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   from the issue of November 17, 2005

The toughest job Dave Wilson (and a host of others) ever loved


Like many college seniors, Dave Wilson traveled home for Thanksgiving and encountered a family curious about his post-graduation plans. They were very pleased when he told them about his decision to attend law school.

PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER - Dave Wilson, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, stands next to an Afghanistan poster in his office...
 PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER - Dave Wilson, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, stands next to an Afghanistan poster in his office. Wilson served in the Middle Eastern nation for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching English. Photo by Troy Fedderson/University Communications.

Two months later, instead of sitting in a classroom discussing the merits of Aristotle and his application to the law, Wilson found himself sandwiched between two important-looking businessmen on a plane bound for Washington, D.C.

Three days later, Wilson boarded another plane for Afghanistan and a two year tour in the Peace Corps. He had no idea the degree to which the next two years would shape the man he would become, the strength of his values, and the way he saw his place in the world.

Wilson had always been a big fan of John F. Kennedy Jr. He kept a meticulous scrapbook dedicated to Kennedy and his family. He recalls that he shared with Kennedy a strong sense of idealism and hope for a better world.

Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961. The concept captured Wilson's heart and it became something he always considered in the back of his mind as an option to explore. But with the hectic schedule of an education major, it was brushed aside. However, when a fellow student teacher told Wilson that he was considering the Peace Corps, that option came to the forefront.

Wilson met with a recruiter and applied the next day.

After his acceptance, he received his assignment to spend two years teaching English in Afghanistan. He recalls not knowing quite what to think, knowing very little about the society of which he was about to become a member. In fact, he and his father found a world map to find out just exactly where Afghanistan was located.

When he arrived in the capital city of Kabul, he completed two months of rigorous training to acclimate him to Afghan culture and tradition, as well as intensive language training. He found that the capital city was highly populated by international citizens and requested a transfer to a regional city, hoping to be completely immersed in Afghan culture.

The request shifted Wilson to Kandahar, where he was assigned to an all-boys high school. It was there he met Basir, a quiet, kind science teacher who was well respected by his peers and the students in the school.

FUN TIMES - Dave Wilson and Basir smile in this 1978 photo taken from the roof of his Afghanistan apartment.
FUN TIMES - Dave Wilson and Basir smile in this 1978 photo taken from the roof of his Afghanistan apartment.


"I was so lonely that I decided that I needed a friend," Wilson said. "I actually picked Basir to be that friend. The students loved him and he was kind and gentle.

"And, he was one of the few who did not want anything from me."

Wilson and Basir became fast friends and Wilson visited Basir and his family often. After several visits, Basir's father told Wilson they needed to have a talk.

"You are part of my family, now," he told Wilson. "You're my son."

At the time, Wilson had no idea how literally these words were intended. Even later, when distress came to the family and his mere presence could be seen as a great risk, they embraced him as one of their own. Even today, Basir's mother - now in exile in Pakistan - has a photo of Wilson hanging alongside her other sons.

"I really am their son," Wilson said. "They really are my family."

Wilson's experience in the classroom was a challenge for which his teaching certificate could never have prepared him. On one particularly frigid afternoon in Kandahar, in a school lacking any means of heating, Wilson walked into class. With his brilliantly detailed lesson plans in tow Wilson found students huddled around the flaming remains of a desk.

"I was appalled for about one minute," Wilson said, "After that, I just tossed my lesson plans on the fire and my students made a space for me. We huddled around the fire together and just talked."

While Wilson continued his work in Kandahar, Basir and his wife Basira moved to Lashkar Gah. While visiting Lashkar Gah in the spring of 1978, Wilson remembers Basir's neighbor arriving at the door and insisting they turn on the radio. The sound of martial music coming through the airwaves left a sinking feeling in Basir's stomach.

When they learned that Communists had taken over the country, all feared Wilson could be in danger. Wilson was hidden in a closet in Basir's home for several days. Finally, Wilson decided he needed to check on another volunteer stationed in Kandahar.

