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Ted Achilles, Who Gave Afghan Girls Access to Education, Dies at 82

Ted Achilles, a retired businessman who helped found an innovative boarding school for girls in Kabul, Afghanistan, a potentially dangerous undertaking in a country still rife with Taliban militants violently opposed to teaching girls, died Aug. 21 at a hospice in Portland, Oregon. He was 82.

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Daniel E. Slotnik
, New York Times

Ted Achilles, a retired businessman who helped found an innovative boarding school for girls in Kabul, Afghanistan, a potentially dangerous undertaking in a country still rife with Taliban militants violently opposed to teaching girls, died Aug. 21 at a hospice in Portland, Oregon. He was 82.

The cause was complications of prostate cancer, his son Todd said.

Achilles moved to Afghanistan soon after the United States invaded in 2001. He wanted to help Afghans, and he came to believe the best way to do so was through education, an area in which the country sorely needed to improve.

Afghanistan’s educational system faced, and continues to face, serious challenges, including just getting children into a classroom. A UNICEF report in June estimated that 3.7 million Afghan children, nearly 44 percent of the school-age population, do not attend school.

Achilles spent more than a decade working to improve the situation. In 2004 he became the Afghanistan director of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study program, which is funded by the State Department and operates around the world.

The program sends promising high school students to study for a year in the United States. Of thousands of applicants in Afghanistan, Achilles was responsible for selecting 40, so he traveled to different provinces to interview them in person. Achilles and the program’s creators hoped the exchange students would return to Afghanistan and become leaders, but many of them refused to return and sought asylum in Canada instead.

Achilles blamed a lack of long-term support for the students. For those who did return, he became a mentor of sorts, helping them find jobs and other opportunities and giving informal English classes in his office in Kabul.

In 2008, he resigned from the program (which is no longer offered in Afghanistan) to work on education with more input from Afghans.

One of the first he consulted was Shabana Basij-Rasikh, a former exchange student from his old program who had remained a friend.

“He very strongly said that the solutions to the problems in Afghanistan have to come from the inside, not the outside,” Basij-Rasikh said in a telephone interview from Kabul this week. “And, he said, ‘My role, the way that I see it, is to support you from the outside.'”

Basij-Rasikh, who was a student at Middlebury College in Vermont at the time, and Achilles resolved to focus on bettering education for girls, who suffered especially severe hardships.

Girls were not legally allowed to attend school from 1996, when the Taliban took control of the country, until 2001, when the U.S. occupation began. Even now, most girls who want an education face a dearth of female teachers and the possibility of threats or harassment. Attackers have even sprayed girls in the face with acid on their way to school.

Many Afghan women have little chance to attend school; some are child laborers and about a third are married off while they are teenagers. A UNICEF report in 2016 estimated that two-thirds of Afghan girls ages 12 to 15 were not enrolled in school.

Achilles worked out of Kabul while Basij-Rasikh helped from Vermont. Initially using his own funds and drawing on his contacts in business, government and higher education, they developed a program to help Afghan women receive college educations abroad, a logical extension of Achilles’ earlier work. They called their effort the School of Leadership Afghanistan and referred to it by the acronym SOLA, which is a Pashto word for peace.

They helped secure the equivalent of more than $10 million in scholarships, Basij-Rasikh said. But by 2012 they feared their program was encouraging talented Afghans to leave the country.

So they decided to transform SOLA into a boarding high school for girls from across the country, especially those from rural areas, where schooling was particularly difficult to come by.

“There are security risks, a lack of hygiene in the schools, a lack of teachers,” Basij-Rasikh said, “so we felt that establishing a boarding school would allow girls from these really deserving areas to come to SOLA.”

Basij-Rasikh, SOLA’s president, said it was the first boarding school for girls to open in Afghanistan. The school, which held its first official classes in 2016, employs more than 15 full-time teachers, all women, and now has 70 full-time students, with the first class set to graduate in 2022. It is expanding each year, and in four years the staff is hoping to have 200 students enrolled in grades six to 12.

Achilles was SOLA’s executive director until 2013 and was on the board of trustees when he died.

Basij-Rasikh said that some of SOLA’s students and their families have been threatened because of their involvement with the school, but that none of the students or teachers had been attacked.

Theodore Carter Achilles Jr. was born on Jan. 14, 1936, in Washington, to Theodore Achilles, a diplomat who served as the American ambassador to Peru, and Marian (Field) Achilles, who helped with his diplomatic duties.

He graduated from St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, and then earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1958 and a master’s degree in economics from Tufts University in 1962. He served as an Army Ranger and worked as a bank officer during the 1960s and ‘70s.

In 1961 he married Joan Baker.

In 1975 he became the chief executive of Morrow Electronics Inc., in Salem, Oregon. He served two terms in the Oregon Legislature and later held a number of executive positions.

Achilles learned he had prostate cancer in 1995. He and his wife divorced that year, and he retired in 1996, determined to devote himself to a worthy cause. He first traveled to Afghanistan in 2002, and beginning in 2003 he helped establish an Afghan branch of a global shipping company before turning to education.

In addition to his son Todd, he is survived by another son, Stephen; three daughters, Helen Andrews, Susan Guerard and Jennifer Achilles; a sister, Daphne Achilles; a brother, Stephen; and 11 grandchildren.

Achilles once said that creating the school in a difficult place like Afghanistan was not as hard as it seemed.

“You build as you go,” he said.

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