January 04, 2011
Imagine if you had never slept in a room by yourself, not in your entire life. The implication of this is one of many unexpected discoveries I have made since returning to the U.S. with “the girls” (as we all seem to have decided upon for reference). Placing them with their respective host families the first thing we noticed is the light on in the bedroom all night. The girls are, after all, orphans. They sleep in rooms full of bunk beds. They can sleep through noise and light with twenty other girls, but silence and alone? They already have experienced a multitude of phenomena that are hard to imagine encountering for the first time at the age of 16 let alone coming from the orphanages in Kabul. Flying on a plane, dipping a hand into the ocean, watching a big screen movie, sledding, a chocolate factory, pizza restaurant, a freeway and even a hot tub. How many more amazing experiences will they have in their three-month tour of America? Though as their teacher I am eager for them to grow, to learn and improve their English skills, I keep circling around to the notion of what the girls teach us about ourselves, about the world, and about humanity in general.
My heart is full and my heart aches. I feel neither American nor Afghan. For sixteen days I will be only responsible from a distance as the host families take the helm. Then I begin a speaking and fundraising tour. Each time I will “borrow” one or two of the girls to be a part of my presentation. I am already dying to see them again. I am happy while caring for the children, teaching them, and speaking to the world about their lives and how they have changed me and opened my eyes to so many things. I have never known such love. Instead for now I must sit still at a table, for the first time in a very long time, without responsibility, without children around me, safe from the potential dangers of Kabul. I am wondering what it is that awaits me as I proceed. I begin to worry about practical things we all must worry about. Will my health stay with me, what do I do to make money for my future, as what savings I have dwindles how will I care for myself in five years, in ten? I do not relish this stillness, and yet I know I must engage with it, embrace it and use this time to fill my mind and body with sustenance for the year to come. When we return to Kabul I must hit the ground with my wheels turning. There will be a new leadership class, and I have a dramatist coming to assist me in training my young actors, and songs to learn and plans in the making to develop our own school. And then of course there are all the older boys and girls I must teach. I want them to experience continuity, I know how each of them learns, and they know how I teach.
I am not being still…
I am afraid. I may have been afraid for many months but would not allow myself to feel it. Afraid for myself, but mostly for the children. The world is so fragile, will there be support? Will their blessed orphanage one day be shut down, will their families pull them away, will money run out or some warlord destroy us? So many bad things can happen, and yet AFCECO grows. I share with you these ramblings of insecurity because I have from the beginning, from the very first entry in April of 2009 stood by one rule: I must try to be as honest and open as any human can. The map of my journey with the orphans of AFCECO and their beloved leaders is spontaneously composed from week to week, at times minute to minute. There are no board meetings, power point presentations, guidelines or outlines. No test runs. When something needs to be done, it is done. So it is the western part of my nature, to plan ahead, to organize my future in a way so as to reduce the possibility of failure that has been weeded out of me. But the moment I stepped foot on my homeland that nature bled back into me, filling me not with understanding but confusion. This is what we call culture shock.
Or is this what it feels like to suddenly be in a room alone?
Of course I am not alone. The house if full. Beautiful, heartening friends and family stand beside me every step of the way. And there is my Afghan family, as big as the sun and as luminescent as the moon. When they name their orphanages after celestial bodies like Spogmay and Sitara they know of what they speak.
Sometimes when I close my eyes an image comes back to me, the night of Marwa’s 3rdbirthday party at Mehan orphanage. We’d all stayed up too late. Almost midnight, which was dangerous given the neighbors and conservative temperaments. But the joy of that evening could not be diminished. Music, even the Beatles, dancing and candles and confetti and more dancing. When the time came I was given one of the children’s rooms to sleep in. Flowers were left on my pillow. It was hot; a dozen or so of the girls escorted me up the stairs. They brought me water, a fan, and stood in the doorway to say goodnight. I felt like a character in Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that the Faerie Spirits of the forest were ushering me toward my dreams. I slept on an orphan’s bunk that night, and I believe now looking back it was then a final tumbler tumbled and my heart changed forever.
I’d like to leave you with the words of our three emissaries, Pashtana, Sahar and Manizha. I’d asked them to work on speeches they would give to Americans in gatherings large and small. I only instructed them to tell a story about their lives, which does not come naturally to them. Talking about your self in this way comes without very much merit where they come from. They understand, now, why people here want to know such things. I helped them with their grammar, their sentences and some vocabulary only so far as to enable what they clearly wanted to express. These are their speeches. As you read them I invite you to resist the impulse to think only in terms of what you and I can do to help them; that they are somehow deprived and need what we as Americans think all children need to be happy and full. Certainly they need sponsors, funds for educational programs, and we rely on all of you from month to month. But you must trust also that they do know how to help themselves. They have survived in ways we cannot imagine. I wish to remind you that thus far on a macro level the help Afghanistan has received from the west has somehow resulted in a possible tragedy of epic proportions. When asked by some guests about American involvement in their country, the girls unanimously answered. “America can help Afghanistan, but cannotmake it.” There is, to me, a great and imperative lesson in this.
