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Published: Thursday, 3/31/2005

Afghan visitors fall victim to theft

BY KARAMAGI RUJUMBA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Nargis Shearzad does not know how she will face the poor Afghan women who trusted her with their handmade trinkets and crafts that she brought on a month-long trip to America, hoping to find a market for their products.

Ms. Shearzad, 24, is one of the 10 Afghan women who were visiting Toledo and other Ohio cities to make business contacts when they lost $10,000 worth of crafts after their rented van was stolen Tuesday morning in downtown Cleveland.

"We can't go home empty-handed," a pained Ms. Shearzad said in a telephone interview.

She explained that most of the items they lost were given to them by craftswomen from various provinces in Afghanistan who expected money from the products once they were sold.

The delegation representing more than 2, 000 craftswomen who make purses, shawls, and jewelry, arrived in Toledo on March 6 to attend conferences and workshops designed to give them the skills they need to start their own businesses back home.

They went to Cleveland and Columbus because they wanted to meet more people and see the other bigger Ohio cities. The delegation met yesterday with a representative from Gov. Bob Taft's office in Columbus.

In addition to their crafts, clothes, and souvenirs, the women reported that one passport and three airline tickets to Afghanistan were stolen along with their rented van after it was left idling outside a Radisson Hotel. The van and the items have not been recovered.

"I was loading the van with the women's luggage in front of the hotel valets. I went inside to get more suitcases, and when I came back the van was gone," said Bill Booth, a Findlay man who was contracted to drive the women. He said he had taken the women sightseeing along Lake Erie and in downtown Cleveland.

"This is very bad," Mr. Booth said. "These women had their money, clothes, pictures, notes from meetings they had attended, and they lost everything."

The cultural awareness and business trip was organized by the Great Lakes Consortium for International Training and Development, which is based in Bowling Green, with offices in Toledo.

The consortium, which is an initiative started by area universities to promote a number of things, including good business practices in developing countries, sponsored the trip with a grant from the U.S. State Department.

Elizabeth Balint, the consortium's Toledo-based project manager, said that the women were housed locally by Muslim host families. The consortium is now working with the Afghan Embassy to help the women return home Monday. She said the women wanted to return to Toledo after the incident, which left them temporarily stranded in Cleveland.

"We didn't expect this to happen to us in an American city," said Ms. Shearzad, who lost all her luggage.

"It is sad because these women came here to learn how they can improve business in their country and this reflects badly on life in our big cities," said Najwa Badawi, a Toledo volunteer who met with the group before they left for Cleveland.

Contact Karamagi Rujumba at

krujumba@theblade.com or

419-724-6064



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