America's new charity of choice: Afghanistan

It was an unusual request for a 13th birthday party: Bring donations to help the kids of Afghanistan, not presents.

There was no Britney Spears music at the party, either. The joint hosts, Leslie Owens and Kendra Scott, held their celebratory bash at an Egyptian-owned pizza parlor in Framingham, Mass., where the background entertainment came courtesy of Al Jazeera, the Middle East-based news channel, not MTV.

"With all that's going on, it seemed wrong to get presents," says Leslie.

In all, the shindig raised $200, which was sent to a fund for Afghan children.

The girls' efforts reflect a surge of interest in giving to Afghanistan by Americans of all ages. Whether motivated by guilt over US bombs or a greater sense of global connectedness, many Americans are reaching out to a country halfway around the world that, just three months ago, they likely couldn't have found on a map. quot;We wanted to do something that reached out globally," says Terry Meyers, a member of an all-woman chorale ensemble who are using their annual holiday concert this Saturday in Berkeley, Calif., to benefit the Global Fund for Women's projects in Afghanistan. "We have various points of view about the military action," she adds, "but we all agree civilians suffer, and need support and help."

Americans have a history of being generous when they're made aware of global needs, say experts (though they also note that less than 2 percent of all philanthropic dollars go to international aid). In this case, Afghanistan's high visibility in the news has helped spark giving. "The media has done a very good job of presenting the need for a humanitarian response to the crisis ... and has helped the public separate out the issues," says Peggy Connolly, a spokesperson for Oxfam America.

Many relief groups also cite the repeated emphasis by President Bush and other officials that the Afghan people are not America's enemy, but rather victims of the Taliban, as significant in raising awareness of Afghanistan's needs.

It's children who are most visibly galvanized to assist Afghans at the moment. Forgoing the chance to see "Harry Potter" a second time, many of them are responding to President Bush's nationally televised appeal that all American children send $1 to help Afghan children. Red Cross officials administering America's Fund for Afghan Children say that, to date, 1.5 million has been raised, with donations still rolling in steadily.

The initiative has sparked a broad-based effort in schools and youth groups that has helped not only to raise money, but also to create a sense of global connection for many American kids. The effort has evidently struck a chord. A number of notes sent in with the money describe how it was raised: a 4-H group that baked brownies, a youth choir in Connecticut that is holding a concert for the fund this weekend, an honor council in Texas that organized a fundraiser.

The students at Hillsdale Middle School in San Diego added $1 to the ticket price of their annual Halloween dance. In the cafeteria, a collection box sat next to a large poster where students could write messages to Afghan children. In total, the school raised $1,500 - $1 for each student.

"It's empowering to have kids help other kids," says Leslie Vansant of the Red Cross.

The money liberated from piggy banks is primarily being used to purchase winterized tents, water purifiers, medical supplies, and even gift packages with notebooks, crayons, and a Koosh ball. Other charities such as the International Rescue Committee, CARE, and the American Friends Service Committee are also working in refugee camps to provide emergency services. Oxfam has shipped 10,000 books to Afghan classrooms.

Many donors, though, are motivated not just by photographs of children in refugee camps, but also by the conviction that improving conditions in the region may be an effective weapon against terrorism.

"A lot of the impetus that's coming out of post-Sept. 11 thinking is an increasing recognition that we do live in one world, that our actions here do have implications elsewhere," says John Harvey of Grantmakers Without Borders in Boston, whose website, www.inter nationaldonors.org, is one of two, along with www.interaction.org, listing charities people can donate to. "Can we sit back and watch ..., given what we know now?"

For Shaunagh Robbins, a law-firm manager in Honolulu, the answer to that is no.

Ms. Robbins knew little about Afghanistan before Sept. 11, and had seldom supported international aid groups, but last month she donated money to Oxfam and forwarded an e-mail request for donations to about 1,500 people. An op-ed piece by British novelist Salman Rushdie about how the conditions in some countries help breed terrorism had a particularly strong effect on her. "Some people say we [in America] think we're king of the roost, and everything's fine for us," she says, "but we're beginning to realize that no matter what our life conditions here, we can't ignore pockets of isolation all over the world."

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