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Seattle Engineer Brings Solar Power To Afghanistan

Amy Radil

When we think of Americans in Afghanistan, we usually picture US soldiers or military contractors. Seattle resident Elizabeth Chien is a civilian who agreed to go to Afghanistan to help build solar power stations for the military. From Kabul, she spoke to KUOW's Amy Radil about her work, what she misses about Seattle, and getting outside the Green Zone.


Elizabeth Chien is an environmental engineer by trade. As part of her work for the US Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle, she works on sustainable construction methods. Her leisure time would normally find her at home in West Seattle, eating some grilled salmon and soaking up the beauty of Puget Sound. But her current surroundings are much more arid.

Chien: "I would love to have some rain."

Chien has been in Afghanistan since February last year. She's accepted a civilian deployment to build solar power stations for the Afghan army. The solar panels are used to power search lights as well as heat or air conditioning for the soldiers in these remote stations — normally that power would be supplied by diesel generators. Chien says the project makes soldiers' lives easier, saves diesel fuel and provides jobs.

Chien: "We're also bringing the skills and training necessary to run these things and help educate and teach those vocational skills to those people who will be maintaining the systems."

Chien says the pace of new construction projects in Afghanistan is dizzying. She has about 15 colleagues from the Corps of Engineers' Seattle office working in the country. They work 10–hour days, six days a week. Chien is based in the Green Zone in Kabul, and she says Americans aren't allowed to leave that zone except for business.

Chien: "Even when we do go outside the compound, we are in our vehicle with security until we get to our location and then we can get out. So, I have never walked the streets of Kabul, I have not gone shopping or gone to the market, we're just not allowed to do that."

Chien counts herself lucky that her work requires her to travel all over the country.

Chien: "Because I'm an engineer and project manager, I go outside the compound all the time to get out to my project sites. And not very many women in general get the opportunity to do that. Most of the women here are in support roles."

Often her destination is a meeting with officials in the Afghan army or police force. And they're usually surprised to see a woman show up.

Chien: "Initially I get a lot of stares and a lot of curiosity and people looking my way. Most of the time Afghans are extremely polite, not quite sure what to do with me."

But Chien says when they hear her job title, the atmosphere changes quickly.

Chien: "The Afghans have a high opinion of engineers, so when I'm introduced as Engineer Chien, at that point they kind of forget that I'm a female and we just get down to the business of taking care of whatever needs to be taken care of."

I asked Chien if there's anything she wants Americans to know about her experience in Afghanistan. She said she has been blown away by the warmth, kindness and intelligence of the Afghans she's met. And despite all the problems in that region, she wants people to know there's a lot of good work happening there.

Chien: "We have an endangered species list — they now have one too. They've got plants and animals that are on there. They have a national park now — they've got one, and I haven't actually seen it yet, but I've seen photos of it — a beautiful, beautiful place."

As for the downsides of deployment, Chien says she usually has no access to local food, and the Green Zone menu is pretty institutional.

Chien: "All of our food is flown in and prepared. It's not that there's anything wrong with it, they do the best they can with what they have. And you've got to understand they're trying to feed several hundred people, so they don't get too wild and crazy with the spices and seasonings and things like that."

Chien says for the remainder of her deployment, she'll be evaluating how the Afghans use and maintain their solar power stations. She's due to return to Seattle next October. Chien says she looks forward then to eating some fresh fish and vegetables and seeing some water.

I'm Amy Radil, KUOW News.

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