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.

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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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Flavors of Belize

Horace, a native of Belize and local skipper, is our guide. We anchor at Half Moon Cay – an enchanted island with swaying palm trees and white sandy beaches. It is here in the pristine, turquoise waters that we free-dive for lobster and conch for our evening meal. Our next stop is Victor Forman’s Cay to procure some coconut oil – the secret ingredient for Horace’s famous conch chowder.

The island was made by Horace’s family – concrete, sand and gravel poured onto an eroded shoal. The small, primitive fishing camp is also home to a makeshift coconut oil factory. Five motley dogs greet us at the dock, wagging their tails excitedly and begging for attention. Wooden lobster traps, grease-stained coolers and mismatched buckets litter the grounds. A whitewashed cistern collects precious rainwater next to weather-beaten fishing shacks wearing faded shades of green and gray. A pair of outhouses project from another dock – open to the sea below.

Victor and the other fishermen tend to their recent catch. One man minds a pot cooking on an open fire and seems as starved for attention as the dogs. With touches of gray hair and flecks of sand on his face, he puts a live sea urchin in his mouth as his eyes dance playfully toward us. He smiles, takes it out and offers it to me. I gasp and grin, unwilling to take the spiny creature. I look in his blackened pot and fish heads stare back at me. I ask gently, “Will you eat these?” He laughs heartily and says, “No, they are for the dogs!”

With coconut oil in hand, we climb into our dinghy and invite Victor and the others to join us at the end of their day. Back onboard, our galley windows cloud over with steam as the aroma of our savory, coconut oil-infused chowder fills the air. Okra, garlic, lime juice and a medley of other fresh, local vegetables add to the exquisite goodness. Under the star-filled night sky we sit with new friends, savoring the rich and varied flavors of Belize and her warm and friendly people.

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Travel That Feeds the Soul

The Mississippi Delta in November was dull and lifeless.  The vast, barren farmlands, murky cypress swamps and harvested remains of industrial-sized cotton fields had met their seasonal decline.  As dusk descended and I neared Metcalfe, faded signs, rusty corrugated-tin roofs and ramshackle shotgun shacks became more prevalent.  The temperature dropped and fog began to fill the unseen bayous along the road.

Miss Murray, a great-grandmother and the matriarch of Metcalfe, greeted me in the kitchen at Town Hall when I arrived.  In her hair net, apron and bright hospital scrubs, she beamed with southern hospitality and extended her grandmotherly arms.  My trepidation about my volunteer vacation evaporated instantly as I helped Miss Murray prepare dinner for the rest of our team.

Eager for a full experience and trying to outrun the dawdling southern pace, I greeted the early morning fog on the Horseshoe Bayou on my daily walk to Little Lamb’s Daycare.  My time at the daycare was the “work” I did before meeting the rest of the team for a day of playground maintenance and work in an after-school program.  Every day as I entered the building, I was greeted with cheerful chatter and sing-song little southern voices singing a chorus of “Gud Mooornin’, Miss Kaaara.”  Thelma was busy preparing breakfast, so the children craved my attention as much as I craved theirs.  With bright, hungry smiles they pleaded, “Miss Kara, Miss Kara… read me a story… help me with this puzzle… please, ma’am?”  Their soft hands touched my bare arm, rested on my shoulder and patted my hair.  The love in their eyes and their white, toothy smiles were the landscape that I sought.

Miss Murray hugged me as we said good-bye at the end of my week in the heart of cotton plantations and the American South.  We both cried as she said, “No sooner ‘n y’all git here ‘n y’all be leavin’ agin.”  Our tears were proof that I had achieved my goal – experiencing the culture of the Deep South through its local people.

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Blessed with Boys

I spent much of last week reflecting on the joy that all my sons bring to my life.  I feel so blessed.  It was a week with many meaningful affirmations, new gifts, reasons to rejoice in the privilege of having sons and gratitude for the presence of so many fine young men in my life.

