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.
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.
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.
Immediately 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.
The 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 economically 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: http://star.edu.af/
Learn more about Afghanistan National Institute of Music here: http://www.afghanistannationalinstituteofmusic.org/