Learning is a Treasure

Freshta near her mini library

Freshta agreed to host a mini library in her home to share with children in her village and nearby communities. The books and bookcase were purchased with donations from sponsors in the ROYA Mentorship Program and organized by ROYA mentor, Masooma Maqsoodi. (Photo courtesy of Shoaib Mehryar)

When I asked 18-year-old Freshta Ahmadi what her favorite quote was, she shared a Chinese proverb with me. “Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.” The quote is a perfect reflection of who she is. If learning is a treasure, then Freshta is rich. She is hungry for knowledge and struggles to claim it and share it with every opportunity available.

In spite of unimaginable obstacles, Freshta is a bold and determined young woman who shines with self-confidence. She lives with her family of nine in a cave that was carved 1500 years ago in the sandstone cliffs of Bamyan, Afghanistan – a valley in the Hindu Kush mountain region which lies on the Silk Road. The caves were originally carved and used by monks between the 2nd and 7th centuries when Bamyan was a Buddhist religious site. Ten feet inside her family’s large cave opening, an exterior wall has been built with rocks, mud, and pieces of plastic creating a kind of portico before the entrance to one of their three rooms. Two of Freshta’s dust-covered, rosy-cheeked brothers stand in the weathered, wooden doorframe. A rusty tin stovepipe protrudes from the wall and black smoky residue has stained the cave overhang and the upper part of their outside wall.

The entrance to Freshta's home

Two of Freshta’s four brothers stand in the doorway that leads to the family’s living area with an adjoining kitchen. (Photo courtesy of Asif Sultani)

Bamyan is most famous for the giant Buddha statues that were hewn directly from these cliffs in the early 6th century. The two statues, known locally as “Solsol” and “Shahmama,” measured 175 and 115 feet and were the tallest standing Buddha statues in the world until they were blown up by the Taliban in March of 2001. Freshta’s home is situated on these same cliffs that are dotted with caves in a village called Jograkhel which lies to the East of the remains of the two giant statues.

I learned about Freshta a little over a year ago when I was beginning a sponsorship program for needy and motivated Afghan youth. Having worked with young Afghans for the past ten years, I knew that English, computer skills, and internet access were game changers for young people in the country. After a visit to Afghanistan in the winter of 2016, I realized that acquiring these skills was out of reach for the impoverished youth who needed it most. I began the ROYA Mentorship Program, an initiative of Resources of Young Afghans (ROYA means ‘dream’ in Dari), to match needy high school students in the remote province of Bamyan with sponsors who would pay for their English classes and weekly internet access.

Approaching Freshta's home

Freshta leads guests to her home – the large cave opening on the right and smaller structure in the center. (Photo courtesy of Asif Sultani)

In a country like Afghanistan, it is nearly impossible to break the cycle of poverty in families. The education system is very weak. Child labor is high. There are virtually no social services. The illiteracy rate is among the highest in the world and the country suffers from the devastating effects of four decades of war and insecurity. Freshta lost her mother when she and her sister were toddlers. Her mother likely died of an easily treatable illness because there were no hospitals nearby to treat her. Freshta’s father remarried, had five more children and supports the family as a day laborer earning less than $45 a month while being jobless for most of the winter. Like 60% of the population, her father is illiterate.

It’s a miracle that Freshta has found so much success in her challenging life. She is positive and hopeful about her future. She credits her attentive father as the role model for her kindness and goodness but admits that she was her own role model in terms of her education, talents, and abilities. She knows that education, hard work, studying well, self-confidence and honesty are the keys that unlock the future she has planned. She is determined to study abroad, become a doctor and return to Afghanistan. She also believes that being courageous, helping other people, avoiding jealousy and having great patience in face of problems have helped her to be where she is today.