The two traveled to the capital city of Kabul, checking in with Peace Corps officials. On their journey, Wilson said they encountered many ravages of war.

The fall of 1978 was devastating for Afghanistan. Wilson, as an outsider, feared those to whom he was closest were in danger by their association to an American.

More than anything, Wilson said he felt despair for the people he had come to love. He said the Afghan people had high hopes for the Communist government. They believed it would bring an end to the poverty and suffering, the means to acquire a basic living. When it wasn't a fix, and the new government began arresting their friends and family members, Wilson said he saw hope drain out of the Afghan people.

Wilson also tried to distance himself from those he counted as his closest friends. However, Basir and a student - Mazula - continued to visit Wilson against his wishes. Basir even insisted that Wilson come visit him when Wilson's father ventured to Afghanistan. Wilson declined the offer, only to reconsider after Basir's cousin - a regional official within the Communist government - assured Basir there would be no repercussions. The Wilsons visited Basir and minutes after they left, soldiers surrounded the house and Basir was arrested.

Wilson said that after weeks of detention and torture, Basir was loaded onto a truck with other prisoners and hauled into the desert.

"They would take prisoners into the desert and bury them alive," Wilson said. "They didn't want to waste bullets."

However, before the truck arrived at it's destination, the truck was stopped by soldiers, Basir was removed and returned home. Wilson said, to this day, no one knows why Basir was taken off that truck.

Today, Basir has continued to thrive in Afghanistan. He works for the United Nations and is helping to rebuild the war-torn nation. Wilson says he and Basir remain in touch.

Wilson insists that his character development exceeded any success he was responsible for in Afghanistan. Yet, there are those who would say that Wilson underestimates his impact.

Mazula - the student who continued to visit Wilson - obtained political asylum in the United States with Wilson's help. As it turned out, Mazula was a member of a resistance group - led by the head master of Wilson's school - that fought against the Communists. When his group was discovered, Mazula fled to Pakistan and contacted Wilson for assistance.

Earlier this fall, Wilson visited Mazula in New York, where the former Afghan student is now a cardiologist at Mt. Sinai Medical Center. Mazula also serves a population of newly landed immigrants who lack the means to obtain adequate health care, continuing the cycle of giving.

He took away from the experience a new view of the world, a new admiration for the power of family and the Afghan people.

"They are a beautiful people," said Wilson, his voice full of emotion, "Not these backward, radical terrorists I fear too many Americans see them as. That view does us all a disservice.

"After almost a quarter century of warfare, they continue to hope, continue to move forward. It's beautiful."

One of U
This is a series featuring employees of UNL. Stories are open to anything interesting, from on-campus jobs to at-home hobbies.

If you know an employee who should be featured here, contact the Scarlet at 472-8515 or

Called to the Corps

The following UNL employees have served with the Peace Corps. Information was provided by Gretchen Mills, Peace Corps coordinator at UNL, and individuals listed.

If you were a member of the Peace Corps and are not listed here, contact Mills at 472-8058 or

Doug Beals, Honduras (1983-1986), Facilities Planning and Construction

Alan Frank, Libya (1966-1968), College of Law

Emily Herrick, Costa Rica (1979-1982), Department of English

James King, Iran (1968-1970), Ag Leadership Education and Communications

Gretchen Mills, Kyrgyz Republic (1998-2000), UNL Career Services

Wes Peterson, Republic of Benin (1967-1970), Agricultural Economics

Ariella Raley, Turkmenistan (1997-1998), Study Abroad and Exchange Program

Kathy Singh, Baltics/Lithuania (1996-1999), International Affairs.

Elizabeth Sterns, Togo (1978-1980), consultant to Center on Children, Families and the Law

Janet Walters, Honduras (1976-1979), Center on Children, Families and the Law

Marcia White, Ghana (2002-2004), Nebraska Rural Initiative



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