The week began with a lesson in how to filet freshly caught fish with my middle son, Erik.  He showed up unexpectedly after a day of ice-fishing courting a bucket full of fish.  He came in the house as I walked in from work and announced, “You better get your fileting shoes on ’cause I’m gonna teach you how to filet fish tonight.”  I looked at my shoes and I looked at him and said, “What??!!  I need special shoes??”  He said I didn’t, but suggested that I may want to change my clothes.  He also suggested that I get my camera so I could document my lesson and write about it in my blog.  When I returned to the pantry, Erik was washing the fish in my sink.  They were beautiful – spectacular colors and patterns… God’s handiwork.  I came closer to the sink to take a photo and suddenly there was a flopping movement in the sink.  Holy crap!  I looked again because I wasn’t sure what I had just seen.  Then a few more fish flipped and flopped inside the sink and I realized THEY WERE ALIVE!!!   Then I did what all fish fileters do… I screamed!!   Twice!!

I tried to be brave, but every time a fish moved I twitched and cringed and finally told Erik that he would have to make sure all the fish were dead before our lesson began.  He did the dirty deed, described it to me in graphic detail and called me back into the kitchen.  As the lesson began he warned me that the fish would still move around because their nerves were alive.  Oh jeeze!! I watched him and the bucket of jittery fish with apprehension.  My heart raced.  I tried to still my nerves.  I couldn’t possibly walk away from such a challenge.  If I could cut trees with Erik, I could certainly filet little whimpy fish with him!  Oops – no offense, Erik!!

I had complained to Erik in the past that he went fishing all the time, but never shared his bounty.  So I needed to be true to my word.  He had brought me what I asked for.  I finally got up my nerve and fileted the last half of Erik’s catch.  The first few were slimy and slippery and touching them gave me the heebie-jeebies, but I quickly got the hang of it. Every mother should have a son like Erik to push their boundaries.  Erik has done this successfully from the day he was born and I’m a better person for it.  This new phase in our relationship is one I cherish.  He has introduced me to some great music, we enjoy teasing George, working together in the woods, he taught me how to repair clogged drains and my favorite thing…. looking back and laughing together about the more challenging days of his childhood.

I read a quote recently that made me think of Erik.  “Live so that when your children think of fairness and integrity, they think of you.” ~H. Jackson Brown, Jr.  Erik has more integrity than most people I know.  Even as a child he was an active proponent of truth and justice.  We used to call him “the enforcer” – especially when he would be suspended from school for his methods of enforcement (he punched a fellow 4th grader in the face for calling me a name).  He always accepts responsibility for his actions (and sometimes the actions of his friends) and conducts himself with great honor.  I’m so proud of the young man he has become.

Weston, my youngest, and his girlfriend celebrated their third anniversary last week.  He’s only 16 years old.  All of my boys have been in long and stable relationships, which has always surprised me.  I didn’t really date in high school.  So it’s foreign to me.  But I realize that the ability to sustain a long term relationship, especially at this age, is a good sign.  Veronica “Roni” spends a lot of time at our house, so we have the benefit of seeing how she and Weston interact with each other.  They have a really special relationship.  They seem so comfortable and relaxed together.  They’re respectful and warm and playful and mature.  There’s no drama.  They support each other and have a healthy amount of time apart.  Weston has taught us much about commitment and loyalty.  He’s thoughtful and generous and rarely complains.

While I was in my very short labor with Weston, I told George that Weston was going to be the family peacemaker.  And my predictions have been true.  Delivering him was so easy that the doctor nearly didn’t arrive in time.  He was an easy baby and has been easy every stage of his life.  Weston is calm and patient and loving.  His feathers don’t ruffle easily and he has an uncanny ability to defuse tense situations, usually with his awesome sense of humor.  He can sit silently in a group discussion then come up with killer one-liners when we least expect it, cracking up everybody in the room.  How lucky I am to have such a wonderful third child.  It’s no wonder I wanted more and more after he was born.