Freshta's classroom

“Afghan schoolgirls and boys listen to [Freshta] in their cave classroom, in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. The cave-dwelling families of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province struggle to get by on the bare minimum. But even this bare-bones way of life is now under threat as the government relocates residents to pave the way for transforming the man-made grottoes into a global tourist destination.” (AP Photos/Massoud Hossaini)

Freshta was recommended to me by the young man who coordinates the ROYA Mentorship Program in Bamyan, an English teacher and the founder of Pioneer Educational Center where ROYA students study. He knew she was active and talented and didn’t have the funds to continue her English classes. Freshta has been passionate about learning English ever since she attended a free, three-month course six years ago and had the highest score in the class. Unable to pay the fees after the free course ended, she held onto her goal of learning the language until 2016 when she managed to pay for one semester at Pioneer Educational Center. She wasn’t able to continue and, fortunately, that’s when our program began. In the year that she has been studying with the help of a ROYA sponsor, her skills have improved dramatically. People who have never met her are impressed with her abilities. Today she says, “I love studying English. It’s an international language. English is the key of science. English is the language of the computer.”

In her quest to seek and claim her treasures, Freshta emerges from the heart of the mountains each morning, climbs down a rocky and dusty path and walks one hour to attend school where she holds the second position in her 12th grade class. After returning home at lunch, she walks another thirty minutes to attend her private English class where she has held the first position every semester for the past year. Since she was 13 years old, she spends two hours a day running a school for young children in her home. She teaches them reading, writing, and math.

Freshta's home

The large cave opening on the right and the structure with a window in front have been Freshta’s home since 2001.

Freshta’s family lives in three rooms with no electricity and no running water. Two of Freshta’s young brothers have to walk one hour each way, twice a day, to get water from a spring for cooking, drinking, and bathing. The family has to carry their dirty dishes to the spring to be washed. They cook their food and boil water over a wood fire. The rooms are usually unheated in the winter even though Bamyan is a high-altitude region with bitterly cold winters. Freshta claims that temperatures in the cave are somewhat regulated and that her father is completely jobless in the winter and unable to buy enough firewood.

I asked Freshta what her advice is for other young people who struggle with poverty, lack of services, and uneducated families. She said, “They have to struggle in the way of education. Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world. The importance of education cannot be stated enough. It’s a self-enlightenment process. Education helps us to become a knowledgeable person. Education gives us self-confidence and makes us self-aware. Each of us is good at something and we need to discover ourselves and use our talents to improve our future.”

1How to Get Involved

ROYA – Resources of Young Afghans developed the ROYA Mentorship Program in June 2016 and now supports over 100 impoverished youth in Kabul and Bamyan, Afghanistan. Sponsors pay $12 a month to help a young person take English classes, learn computer skills and have weekly internet access. Students communicate with their sponsors via email. We are expanding to other provinces and are always in need of new sponsors. For more information, you can message me here or email royaowc@gmail.com


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Life-saving heart surgery performed on Jalalabad toddler in memory of Afghan medical student

IMG_1664 croppedA fundraiser was started in Canada and the U.S. to pay for life-saving heart surgery for two-year-old Mansoor in Afghanistan. It was initiated upon the tragic death of Afghan medical student, Mustafa Ahmadzai, who was studying in Toronto, Canada. Friends of Ahmadzai’s wanted to do something to honor Ahmadzai and his lifelong dream of helping sick children in Afghanistan.

They learned about Mansoor’s urgent need for surgery through humanitarian, Farhad Zaheer, and chose to raise funds in Ahmadzai’s memory for Mansoor. Zaheer, an English teacher at Nangarhar Teaching Training College, has been instrumental in facilitating critical surgery for four other Afghan children, two who received heart surgery in Israel, one who was treated for burns in Afghanistan and a fourth who underwent heart surgery in India.

Ahmadzai completed his B.Sc. in Biology at Queen’s University in Canada and was pursuing graduate studies in the Program in Cell Biology, the Hospital for Sick Children, Department of Biochemistry, at the University of Toronto. Before beginning his studies in Canada, he spent one-year as a high school exchange student in the U.S. in 2008-2009 where he developed lasting friendships with many Americans and other exchange students from around the world.

Helping Mansoor was a fitting tribute to Ahmadzai and the dreams he had for his future. In May 2009, at the age of 16, he wrote, “I respect all people with different diversity. I would like to become a medical doctor in the future to help my poor people who have suffered a lot. I would like to do something to develop this world and to bring all people of diversity together with no regard to their religion, color, economy, or ethnicity. I hope that one day I will do something for the good of this world, especially for the good of my country.”

