are. The other thing I felt strongly about is the concern to not introduce polio back into the rest of the world. To travel to India or Saudi Arabia or visit Mecca, you had to show the embassies that you had a recent polio vaccination before they would give you a visa.

JIM: Eradication can happen, and it will happen, because of Rotary’s management and the support of the government. But we must fund it to make it happen. It’s like driving a 100-mile trip in your car and not having the gas to go the last 2 miles. We are so close. We’ve got to finish the job. I would urge all Rotarians to continue to give to PolioPlus.

The Rotarian