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Tables are arranged in the shape of a giant horseshoe facing the stage in a Laguna Hills Community Center meeting room, where all eyes on the afternoon of Sept. 18 are on Hasan Nouri as he approaches the podium. With his shaved head, ruggedly carved features, and typical suspenders-and-tie business attire, he looks like Mr. Clean meets Larry King.
The 66-year-old civil engineer has been invited to give a presentation at the bimonthly Aliso Creek watershed meeting that draws representatives from the county of Orange, South County cities, water districts, government regulatory agencies, recreational groups and environmental organizations. Originating in the Santa Ana Mountains within Cleveland National Forest boundaries and ending at Aliso Beach, Aliso Creek and its tributaries are part of a distressed, 30.4-square-mile watershed that flows through Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, Laguna Beach and Lake Forest.
Nouri tells his audience of “stakeholders” the creek first showed signs of instability at least as early as 1981, when he worked for a landowner who was trying to figure out how to fix the creek. Keep in mind this was before there even was an Aliso Viejo, Laguna Woods or Laguna Hills.
A creek-correction plan Nouri devised was completed in 1982. When he was immediately sworn to secrecy, he figured something was up. A year later, the property owner donated land straddling the creek that would become Aliso and Wood Canyons Park to the county, the county green-lighted the owner’s high-density development of what would become Aliso Viejo, and Nouri’s study gathered dust on a shelf. Subsequent development right up to the creek banks led to even greater degradation of the watershed—thus the necessity, years later, to form an Aliso Creek watershed-management group to figure out how to save a now-dying creek.
Looking at the problem again, Nouri suggests implementing the same solution he pitched all those years ago. His presentation is short, sweet and simple enough for an Engineering 101 dropout to follow. It’s also anticlimactic because not one word is uttered as he packs up before the next speaker trots to the podium.
Nouri is used to being ignored, he confides over a recent lunch. In the 1990s, he repeatedly presented a plan to the U.S. Congress that he believes would have saved his native Afghanistan from further bloodshed. As Barack Obama prepares to deploy more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to prop up President Hamid Karzai, keep the pesky Taliban at bay and root out terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, Nouri can only shake his head.
“Congressman Ed Royce once said, ‘If we had listened to Hasan Nouri, Sept. 11 would have never happened.’ If the engineering community had listened to me, the tragedy of Aliso Creek would not have happened,” he says. “So those are two tragic things I tried to prevent.”
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Nouri’s well-to-do family in Afghanistan was able to send him to an American university. But when he arrived on scholarship to Georgia Tech in 1964, he found himself at the front lines of the battle for civil rights—which might explain his telling a certain reporter he didn’t recognize at first glance, “Sorry, all you Caucasians look alike.”
Thoroughly Westernized, Nouri says everyone assumes he is Caucasian. Only once in America has someone nailed his ethnicity: “Pushtun!” a woman pointing a finger at him yelled in an Aspen ski-lift line. (She was an anthropologist who studied the region.) The Pushtuns, from which Nouri, former king Mohammed Zahir Shah and the Taliban sprang, are the largest tribe in Afghanistan.
His civil-engineering profession has taken him from Atlanta to Pasadena and finally Orange County. But he keeps a watchful eye on his homeland. In 1984, Nouri and Dr. Robert Simon, then an emergency-room physician at UCLA Medical Center, founded the nonprofit International Medical Corps (IMC) to provide health services in war-wracked countries, including Afghanistan, where more than 50 M*A*S*H-style medical clinics were erected to patch up mujahideen freedom fighters who’d waged war against the Soviet forces since their 1979 invasion.
Nouri and Simon are listed in the source notes of the book Charlie Wilson’s War for providing author George Crile “valuable insight” into the Cross Border Humanitarian Aid project. In the early 1980s, before Afghanistan was even on the national radar, Texas Democratic Congressman Wilson helped funnel U.S. taxpayer dollars to humanitarian groups operating in Afghanistan, including those that sent American nurses, doctors and health workers there to train Afghan medics in the war zone. Wilson and a CIA operative hatched a project to send more goods than the relief groups needed, allowing Afghans to sell the unused items and divert proceeds to mujahideen military operations.
That wasn’t the only money being diverted, according to the expatriate Afghanistan Mirror, which has been distributed to Afghan communities all over the world during the past 21 years. Years ago, the crudely constructed magazine accused the IMC of financial improprieties in relation to funds collected for Afghan refugees.