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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Culture shock: What’s all the fuss about shoes?

In Afghanistan, it is customary to remove your shoes before entering a home. Typically you will find a jumbled pile of the inhabitants’ shoes immediately inside and outside the entrance of houses, apartments, some shops, offices and hotels. Sometimes there are a collection of communal slippers inside the door, but since I was coming from an individualistic culture, I had brought my own indoor sandals and learned to hide them so that they did not become communal.


Wonderful feast in Mazar-e-Sharif

I was prepared to remove my shoes upon entering Afghan homes. But I didn’t know that Afghans wear different shoes in different rooms. There are bathroom shoes, kitchen shoes, roof shoes and maybe more. If you want to use the bathroom, there are sandals inside the bathroom door. There are also special shoes to wear in the kitchen. The bathroom I used in my first Afghan home was inside the kitchen, so if I followed the protocol, I would remove my house sandals outside the kitchen door and put on kitchen shoes, then remove my kitchen shoes outside the bathroom door to put on bathroom shoes and reverse the process to exit the bathroom and kitchen. Sometimes it was easier to just stay in my room.


Making mantoo in Karte-seh

In traditional Afghan homes, people sit, sleep, prepare food and eat on the floor. When I was there, the streets in Kabul were either very dusty, very muddy or completely flooded – a disturbing state of perpetual extremes. So I understood why it was so important to remove our outside shoes. At mealtime, a plastic cloth, called a sufra or dasterkhan, is spread on the floor like a tablecloth. As I struggled to sit cross-legged with one stubborn and protesting knee, I was told by my first host that it was extremely offensive to allow your feet to touch this cloth. However, in other homes I saw the hosts walking barefoot across these mats when serving the food, so sufra etiquette seems to vary from home to home.


Barefeet and bolani

In Afghanistan, people have hospitality competitions. Before our departure from some homes, the really competitive hosts neatly positioned our shoes facing outwards to accommodate putting them on more easily. The less hospitable hosts will put salt in the shoes of their guests as a superstitious way to make their guests leave sooner. My friend, Parisa, told me that she once tried that trick and it didn’t work. I suggested that it may work better if you tell your guests that you just put salt in their shoes as a not-so-subtle hint that it is time for them to leave. I never found salt in my shoes and my hosts in Mazar-e-Sharif won the hospitality competition with our neatly lined-up, outwardly-facing shoes. They also made me feel less paranoid about my feet touching the dasterkhan when they walked on it with bare feet to serve our food.


Picnic in Awlai region of Balkh Province

I experienced my first Afghan picnic in Mazar-e-Sharif. In Afghanistan, it’s common to see people spreading a full-size carpet on the ground in the middle of a field, on the side of the road or anywhere else where they decide to sit to have some tea or a picnic. In the U.S., we may use a picnic blanket or a cloth of some kind – but I have never seen people carrying around something as unwieldly as a carpet. I learned that the same shoe removal custom prevails when crossing the threshold between the bare earth and the carpet-covered ground.


This is where they rinse their clothes and make french fries

At the home of my first host, there was a collection of special shoes, sandals and slippers waiting at the door to the roof. In the U.S., most of our roofs are peaked, so it’s not common to walk on the roof. But in Afghanistan, the roofs are flat and are commonly used as an additional outdoor living area, more like a patio in the U.S. It’s also where this family kept their washing machine and where the female relatives begrudgingly taught me how to wash and rinse my clothes – laughing at and videotaping my feeble efforts. Next to the garden hose and the large metal bowl where they rinsed my clothes was a desk with a metal contraption on it. I thought it was related to washing clothes, but they told me it was a device to make French fries. I guess people also make French fries on their rooftops. And when the refrigerator had disappeared from the kitchen one day, I found it three days later on the roof. So I think you can understand why I felt like Alice in Wonderland during my first month in Afghanistan.

IMG_1958 - Copy

Hiding the refrigerator outside my bedroom window

My bedroom was on the third floor – the same level as the roof. My host’s family has a menagerie of beloved fowl in their large and lush garden – peacocks, geese, turkeys, and chickens. So one morning when it seemed that one of the roosters was crowing directly through my window, I was surprised to see him standing in his cage, on the roof, right outside my room. Roosters don’t have to wear special shoes on the roof because they are carried to a small carpet made from a burlap bag and covered with a bottomless cage. However, the roosters have to wear special shoes made of cloth and tied around their ankles (if roosters have ankles) when they are loose because they have a tendency to spar and hurt themselves or others with their claws.