These next few weeks I will try to be still, try to collect what I've learned and share what seems reasonable to share. To begin, I introduce you to the girls of Mehan, and what they wish you to know about themselves.
My name is Pashtana. I come from Afghanistan. I live in a very special orphanage. I came to this orphanage with my small sister when I was nine years old. Before I came to the orphanage I lived in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Before the refugee camp, when I was a small child I lived in a small farming village close to Jalalabad. That is where my kind father was killed by Taliban. He was a teacher who believed in education for girls. My mother had to marry with my uncle because she could not take care of all her children, two girls and two boys. Life was very difficult for her. My younger brother had a problem with his mind. He always beat my mother and he tore our cloths. He didn’t do any work. My mother had to share my uncle because he had another wife and children. He was a mason and was very poor. One day he decided we must all leave for Pakistan to live in the refugee camp. All this time I would ask my mother about my real father, and she said to me your father is dead. I always cried. Because of all these things my mother was very sad. Then she began to go to literacy class. This made her happy. One day she announced about a new kind of orphanage. That is when she brought me to AFCECO.
My name is Sahar. I come to you from Afghanistan. I live in a special orphanage. Before, I lived in a small village in Kunduz province, but there were no school in Kunduz and girls never studied school. Taliban very strong in Kunduz.
My one brother was in Pakistan studying. He collected money for my family. We were very poor, there was no electricity, no pluming, we lived in a very small, very ugly house made of mud. In winter all the water came into the house. My father had many children- 8 boys and 2 girls. My father was blind, he could not work, so with such a big family life was difficult .
When my brother came home I saw his books and notebooks. I was 11 years old. I wanted to do what my brother was doing. I asked my brother to bring me with him to school but my father and mother said no. They said that school is not good for girls. I did not give up, over and over I said please, please I must go to school. I was very sad and life was very dark for me.
One day my brother came again. He finished his school. He said he saw an orphanage in Kabul. He told my mother and father he would bring me to the orphanage. He said there I would get a good education. Because he was the one person in my family making money he could decide what is best for me. But my mother was very sick and she said Sahar must work at home, I said no I must go. My father finally agreed with my brother and my new life began.
When I came to the orphanage I knew nothing. At school other children made fun of a 12 year old girl who could not read or write. I studied hard in the orphanage. Now I am in 10th grade. I take a special course in medicine. I play football and I played Zeus and Mother Courage in drama.
My name is Manizha. I come to you from Afghanistan. I was born in Takhar, a place in North East Afghanistan. Today Taliban control Takhar. When I was very young Taliban killed my older brother. Soon after this my family moved to Pakistan. We lived in refugee camp. When I was 9 years old my father brought me to the orphanage, because my family was very poor and had to go back to Afghanistan. He put me in the orphanage because he wanted me to be safe from Taliban and for me to go to school
3 years I was in the orphanage. I always cried and I wanted my mother. So my father said ok and brought me back to Takhar. When I came back my mother was pregnant. After 5 months my small brother was born. But because there was no doctor, no hospital, my mother died giving birth. This was the start of my dark days. I saw my mother and I thought she was sleeping. I said mother……. but she would not answer. My aunt would not speak to me. I cried and my small brother also cried. Maybe he wanted his mother. My grandmother took my small brother and for 5 months I was responsible for my home. Then my father married again. My stepmother did not like me and my sisters and brothers. She always fought with my father. We were always tired and unhappy at home. After 4 years my father brought my sister and brother to the orphanage, then finally me and other sister.
Now everyone is happy. The AFCECO orphanage is a place where girls are taught to be equal to boys, where education is very important. This is special because in Afghanistan woman are not able to be Responsible for herself. She must depend on man. She is a slave to her husband and his family. Life for most afghan woman is without hope.
The orphanage gives me education, experience, hope, courage, and even a football team. I have many sisters and brothers, they come from every province in Afghanistan, they are from every tribe. We learn that we are family, that Pashtun and Uzbak, Tajik and Hazera and Nuristani can live together in peace.
AFCECO is my first home. They give me my new life. I won’t forget this gift. I want to do with my life good things for the poor children of my country. When I finish school first of all I will work to give children new dreams. I come here to learn about the world, so I can bring the world to my home, not by war, but by love.
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