Mansoor post op

Mansoor after surgery, 9 April 2017

When Mansoor was only nine months old, he was diagnosed at the French Medical Institute for Children in Kabul with Ventricular Septal Defect (a congenital hole between the two main pumping chambers of the heart) and Severe Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension. He began heart failure medication at that time. The doctors said that he required surgery “as soon as possible” before he suffers from irreversible heart failure, but his family could not afford to travel abroad for the necessary surgery.

Mansoor and his family live in Ghani Khail District, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan. Zaheer made arrangements for his operation at the Sri Sathya Sai Heart Hospital, Rajkot, India. A humanitarian from India, Sanjeev Hingorani, helped with the communication between the hospital and the family. Mansoor’s test results were sent to the hospital, his case was accepted and an invitation letter was sent so the family could get their Indian visas.

The surgery was performed free of charge, but Mansoor’s family needed financial support for ground transportation between Jalalabad and Kabul, roundtrip airfare from Kabul to Delhi, money for the 20-hour train trip from Delhi to Raipur, and food and incidental expenses. Money raised by the Mustafa Ahmadzai Memorial Fund was sent to Zaheer to pay for their costs. Zaheer was able to negotiate a 50% discount on the plane tickets with thanks to Ariana Afghan Airlines and vice president, Ahmad Shah Ahmad Zai.

Mansoor left Kabul on 1st April accompanied by his mother and maternal uncle, Rasool Khan Yousufi. Yousufi was able to serve as a translator and guide while in India. They were met at the Delhi airport by Afghan doctor Bahauddin Baha and fellow humanitarian, Sipra Narula, who, like Farhad Zaheer, is dedicated to serving the needs of underprivileged people by facilitating medical help. Baha and Narula helped the family to arrange for their train transportation and Narula contributed the cost of the family’s train tickets plus additional spending money.

041617 (2)

Mansoor preparing to return to Afghanistan – 16 April 2017

Mansoor’s surgery was delayed for a few days while he was admitted to a private hospital to be treated for a fever that he developed on the trip. At 9:00am on 9 April, Mansoor underwent surgery. It was successfully completed in under three hours by the doctors and caring staff at Sri Sathya Sai Heart Hospital. His recovery progressed without problems. Mansoor’s uncle, Rasool Khan Yousufi, was impressed by the kindness and generosity of the Indian people.

On 16 April, a smiling and rosy-cheeked Mansoor returned to Afghanistan. His father, Inamullah Saqib, said he will never forget the favor of all the people who helped Mansoor to receive this surgery. He is thankful to Allah and prays for the prosperity and happiness for all who helped. He continued, “As Mansoor’s father, I will always encourage my son to be educated and become a professional man in any field that he loves. I want him to serve humanity, like he was served, regardless of gender, country, tribe and faith.” Mansoor’s mother wishes she could invite all the donors and volunteers for a home-cooked meal. She said, “All of them will be in my thoughts and prayers, especially Mr. Ahmadzai, in whose memory the fundraising was done for my son.”

Through the kindness and generosity of strangers all around the world, Mustafa Ahmadzai’s dreams were honored and young Mansoor has an opportunity for a long, healthy and productive life.


Mustafa Ahmadzai Memorial Service – University of Toronto, 13 April 2017

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Mustafa Ahmadzai Memorial Fund

Saving children’s lives – Mustafa’s lifelong dream

1929057_59337005683_7435127_nMustafa came to the US through the Youth Exchange & Study (YES) program in 2008 at the age of 15. I had the privilege of being his local coordinator and have worked with Afghan youth for ten years. He was determined to become a doctor and never strayed from that path. He completed his B.Sc. in Biology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and was pursuing graduate studies in the Program in Cell Biology, the Hospital for Sick Children, Department of Biochemistry, University of Toronto.

Mustafa’s body was recently found in Lake Ontario after he had been missing for three months. The cause of his death has not yet been determined. Friends of Mustafa’s from around the world wanted to do something to honor Mustafa’s life and help to fulfill his dreams by raising money to help a little boy in Afghanistan to receive life-saving heart surgery.