My first rooster sighting on the roof

A few weeks later when looking out my bedroom window, there was another rooster in a cage on the roof. But this one was dead – lying on his side, with his barefeet extended horizontally in mid-air. Why cage a dead rooster? Why put a dead rooster on the roof? I thought perhaps they put him on the roof and forgot he was there – accidentally allowing him to die from hunger, thirst or the elements. When I texted the owner to let him know there was a dead rooster on the roof, he said he knew and assured me they would take care of it. How do you take care of a dead rooster? I wanted to tell him it was too late, but he was the expert, so I said no more. Later I learned that the rooster was accidentally shot… indoors. I guess they should have taken care of the dead rooster before they accidentally shot it. I remembered Alice’s words as things seemed to be getting “curiouser and curiouser!” in the rabbit hole that was disguised as a beautiful, peach-colored house near Yousof Bangi High School.


Entrance to the rabbit hole


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Beneath the cloak of Kabul’s smog

After ten years of working and living with young Afghans, I was unknowingly blind to the reality of present day life in Afghanistan. My image of Afghanistan was the image of a generation of eager, high-achieving youth who were ravenous for opportunities to improve themselves and to improve their country. My image was full of hope and enthusiasm. The Afghans I knew were peace-loving, moderate, open-minded people who embraced differences, were curious to learn about other cultures and religions and welcomed most everybody with warm and open hearts. This was the image of Afghanistan I presented to most of my American counterparts who had an alternately unrealistic view of the country – one only associated with terrorism, war, extremism and hopelessness. But now, after my first visit to Afghanistan, I am slightly less blind than I was before.


Photo by Asif Photography

Kabul is cloaked in a veil of smog. The image of the city is reflected in the soot-covered burqas enveloping the women beggars who sit passively on the pavement in the middle of Kabul streets, inhaling exhaust fumes from passing vehicles. Wood and coal are burned to provide inexpensive heat for homes in the grossly overpopulated city. Over 200,000 diesel generators kick in when the electricity frequently goes out. Over a million cars clog the roads of the city emitting more poison into the city’s air. The thick, brown cloud of smoke and fumes hangs chokingly across and above the city, staining everything beneath it to a shade of brownish-gray. The beautiful mountains surrounding Kabul entrap the smog and try desperately to rise above the oppressive toxic veil.


At the Pol-i-Sukhta Bridge

Just as the smog conceals the mountains, stories of hope and triumph are concealed by the ever-visible darkness of poverty and despair in Kabul. Each day I cross the Pol-i-Sukhta Bridge to reach Star Educational Society where I work with some of Afghanistan’s brightest and most-promising young scholars. Near the bridge is usually a flock of dirty, emaciated sheep with nothing more than a pile of garbage to graze on in the mud-packed median of the busy two-lane roadway. The city’s drug addicts live on and beneath the bridge and are packed as densely as the sheep, huddled together in their filthy clothes and matted hair. Pedestrians cover their mouths and noses as they cross the bridge and I hold my breath inside the car not wanting to experience the foul odor that fills the air.

Star gardenImmediately across the bridge, we turn the corner and soon enter the courtyard of Star Educational Society’s A Branch campus. Concealed behind the campus walls, the dull black, brown and gray of the city evaporate and I am struck by the crisp white-washed walls of the building and the bright banners advertising new classes and celebrating top-performing students. Modernly dressed students and teachers of Star engage in lively conversations and greet each other enthusiastically. The center of the courtyard features a dharma wheel-shaped garden, with green grass outlined in white landscaping stones. Like the symbol of the dharma wheel, I am reminded of the transformative nature of education as the path to liberation and enlightenment – a theory that resonates most loudly in a country like Afghanistan.