My week of lessons from my sons culminated with an email from my oldest son, Shawn, on Friday night.  Shawn is the gentle giant in our family… the family philosopher.  Within minutes after I gave birth to him, the doctor asked if I was growing marijuana in my stomach because she couldn’t believe how calm he was.  For 25 years Shawn has remained calm, cool and laid back.  The subject line of Shawn’s email message was, “A heads up” – no exclamation points or bold letters.   Short and simple.  This is the full text of the email:

Hey mom, ill call you tonight but I just wanted to let you know our apartment caught fire today, everybody is ok, we’re just trying to figure things out right now. Love you!

I opened the link above to see this image (at right) of Shawn’s apartment.  The image was shocking, but I wasn’t worried.  He said, “everybody is ok.”  He didn’t mention his beloved cat, so I knew the cat was okay too. Why stress?  It wasn’t like I could do anything.  And I knew that I didn’t need to read between the lines to search for Shawn’s emotional state.  He was okay.  He called later that night, like he said, and made plans to come home the following night for a short visit.  It wasn’t until we were all sitting around the woodstove Saturday night that Jessa told us how odd Shawn’s method of communicating this news was.  And apparently, many other people agreed.  It never occurred to me.  Shawn taught me the Vermont proverb, “Speak little, say much.”  He and I are thinkers… not talkers. Fortunately we both have partners who can do all the talking to make up for our silence. Shout out to George and Jessa!!  Love you guys!!

Shawn and Jessa were in good spirits when we all visited Saturday night.  We reviewed maps of our property and talked about his dreams of starting a farm here.  He wants me to get things started for him by raising chickens – said it will be good practice for me.  I wouldn’t mind grandchildren one day, but chickens might be okay too!  OMG!!

The outpouring of love and support from Shawn and Jessa’s friends, employers and loved ones helped them realize what great people are in their lives.  They speak of their friends often… but the true value of those friendships was never more apparent than after their fire on Friday.   It’s amazing that the greatest lesson after such a tragedy is that we are all so blessed.   Sitting around the woodstove surrounded by my boys certainly helped prove that point to me.  I am blessed.  Not just with these three magnificent sons, but with many others who hold a very special place in my heart.

Fall 1999

Summer 2011

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Celebrating Women – Celebrating Anita!

Today is the 101st anniversary of International Women’s Day.  It’s not a holiday I recognized or knew about until I started working with international students.   The many young women from around the world who I have met these past several years have given me great cause to celebrate such an occasion.

Zainab Salbi at Mass. College of Liberal Arts

My celebration started early by attending a lecture by Zainab Salbi on Tuesday.  Salbi is an activist and social entrepreneur who founded Women for Women International.  Her story, her vision and her work are a testament to the strength of women and the difference women can make in each other’s lives and the lives of our global community.

I attended Salbi’s lecture in the company of some amazing young women – emerging leaders… the activists and ambassadors of our future.  These four young women are past and present Youth Exchange & Study (YES) scholarship students from Afghanistan, Yemen and Thailand. They represent my hope for a better world.  Anita, from Afghanistan, is an alumna from the 2007-2008 YES group and spent her exchange year in California.  She is now a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College and a scholarship recipient of the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women (IEAW).  Today, while celebrating women… I’d like to celebrate Anita.

I have known of Anita for 4 1/2 years – but the lecture was my first opportunity to meet her face-to-face. Eleven months ago, Anita and her new friend, Noorjahan, co-founded Young Women for Change (YWC).  This fledgling non-profit has accomplished the most amazing things in less than a year.  With over 3,000 fans on Facebook, their posts alone are a constant flurry of activity in my newsfeed.  But these young women go beyond talking, dreaming and social networking about the changes they envision.  They are true changemakers, mounting a long list of achievements.

Their latest accomplishment was celebrated today to coincide with International Women’s Day.  Today was the grand opening of YWC’s first women-only internet cafe – the first in Afghanistan.  The cafe was named after Sahar Gul, a 15 year old Afghan girl who was forced into an arranged marriage and tortured by her in-laws for refusing to become a prostitute. YWC is already working on plans for more women-only internet cafes in the country.