17160529_10158243191250507_155933998_nMansoor will be two years old in May 2017. When he was only nine months old, he was diagnosed at the French Medical Institute for Children in Kabul with Ventricular Septal Defect (a congenital hole between the two main pumping chambers of the heart) and Severe Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH). He began heart failure medication at that time. Ten months ago the doctors said that he requires surgery “as soon as possible” before he suffers from irreversible heart failure. But his family is too poor to afford to travel abroad as the surgery is not available in Afghanistan.

Mansoor lives in Ghani Khail District, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan. Arrangements have been made for his operation and all treatment will be performed free of charge at the Sri Sathya Sai Heart Hospital, Rajkot, India. Farhad Zaheer, a teacher and social activist, has been coordinating 17198335_10158243192460507_1997959972_nthe treatment from Afghanistan. Mansoor is one of six Afghan children who Zaheer has helped to get heart surgery in Israel and India. Last month, he emailed Mansoor’s test results to India and a few days ago, he received a reply to send the child and parents’ passport copies so the hospital can prepare an nvitation letter.

Funds are needed to pay for roundtrip ground and air transportation and incidental expenses for Mansoor and his parents. The total costs are estimated at around $1,500.

Please help us to remember Mustafa in the most meaningful way by helping little Mansoor. Those who best knew Mustafa believe this is the most fitting tribute to honor a life that ended too soon. Mustafa worked hard, stayed focused and was committed to saving lives as a medical doctor. He was serious, proud, had a great sense of humor, loved to argue, play tennis, and was a loyal friend. He will be missed deeply.

Contributions can be made via PayPal to karalozier@yahoo.com. If you are in Kabul, cash can be delivered to a local coordinator. If other payment arrangements are needed, please contact Kara by email to discuss other options. Thank you.

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And once we were immigrants too

9q2a3738*Dedicated to my father, Thomas Kessinger, and all our fathers before him and in celebration of his 80th birthday and the publishing of his autobiography, Growing Up, Growing Old.

“The very essence of our nation is founded on the strength, courage, and determination of these immigrants.” -Thomas Jefferson

While reading my father’s book, I was particularly struck by the story of my ancestors, the ones who replanted our family tree in American soil eight generations before me. It helped me to view the current migrant crisis from a different perspective. Over a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe in 2015 escaping violence, persecution, and war. The vast majority of migrants and refugees are fleeing the conflict in Syria and the ongoing violence in Afghanistan. Nearly 300 years ago, my ancestors were also escaping war, poverty and religious persecution when they decided to make the treacherous overseas journey from Germany to America. Today is the anniversary of their arrival.

On October 31, 1737 my ancestors first stepped foot on American soil. Almost three centuries ago, my sixth great paternal grandfather, Johann Georg Kessinger, arrived in Philadelphia on the Ship William from Germany. At that time, 40 years before America’s independence, Pennsylvania was one of the thirteen British colonies of North America. He arrived at a time when the ideology of the early American settlers from Europe included an emphasis on civic duty and sovereignty of the people, and rejected royalty, aristocracy and corruption.

Philadelphia City Hall

Oath of allegiance, 1727

Germans were immigrating to America in large numbers in the early 1700s. Between 1708 and 1760, 100,000 German immigrants escaped from war, poverty, and religious persecution to make the dangerous journey to America. The Provincial Council of Pennsylvania was nervous when five ships, carrying 300 Germans each, arrived in Philadelphia within only one month. They felt like they were being overrun by the Germans. In response to fear that the immigrants would not adopt the laws and language of the English, the council prepared and approved an oath that all male German immigrants over the age of 16 were required to sign.

One of Georg’s eight children, a son, died on the long journey from Amsterdam to Philadelphia. The voyage across the Atlantic Ocean typically lasted from two to four months and the conditions on board the ships were horrific. Many passengers became sick and did not survive the trip.