Inside my office on the second floor, I offer advising services for Fulbright Scholarship applicants – serving Afghanistan’s future public health managers, university professors, architects, engineers, diplomats, researchers and education administrators. With the poverty and despair out of view, the fog lifts from my mind and I focus on the hope and triumph of this wounded country – the young generation. This is how most of my days are filled, with a series of highs and lows that leave me exhausted as my good and bad moods battle each other to dominate my frame of mind.

ANIM2The other day we headed to the Bayat Media Center to enjoy the 6th annual concert by the students from the Afghan National Institute of Music (ANIM). After a thorough security screening where we gave up our cell phones and cameras and they confiscated my treasured cough drops, we entered a beautiful auditorium that seated approximately 200 people. This was yet another face of Kabul. Sitting among the middle to upper class Kabulis, listening to Afghan folk songs and classical music played with traditional and western instruments brought me to tears. Afghanistan’s musical culture is being revived through the ambitious efforts of ANIM and its founder, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast. Fifty percent of ANIM students are orphans, former child street workers and ANIMeconomically disadvantaged youth. I could not look at the faces of the beautiful children without wondering what kinds of lives they had escaped by being chosen to attend ANIM. We experienced the musical talent of Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra led by the first Afghan female conductor, 19-year-old Negin Khpulwak from Nuristan. Negin lost both her parents and spent more than half her life in an orphanage and claims that music saved her life.

My time in Kabul has reinforced my belief that more efforts need to be made to support Afghan men. The hopes and triumphs of most Afghan women would not be possible without the support of Afghan men. Yasa, who founded Star Educational Society, is largely responsible for the opportunity his only two sisters enjoyed studying high school and college in the U.S.  He has been instrumental in helping many other Afghan girls to enjoy similar opportunities including the scholarship of my Afghan daughter, Masooma, to seek her undergraduate degree at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh. Yasa has been a true ally in the fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Masooma’s brother, Mohammad, delayed his university studies to support his wife while she finished her degree first and is currently teaching her to drive.

My female Fulbright advisees are only able to pursue this opportunity because of the blessings they receive from their fathers, brothers and husbands. One of my Afghan sons, Ali, delayed his dreams of attending university so that he could support his family enabling his younger sisters to give up carpet-weaving and return to school. Farida, the 46-year-old mother of another Afghan son, Sameer, is able to study law because Sameer’s father encourages and supports her. This is not a popular decision in a conservative and patriarchal society and the men in the families carry the burden and judgment of such decisions. Farida’s five sisters never would have received university educations without the blessings of Sameer’s grandfather. It is to Dr. Ahmad Sarmast’s credit that 50% of ANIM students are girls. When Afghanistan has more strong, open-minded men like these, women’s rights will improve exponentially and it is with great pride that I know so many of the men who are contributing to this trend.

I know I will never fully understand the real Afghanistan. I imagine it has as many faces as there are people in it. I have been fortunate to see the best faces of Afghanistan and I cling to the hope that these people represent. Beneath the cloak of Kabul’s smog are fighters and survivors. This country is full of beautiful, talented, generous, and warm-hearted people. I have a stronger sense of purpose now that I have seen Afghanistan with my own eyes.

*Featured image of balloon seller taken by Asif Photography

Learn more about Star Educational Society here:

Learn more about Afghanistan National Institute of Music here:

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Sharing Jampa’s Story

Jampa 2030Jampa is a lovely, humble young woman from Tibet who is an unstoppable force for change. In May, she will graduate from the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and just received exciting news about her acceptance to the MA Program in Sustainable Development at the School for International Training (SIT) in Vermont.  She was introduced to me three months ago by Jensine Larsen, the founder/CEO of World Pulse and I’ve had the pleasure to work with her and get to know her better during this short time. I want to share just a small part of her story because I think it’s important that we hear and know about the great things that people are doing around the world. In spite of the bad news portrayed in the media, I am privileged to be surrounded by young people who are committed to improving lives and addressing the problems in our global society. Jampa is one of many who I have been blessed to know and work with.

Here are excerpts from one of her essays for SIT where she identifies the social issue she is most committed to, discusses its sources and effects and proposes actions to address it:

By Jampa Latso:

Jampa 3Despite the fact that women’s education is emerging as a top priority of the international development community, there are still widespread gaps, a lack of funding, and general neglect of women’s education on a global scale—as can be evidenced in my home community of Tibet in Karze County where scores of young women receive little or no education. Such neglect of women’s education is a catastrophic social issue that not only creates irreparable damages to women’s bodies and minds but also impedes the progress of society as a whole.

