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2006 Trip to Afghanistan

Saturday, May 13, 2006 (3:55 PM)

More from Kabul...

So yesterday was a huge day for us. We went to another poultry training center and spoke with a group of widows. When we walked in they had big smiles and open faces for us but then some of the men we are traveling with walked in and they quickly covered their face with their burkas. Some became more relaxed after a few minutes so that we could see their faces again but many stayed covered up. I asked them if they choose to wear the burka or if they feel they must. In general the response seemed to be that it is their tradition, so yes, they choose to wear it. I would have liked to follow up that their “tradition” was to not allow women to work or go to school — obviously that was under the Taliban but even now it is sometimes frowned upon. At what point does tradition have to be replaced with modern thinking?

One of the things that has struck me most about being here is that the poverty is not necessarily the biggest obstacle. The political climate makes the regular job of helping the people that much more difficult. For example, there are tons of bicycles in Kabul — but only the men and boys are riding them. The women have to walk very long distances to get places. The poultry training center, for example, is a long way from many of their homes. If they were able to ride a bike there, it would cut the time in half or more. I asked if they would ride a bike if they were given one and only one (very brave woman) said yes. Everyone else laughed and said no. Why not? They said because people would laugh at them. Only laugh, I asked? I was afraid the men would get angry and would be violent or something but they said no, people would laugh. So I think we should get about 25 women bikes all in one small area and on the same day they can all start riding bikes. That way, together they will feel like all the laughing is not just for them and then maybe the stigma could go away. Wouldn’t it be great if it were that easy???? In discussing this, Rick from CARE said it would be like asking me to ride down the street on a horse naked. I guess even if all my neighbors were doing it I’d rather walk covered up... Anyway, the bottom line is that there are so many “traditions” or whatever you want to call it that making advances in women’s rights, fighting poverty, educating women, etc. all become that much more difficult because even the women don’t feel they deserve too much.

I just realized that all of what I just described happened today. Let me back up to yesterday....

We did have time at a poultry center yesterday where we met some amazing women. We were able to go back to two of their homes with them to have more intimate discussions. The first home was of a woman whose husband was killed as a result of the US bombing after 9/11. Not only was her husband killed but a bomb also hit her oldest daughter and she still has shrapnel lodged in her chest and in her face. Her face is totally deformed and she is also blind as a result. Her mother said that even if they had the money to help her, there are no facilities here in Afghanistan to deal with it. It was heart-wrenching. One of her other daughters was the cutest thing ever. At one point, I asked if she understood English because she seemed to follow our conversation before anything was translated. I think she was just so keyed into us that she could almost tell from our expressions what we were saying.

I wish I could give every young girl in this country the gift of education. They all want it so desperately and they get it for the most part where and when they can but it does not seem like enough or consistent enough. It was hard for me to sit with this woman knowing that as a result of 9/11, the US bombed Kabul and her husband and daughter were killed and hurt. We asked what she thought of America and her response for some reason surprised me. She said that the oppression under the Taliban was so extreme that they were thankful that the US and the international community got rid of them. She did not sound angry at the US. I don’t think it was because she was talking to us, either. She said that during war there are casualties and that they were among them. This is not to say there were not tears and that everything is A-OK. I guess it’s the same kind of reaction people might get when I tell them about Beyond the 11th. They ask, “Why help the people in a country that harbored the terrorists and trained them?” People often seem puzzled, but to me it seems so clear and I think that was what this young woman was saying to me.

The next visit was the woman with whom I think both Patti and I had the deepest connection. We met with a widow and her children along with her sister-in-law, who is also a widow, and their mother-in-law. The mother-in-law had seven sons. One died of illness and the other six were killed during war. They brought her into the room and basically had to carry her. She was sick with grief — both physically and mentally. I know that when I look into my mother-in-law’s eyes there is something that will never be the same for her again — a part of her was taken away and it makes me cry to even write this now. This poor woman here in Kabul had to endure that seven times and lives in a one room house with no electricity, no running water, not a stitch of furniture, and basically no hope.

The younger widows, the ones we had met at the training center, were such strong women. Patti asked if they wanted to get remarried and we were both thrown by their answer. We expected them to say who would want to marry a woman with 5 children... But both of them said “no” simultaneously and the reason is that they didn’t want to lose control of making the decisions for themselves and mostly for their children. It was a real moment for me. Getting married would be a much easier life on some level in that they would no longer be the sole breadwinner for the family, but the need for independence so outweighs that — it really was quite powerful.

I’m so glad that Beth is documenting this trip on film because as I read back what I’m typing I’m realizing that I’ve said so little. It’s hard to express all the emotions, all the scenery, all the personalities, all the poverty, all the hope and all the sadness — it’s too much to put into an e-mail.

In a few minutes, we’re going to Tarsian and Blinkley, the design company created and run by Sarah Takesh. Essentia in Wellesley, Massachusetts, had a trunk show with her clothing that benefited Beyond the 11th. Anyway, Sarah designs the clothes and then hires Afghan women (some of them in programs we support) to sew the clothes. She then sells the clothes both here in Kabul and also in the US. Oh yeah — she also designed the kite pins that we’ve sold. I’ll be sure to take pictures so that you can see where they are made.