The Kessinger family spent their first nights sleeping in a haystack at a farm in the area. Georg’s wife died three days after their arrival. He was forced, like many immigrating parents at that time, to bond out his remaining seven children as indentured servants to local farmers. He planned to use the money he received from bonding out the children to buy farmland in Lancaster County and return for the children once he had established the homestead. However, he never returned, the children never saw him again and many of them never saw each other. 

It is difficult for me to put myself in the shoes of my forefathers in the 1700s. Likewise, I can’t imagine how it feels for the hundreds of thousands of people in 2016 who have made similar decisions to abandon their homes, livelihoods and other family members to escape from whatever horrors are in their home countries. My ancestors escaped Germany at a time when many were fleeing the country.

I have never experienced war, poverty or religious persecution. But I know many who have – too many. I know small families who are separated on three different continents because of the tragic choices they were compelled to make. Several of the young people I know came to the U.S. to study and no longer have a house or family in their home country. It is unfathomable for me. And most of these young people have fled their homes two, three or even four times in their short lifetimes. 

img_5530I am grateful for the sacrifices that my ancestors made to build a new life in America. They are sacrifices that have allowed me a life of peace, comfort and religious freedom. We were fortunate to arrive about 150 years before America’s first immigration legislation was passed. Our arrival preceded the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the national origins quota system in the 1920s. As far as I know, none of my family members were affected by the internment and detention of over 100,000 Japanese, German, and Italian Americans during WWII.

By the year 2000, people of German descent were the largest ethnic group/nationality in the U.S. According to the 2000 U.S. Census,  46.5 million people, or 15.2 percent of the population, claimed German ancestry. We arrived when the words from Emma Lazarus’s sonnet which adorn the base of the Statue of Liberty were still true, 

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Those words are certainly not as true in the United States today. Sadly, after three centuries, people are still escaping war, poverty and religious persecution. And the country my family escaped from has become a safe haven for many. In 2015, Germany received the largest number of asylum seekers in Europe – nearly 500,000 of the 1.3 million who applied. Fortunately, my German ancestors arrived at a time when Americans encouraged relatively free and open immigration. They were not faced with deportation after their life-threatening journey across the Atlantic Ocean. I hope Germany reconsiders its plan to deport 40,000 of the Afghan refugees who risked their lives to reach a safe haven or that the United States and other countries can help to relieve the disproportionate burden that European countries are facing in the current migrant crisis. Let’s “lift [our] lamp beside the golden door.”


  • Growing Up, Growing Old: My incredible journey through life, Thomas Kessinger
  • “German immigration to Pennsylvania in the early 1700s: The beginning of a new life
  • The Brobst Chronicles, Chapter Two – The History Of The German Immigration To America”
  • German Immigration” U.S. Immigration and Migration Reference Library. Ed. Lawrence W. Baker, et al. Vol. 1: Vol. 1: Almanac. Detroit: UXL, 2004. 221-246. U.S. History in Context. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.



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16-year-old Zahra Habibi’s speech at the Canadian Embassy of Afghanistan

Yesterday, on October 10th 2016, my friend, Zahra Habibi, gave a speech at the Canadian Embassy in Afghanistan. She has allowed me to post her speech and some photos in observance of International Day of the Girl.

14625631_10100188463215332_399459212_oMy name is Zahra Habibi. I am studying 11th grade at Suria High School and I am an athlete. On International Day of the Girl, I congratulate all girls around the world and especially the brave girls of my country, Afghanistan. I dedicate this speech to those who don’t know there is a day for them, to those whose rights are taken from them and to those who have lived their lives for others.

13521214_261634514201563_1244307329_nI will start my speech with a memory from Bamyan. The all-girl Ascend Mountaineering team went to Bamyan a few days ago for mountain climbing and camping. Our goal was to hike in mountains of Bamyan and see the highest mountain of Bamyan.  After four days of hiking, we packed all our things and were hiking back to the city. As we neared the city, we noticed some men standing before us and watching us. When we reached them, they asked us who we were and what we were doing there. When we told them that we are mountaineers and we had gone to the Shah Fuladi Mountain (the highest mountain of Bamyan at 4,591m), they laughed at us and said, “You can never do that. You may not have even been able to see that mountain.” All of us tried to convince them, but they didn’t believe us. It was a normal reaction and I didn’t expect them to appreciate us or believe us, but what really hurts me is that it’s not only the idea of two or three men, most men in Afghanistan think that a girl does not have the ability to do something difficult and challenging. Because of these wrong beliefs, they prevent women from improving.

