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Gil Howard had a long career teaching operations research and mathematics at the Naval Postgraduate Institute in Monterey, California. He lives alone and his children are grown, so he came up with his own plan for his well-earned retirement. “I thought I would work on my garden and do some traveling.” But life has a funny way of changing our plans.

An image of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean as they tried to reach the West moved him to volunteer for the World Relief nonprofit. He ended up helping Afghani refugees settle in California. Many of the folks he met had helped U.S. troops during the war and were among the 100,000 who fled the country after the Taliban regained control. Howard helped furnish apartments, ferried folks to appointments, and even distributed second-hand bicycles. Then a pair of sisters he was helping asked he teach them to drive.

Hands of a student driver on a steering wheel during a lesson
Student driver | Mihajlo Maricic

One of those sisters was Morsal Amini who said, “Here it is so hard if you can’t drive.” But in her quest for her license, she couldn’t ask her sister or mother to teach her. She admitted, “I had never seen a woman driving a car in Afghanistan.”

Since that day, Howard has taught 400 women to drive. He volunteers for up to five 90-minutes lessons each day. He has a huge spreadsheet of waiting students, and prioritizes the women who have learner’s permits about to expire.

Why Howard? Amini described him as an, “angel, comforting and patient.”

He uses simple English, hand gestures, and has learned a few key words in Dari. He’s mastered being calm, yet keeping a hand on the handbrake. As his reputation spread through the 5,000-person Afghani immigrant population in California’s central valley, more and more students have sought him out. They call him “Mr. Gil.”

The rumor is there are now more Afghani women driving around Modesto than all of Afghanistan. All thanks to “Mr. Gil.”

Next, read about 888 college students who pitched in to gift their beloved security guard a trip home to visit his family in Nigeria.