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U.S. civilians on the front lines

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Published on: Monday, August 27, 2012

By Haley S. Gallagher

On the morning of Aug. 8, Ragaei Abdelfattah telephoned me to make sure I’d received an email regarding an important meeting we’d had earlier in the week. He had been up working on a project for Afghanistan until 3 a.m., caught a few hours of sleep and then rose again to speak to me before heading off to the Provincial Governor’s compound in Kunar Province, eastern Afghanistan.

A devout Muslim who had gone on the Hajj in Mecca a year earlier and was currently observing Ramadan, Ragaei, 43, didn’t mind staying up late, although usually to engage in intellectual conversations. After all, he was working on a Ph.D. from Virginia Tech.

On this morning, after we discussed the email, I reminded him to be safe as he headed to Kunar. It was a customary reminder from me; his response was atypical. “If something happens, let my wife know I love her,” he said. He’d never responded that way before any prior mission. Coincidence? Prescience? Though I can’t answer that, I understood his loved ones were on his mind.

Two hours after we spoke, as he headed to a meeting at the Provincial Governor’s compound, Ragaei was killed in a suicide bombing along with three military officers. His attacker, wearing a suicide vest, pulled away from a crowd to approach his group. According to the survivors, Ragaei and the three others took the brunt of the blast, dying instantly and sparing those beside them.

U.S. government civilian employees serve on fluctuating front lines every day. This is a fact we sometimes dare to overlook in our desire to help in places like Afghanistan, a country many of us have come to love, as well to appreciate for its importance to U.S. interests.

Ragaei’s dedication to helping others would be obvious to anyone who glanced at his resume. Before arriving in Afghanistan in June 2011, he worked as an urban planner with the United Nations Development Program in Egypt and as a project manager for the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission in Prince George’s County. When the opportunity arose to work for USAID in Afghanistan, Ragaei felt compelled to serve his country.

But it came at personal cost: he missed his high school-aged sons, Omar and Ali, and his wife Angela. He spoke of them often. Sometimes after a day spent working, Ragaei would entertain us in the evening by telling us how he’d proposed to Angela, a story he never tired of sharing.

“I invited her into my office, opened my outlook calendar, and of the three dates I had highlighted, asked her which day was the most convenient for her. She selected a date and asked me what this was for,” he said. “I responded: ‘This is the date I’m going to marry you.’” 

In preparation for Afghanistan, Ragaei attended the required three-month training that included defensive driving, firearms familiarization and more. These are sobering classes that bring home the fact that one is going to a war zone. During them, Ragaei distinguished himself by repeatedly asking thoughtful and provocative questions aimed at improving the curriculum. For me, this personifies Ragaei: a man determined to use his intellect to make life better for others. 

Over the last few months, Ragaei and I were in many meetings together as he labored to focus attention on the concept of an industrial park for Nangarhar, which he hoped would bring electricity, employment and lasting economic progress. Some days he met nonstop with Afghans from both the private and public sector, eloquently making the case for a sustainable, Afghan-led solution, and encouraging coordination among all levels and sectors of the Afghan government. A tough but reasonable negotiator, he took seriously his role as a steward of U.S. taxpayer dollars.

Ragaei also had an endearingly quirky side. He was unrepentant in his preference for bad romantic comedies over action movies. He had a soft spot for dark chocolate. And although he personally refrained from swearing, he would listen in amusement to profanity-laced dinner conversations at the mess hall.

His humble devotion to his Muslim faith allowed Ragaei to relate to the Afghan people on a critical level. He drew great respect from his Afghan counterparts. After he returned from the pilgrimage to Mecca in November 2011, the district governor of Rodat placed a traditional Afghan necklace around his neck, congratulated him in front of fellow government leaders, and exclaimed, “Henceforth you will be known as Haji Ragaei!”    

Even in Nangarhar’s brutal 130-degree heat, Ragaei fasted during Ramadan, which made a great impression on our Afghan colleagues. I recently asked Ragaei how he could fast while facing the high stress demands of his job, with so many meetings to attend, administrative duties to address and reports to write. Fasting was easy, he replied; the hard part was retaining the ability to be kind and patient with others. I admired Ragaei’s consistency; he was always kind and patient. 

Ragaei, along with the three soldiers who fell, was a hero, in life and in death. To work with him — and to call him a friend — was an honor. Peace be upon him, his family, the people of Afghanistan, and the United States of America. Salam and God Bless. 

Haley S. Gallagher is a former Peace Corps volunteer with development experience in Bangladesh and Cambodia. She currently serves as the Education and Gender Field Program Officer for USAID in Nangarhar.

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