13874623_10153618239550684_1535656519_nAfghanistan is a male-dominated society and, if a girl wants to do something, she must have the support of a man and many men decide that their female family members should be kept locked at home and not allowed to do things they want. It’s not only that. Many other dangerous things happen in Afghanistan and girls are suffering from them – like raping, kidnapping, killing and street harassment. Even in safe places girls like a dormitory, girls don’t feel safe.

Fortunately, many girls are not accepting injustice anymore. They fight for their rights with knowledge, sports, being active members of society and many other things which show their ability and strength. They can be leaders and presidents and nobody can stand in their way.


Photo by Asif Rasooly

I will end my speech with a beautiful quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that says, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

From Wikipedia: International Day of the Girl Child is an international observance day declared by the United Nations; it is also called the Day of the Girl and the International Day of the Girl. October 11, 2012, was the first Day of the Girl. The observation supports more opportunity for girls and increases awareness of gender inequality faced by girls worldwide based upon their gender. This inequality includes areas such as right to education/access to education, nutrition, legal rights, medical care, and protection from discrimination, violence against women and unfree child marriage.

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Waking up in Afghanistan

I awaken at dawn to the sound of the call to prayer as if the loudspeaker from the nearby mosque is mounted to my bedroom window. At first I am foggy-headed and then gain gradually increasing clarity of mind. The morning sun slowly brightens my room penetrating the sheer white curtains with black embellishments. I lie in bed cherishing those last moments under the warm covers and listen to the community waking up outside my third floor room.

Roosters crow. Birds begin to sing softly. Sleigh bells chime to the beat of the clapping hooves of the horse who wears them – first softly in the distance, then louder, and then softly again as they fade into the alleys and pathways leading toward the rising sun. Laborers also begin to venture toward the main road in search of a day’s work.

IMG_2095Outside the beautiful walled garden filled with fruit trees and foliage, dogs sniff and paw in the field of trash searching for their morning meal. Shopkeepers prepare their stalls and welcome their first customers while fresh, warm naan wrapped in newspaper makes its way from the bakery to the families’ sufras[1] covered with breakfast and tea. I sit on the floor with Bibi, Ali Khan and Ismail eating my fresh naan with sweetened cream and homemade jam and drink my tea.

As the sun lifts higher into the sky and schoolchildren begin to appear in increasing numbers, I begin to make my way from Dasht-e-Barchi to my office at Star’s A Branch in Dehbori. Girls in their black uniforms with white head scarves, walk in groups of two, three, four and five, sometimes hand-in-hand. Boys with backpacks on their shoulders kick the dirt as they walk, and begin to congregate near the outer gate and wall that surrounds their school.

IMG_2061We make our way slowly over the bumpy and rutted dirt roads, avoiding ditches, deep puddles, pedestrians and stray dogs who don’t get out of the way. Fruit and vegetable sellers meticulously arrange their colorful products – polishing them with a cloth, dusting them with a gently swinging rag all while talking to their neighbors and greeting familiar passers-by. Old men sit in doorsteps and in shop entrances drinking tea and quietly watching the activity outside their doors and windows. The familiar burqa-shrouded woman parks herself on an empty patch of ground opposite the row of red, insulated Payman ice cream carts and waits passively and patiently for the few afghanis that benevolent strangers may pass her way.

Spandi (2)

Photo by Asif Photography

It’s rush hour and the busy main street is filled with Milli buses, minivans, cars, taxis, and bicycles. I spot the commonly seen pieces of red cloth hanging from the side mirrors and backs of vehicles which are hung to ward off evil spirits. Young boys called Spandi with black, smoke-stained hands weave through the slowly-moving morning traffic with their tin cans of the smoking herb, spand, which is also known to protect people from misfortune and evil spirits. They stare pleadingly into car windows with desperate eyes trying to sell the smoky blessings from their smoldering spand and do not walk away no matter how long they are ignored or how many times a driver says ‘no.’