Anita at right at a YWC event planning meeting in August, 2011 (photo courtesy of YWC).

Anita, a film studies major at Mount Holyoke, is a very busy young woman. She returned to Afghanistan during her December break to finish filming a documentary on street harrassment entitled “This Is My City Too”.  Her first screening was used as a fundraising and public awareness event for YWC in Kabul shortly before she returned to the U.S. to begin her spring semester.   Anita also hosts her own weekly world music radio program on campus called “We Play it All”.  She was instrumental in the formation of a new Afghan club at school and is active in many other activities.

In the short time Anita and I were together, she was called by the Voice of America to arrange to be interviewed regarding a new resolution which has the potential to impose severe restrictions on Afghan women.  A while later, another colleague called to schedule time to work with Anita on organizing a Spring conference for Afghan students studying in the U.S. The other girls who joined us for the lecture invited Anita to speak at a coffee club event they will be hosting with an Amnesty International club at their school – an event that will raise money for an unrelated project in northern Afghanistan.  In the midst of all these projects and activities, Anita’s midterm exams are just around the corner.  Frankly, I was more impressed by Anita on Tuesday than I was by Zainab Salbi who, at more than twice Anita’s age, has received a bounty of awards, including the world’s largest humanitarian award, the Conrad Hilton Humanitarian Prize.

The vision and passion of Anita and Noorjahan has created a vibrant grassroots movement in Afghanistan. The members of YWC and their counterparts in the newly formed YWC Male Advocacy group have been busy.  Some of their projects include: an art exhibition and poster sale to raise funds for the internet cafe; an organized march called “Advocacy for Dignity” against street harassment; documentary screenings and discussions; lectures and educational awareness campaigns; two poster competitions to promote equal rights for Afghan women and to encourage voices against violence; a book drive; literacy and English classes; aid distribution to refugee camps; and a grant funded research project on street harassment.

On our way back to Mount Holyoke after the lecture, Anita told me about a poem she had written.  It’s a beautiful expression of the pain that motivates Anita to work toward a better life – not just for herself, but for all of Afghanistan.  It is posted below with her permission.

It really HURTS

It hurts to see, an Afghan girl’s burns as a new market issue
It hurts to see, every Afghan’s emotions used for personal benefits
It hurts to see, every part of Afghan culture becoming a scary picture of humanity

It hurts to see, my country begging others
It hurts to see, my religion labeled as founder of terror
It hurts to see, people saying Afghans have nothing

It hurts to see, those people making their living from “Afghans have nothing”
It hurts to see, each and every hungry Afghan face as a new key to personal business
It hurts to see, every sweat of a person sold in thousand dollars when they live on one dollar a day

It hurts to see, teachers saying Afghans can never be a nation
It hurts to see, him saying it will never change
It hurts to see, that everyone has used every part of us.

It hurts to see, when there is discussion of countries and my country doesn’t count
It hurts to see, every Afghan dream break a part
It hurts to see, myself hopeless and fearful

It hurts to see, when seeking help and find people empty
It hurts to see, my words don’t mean anything even to me
It hurts to see, when I can see but cannot reach even close to help

It hurts to see, my broken history
It hurts to see, even myself losing hope
It hurts to see, no certainty for future

It hurts to see, what I can see

Anita is an inspiration for young women around the world.  I think of Anita when I think of my favorite quote from Zainab Salbi’s lecture.  Salbi said, “women are the bellwether for the direction of society.”  And later Salbi quoted Rumi, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”  Rise up ladies.  If we’re the sheep that lead the flocks, we have a lot of work to do.  Humanity has gotten a little lost and we must help them to find Rumi’s field.

Anita talking to Zainab Salbi after the lecture

Read a two-part interview with Anita on the Safe World for Women website here.  And visit Anita’s blog here.

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