My own birth illustrates the challenges faced by many Tibetan women from the moment they enter the world. I was born in a narrow horse stall on a pile of straw covered with a worn-out, handwoven rug. Long, flat, thin pieces of timber separated the horse stall from the nearby cow and yak stalls and is one of the filthiest areas of a typical two-story, mud-walled village house. My mother vividly recounts how my father piled black stones in front of our family’s gate when I was born and burned a piece of dried yak dung on top of them. The color black has a negative connotation in Tibetan and Buddhist culture. Black stones are used when a female child is born. Ironically, this practice is a way to banish evil spirits and protect the newborn child, but for girls it is the first of a lifetime of messages teaching them that they are less worthy than boys.

Jampa 4As a newborn girl, my arrival was not a noble or joyous event for my family.  Given the Tibetan cultural view that privileges the male lineage and sees newborn girls as already “taken” or wedded to other families, my parents felt disappointment because it shattered their expectations and prayers for a boy.  Even though I hold no grudges against my parents for the disappointments they experienced at my birth, I realize that a more critical educational system would have created different social conditions for my parents, thus lessening the burden they may have felt at having a girl instead of a boy when I was born.

Tibetan girls tend to mirror themselves through the lens of social stigmas and internalize the socially constructed beliefs that they are born inferior to boys and are the property of other families. Therefore, they rarely attend school and usually remain home herding livestock, doing house chores and collecting yak dung. By the time they give birth to their own children, most women in my culture have accepted their fate. They receive no prenatal or neonatal care and have no access to sanitary facilities with professional birth attendants.

Jampa 2Such deep-rooted social stigmas combined with poor socio-economic conditions are the primary barriers for women’s access to education. Families like mine cannot afford the $150 annual cost of sending their daughters to school.  For instance, my parents can barely get by with their small income from digging caterpillar fungus and selling a small amount of surplus barley. Despite such obstacles, my illiterate parents recognized the value in education and made many sacrifices to send me to school. However, when I was in 8th grade, I had to withdraw because my parents became sick and my elder sister passed away. The turning point in my life came during those months when one of the Great Lamas in my village offered financial support for my schooling because he recognized my talent and potential.

This was the first of many steps that led me to discovering the world outside my village.  A scholarship and more financial support brought me to Xining City, a three day bus and train trip from my village, for four more years of studies. My time in Xining gave me the opportunity to take Gender Studies and Development Studies with the Shem Women’s Group. I met inspiring women mentors who made me more conscious of the position of girls in our society and helped me to believe that I could be a source of change. Although most of my classmates were content to return to their home communities and work in the tourism industry, I knew that I needed to develop stronger skills to fulfill the dreams I had for myself and my community. Therefore I sought more opportunities and was chosen for a full scholarship to study at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh.

Jampa 1Since I am the first person from my community to attend university, I feel a tremendous responsibility to advocate for the education of women in my community. I firmly believe that quality education for girls can bring about multi-dimensional changes in communities. Promoting women’s education involves changing attitudes across society as well as a great investment in quality education. In particular, it is imperative to initiate a comprehensive reform program that opens new means of engaging policy makers. I propose a bottom-up approach, where civil society and grassroots individual leaders play significant roles in shaping the societal attitudes regarding gender and the importance of women’s education. Furthermore, it is necessary to improve local-level school governance in order to ensure that education programs are built to meet local people’s needs since education primarily ought to be for improving the lives of people.

I understand changing cultural attitudes towards women takes time. However, I have witnessed the changes that have occurred in my home community since I became an active proponent of girls’ education and other social causes. Many rural families have benefitted from my small-scale development projects and more girls are now attending school. Structural reforms, leadership initiative, and social change start from individual educators like myself because we establish close connections and mentorships with parents, women and girls. Through one-to-one conversations, we can promote the importance of education, raise awareness about health, and help empower girls to realize their full potential. Such efforts will help them to discover the creative power of their minds and will challenge them to use their newfound power.

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