IMG_2064Office workers, manual laborers, students and shoppers move along the crowded sidewalks and nobody seems in a hurry. A bouquet of bright balloons makes its way toward Mazari Square. Donkeys stand on the side of the road like statues fastened to their primitively-made two-wheeled wooden carts. The cart drivers with their heads wrapped in panjshiri scarves or white-knitted kufi caps perch on the edge of the carpet-covered carts staring absently into the distance. A dozen or more old, dusty wheelbarrows are lined up diagonally against the curb like soldiers waiting for their next commands.

IMG_1757We approach Mazari Square with the carved image of Baba Mazari looking over the crowds like a sentry. The traffic police seem to function only in two extremes – standing dispassionately or shouting and waving their hands vigilantly. But no amount of effort can magically create order out of chaos on these overpopulated roadways. Drivers beep their horns and maneuver into unimaginably tight spaces as cars, trucks and buses inch their way around the circle. People are calm, patient and seemingly unfazed by the congestion, exhaust fumes, and daily gridlock on the roads. A row of motorcycle rickshaws wait their turn heading south toward Darulaman Palace. Dozens of minivans sit to the east and north, picking up and dropping off passengers where the traffic diverges at the square.

Two burqa-clad women sit on the pavement like bookends on the north and south ends of the Pol-e-Sukhta bridge. A herd of sheep grazes in the garbage in the median between the divided streets which head toward Kota-e-Sangi. The shoeshine man sits near his shop on the corner. Traditionally-dressed and western-dressed men and women jockey through traffic, along the crowded sidewalks and across the busy intersections. The city is awake, alive and teeming with activity. Somehow, the mood seems tranquil as it does at all times of the day. In spite of the overpopulation, pollution and constant disorder, I never saw people in the streets get angry or aggressive or foul-tempered.

After the bridge, we take an immediate turn to the east and follow a back road along the polluted Paghman River to avoid the interminable traffic jam on the main road. As we approach the campus of Star Educational Society, more and more young people are walking along the street carrying bookbags and notebooks and talking cheerfully with their friends. They follow us into the courtyard where throngs of fresh-faced, stylishly-dressed high achievers await their morning English classes and dream of changing the future for their families and their country.

[1] A sufra, also known as a dasterkhan, is a plastic cloth that is laid on the floor like a tablecloth.

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The two faces of Wazir Akbar Khan Hill



Click on photos to enlarge

IMG_3457We arrived at the gated base of Wazir Akbar Khan Hill, paid the admission fee and drove under the lifted steel security bar. We began climbing the nicely paved entrance road carved into the southern slope of the hill and lined with rows and rows of freshly budding fruit trees, a grassy hillside and newly planted bushes. We were dropped off at the bottom of a steep set of cement steps leading to the top of the hill. When we reached the top, we were greeted with a spectacular view of the richest part of Kabul city.

At the time, I didn’t know we were looking at the richest part of the city. I just thought Kabul looked more beautiful from above. Or that, perhaps, the leaves on the trees had filled out significantly during our last five days in Bamyan. In all my trips in and around Kabul, I had never seen as many trees and as much greenery as I noticed looking south from the top of Wazir Akbar Khan Hill. The city looked lush and clean. The buildings looked new and intact. The sky was clear and the mountains proudly guarded the southern edge of the city in the distance.

IMG_3433Waving over 200 feet above us, Afghanistan’s largest national flag was snapping in the windy afternoon sky. The flag rose from a huge flagpole in the center of the hill – an impressive, half-million-dollar gift from India measuring almost 100 feet wide. Another $1 million was given from India to the Afghan government to develop the surrounding Wazir Akbar Khan hilltop. India has been a generous friend to Afghanistan. Through the war years, India’s $2 billion or so of aid to Afghanistan included the brand new Parliament building at a cost of $90 million and over 1,000 scholarships for Afghan students.

As we turned to cross to the northern side of the hilltop, a Communist-era Olympic size swimming pool pierced the landscape. I was very curious about this ugly anomaly. We learned that the Soviet forces built this pool and its multi-tiered concrete diving platforms during their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s to practice swimming and diving at high altitudes. They had leveled the apex of the hill but could not get water to flow up such a steep slope and, therefore, were never able to use the huge Olympic pool for swimming. It looked monstrously out of place. I was poised to take some photos of the massive, empty pool through the openings in the chain link fence as Hussain began to tell us how the Taliban used the swimming pool for secret and political executions. I slowly withdrew my camera deciding this was not a scene I wanted to memorialize with a photo.

Intellectuals, political protestors and homosexuals were blindfolded and forced to climb to the highest diving platform, where Taliban extremists recited some verses from the Quran and then pushed the alleged offenders off the edge of the platform. The victims plummeted 50 to 60 feet onto the cement floor of the pool. If they survived the fall, they were deemed innocent and allowed to go free, though it’s unlikely that many survived. We also learned that “undesirables” (probably intellectuals, doctors, women and anyone who openly opposed the Taliban) were herded into the deep end of the empty pool and summarily executed by machine-gun.

IMG_3444 croppedIn my haste to get away from the swimming pool, I walked quickly to the northern edge of the hill for a change of scenery. Expecting to see a heart-lifting view of the city as I had seen on the southern side, only 250 feet away, I was shocked to discover the stark contrast between the two views. Looking out over Qala-e-Musa, Qala-e-Fathullah and beyond, I instantly recalled the before and after photos of Sumatra Island in Indonesia in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami (look at the two panoramic photos at top). In other respects, this view was a mirror image of the southern view – with a range of majestic mountains on the horizon and a flat valley bed in between. However, from this direction, it seemed like Kabul had been flattened, the trees had vanished, all color had been washed away and the lushly planted foot of the hill had been replaced with a dusty cemetery that extended from east to west as far as I could see. I was stunned and speechless. How could the two sides of this hill differ so drastically?

IMG_20160403_161200 (2)I felt as though someone had tricked me to believe, for some fleeting moments, that all of Kabul looked like the southern view from the top of what is also known as “Swimming Pool Hill.” But the neighborhoods of Wazir Akbar Khan, Shahr-e-naw, Sherpur and Microrayan are among the wealthier parts of Kabul. They are a common place for foreign workers to live. Palatial mansions (also called “poppy palaces”) and colorful, multi-story homes dot these neighborhoods. Many foreign embassies and other significant institutions are there, including the American Embassy, the Presidential Palace, the ISAF headquarters, the Safi Landmark Hotel, and Kabul City Center Mall. Many of the streets are laid out in a grid pattern and there’s a sense of order and control. Conversely, the view to the north reflected development that seemed haphazard and chaotic. The streets splintered off of one another reminding me of crackled paint.

My buoyant mood from seeing the pleasing southern view and reflecting on India’s inspiring gifts to the Afghan people had deflated. My vision was now more acute and, like a bright, bare lightbulb in a dark room, the scenes were harsh to my eyes. In the distance to the north, beyond the jumbled, mostly colorless, one, two and three-story buildings, I could see large pockets of newly constructed high-rise apartment buildings – like the gated, high-end residential complex of Aria City. Several of these modern complexes seemed to be creeping up the sides of the distant mountains. On the other hand, on the mountainsides to the south, thousands of modest, mud-brick homes are packed densely and precariously into the steep terrain as a backdrop to the affluence in the valley below them.

The contrasts are striking in Kabul – between rich and poor, hope and hopelessness, happiness and despair. I felt like I was drowning in these contrasts on the top of Swimming Pool Hill. Some men had spread out their prayer rugs and were offering afternoon prayers, while other men were sitting in the grass playing cards and gambling. A commander from the Ministry of Defense was sitting in his fancy car getting drunk until he recognized us as foreigners. He leapt out of his car, hugged and kissed us jubilantly and then offered a set of prayer beads to my son as a gift. Standing beneath a half million-dollar flag in a million-dollar park with a 360-degree view of the city, I wondered what the priorities were for a country that needed so much. As an outsider, it was clear to see that we were in a land of contradictions. And that helped me to recognize the many contradictions in my own land.

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