Sunday, December 29, 2013

Looking Back: How Different Was the Life I Led

It's been nearly six months since I left Afghanistan. I'm in the midst of packing for a new adventure, but there are a few comments and questions I've been asked since I returned that I want to answer or address. I'll put up a few posts over the next few weeks, a series called "Looking Back." The first question...

What is it like to live in Afghanistan?

I know, I know. What a broad question. I love getting asked, though, because I love getting to share my experiences, and broad questions mean I can choose how to answer.

So for this post, I want to focus on the differences among expatriate life in Afghanistan and how particularly unique my experience was.

In general, there seem to be two types of expats, at least in Afghanistan. One type works for the UN or an embassy or some other governmental-ish organization. They often live in big compounds with high walls and lots of guards. Many can't easily leave their compounds, and in order to do so, they have to get permission, have the site checked in advance, drive in an armored car. (I rode in one of those once. The doors are so heavy!) Since they can't leave often, their compounds tend to have everything they need: restaurants or cooks who make Western food, fitness centers or free open areas, libraries, gardens, and more. They don't often learn to speak much Dari/Pashto; when your drivers and friends and coworkers all speak English, why learn a new language? On the compound, they have more freedom to wear what they want, so they seldom spend their days wearing a head scarf. A lot of them get fairly frequent R&Rs; if you work for the UN, you get several thousand dollars every six weeks, I think, to go to another country for a break. 

The other type of expat works mainly for small firms, often nonprofits. Most don't earn much or get any of the other perks: no gyms, no fitness centers, no libraries :( Most make an effort to learn the language, and some become very fluent. Since they speak the language and aren't high profile targets, they often have more freedom to move around, sometimes even on foot, but the lack of security sometimes means that these expats end up in danger as well. Many still live in compounds, although less heavily armored, and many of their compounds have a guard at the gate and barb wire on the walls to protect the gardens that are their havens. They often move to Afghanistan with their whole families, so they form children's playgroups and attend elementary school plays and small groups.

I was the second kind of expat. Sort of. My life was different, especially when I lived with my Afghan family. Lots of Dari, no armed guards or vehicles. My house didn't have a garden, or hot water, or electricity for a lot of the winter. I wore a head scarf, long sleeves, long pants, shirts or skirts that covered my backside. But I had the freedom to walk, to buy from street vendors, to meet and befriend so many Afghans that approximately a third of my Facebook friends are from Afghanistan now. I didn't have a driver or chaokidar (guard), so I ran my own errands and did my own shopping, which helped my Dari improve even more. I watched four-year-old girls dancing in their driveway until my accent ("She's a foreigner!") scared them away.I fell into the sewer, and I got to know the naan shop guys, and I kicked soccer balls back into play when I walked past games of street soccer. I learned so much about Afghanistan's country, its history, its conflicts, its hope for the future. I learned about what life is actually like there, because I lived closer to that life than most any other expat I knew.

Having never been the first two kinds of expats, I can't really judge. But I have to say... my kind of expat life is the only kind I'd choose. I got to really live in Afghanistan. Not behind locked walls. Not a Western life that just happens to be physically elsewhere. There were dangers and frustrations and moments of self-pity, but they passed. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I loved my life in Kabul.

So what's it like to live in Afghanistan?


(Photo credit for 1-3 goes to Maryam Akbari.)

Saturday, September 7, 2013

An Unconventional Packing List

I know it's cliched, to write a packing list on a blog that tells stories of travel abroad. But I recently spoke to two friends who are preparing to leave on their first adventures, and as my list of things-you-should-take-with-you grew from one to five to fifteen before someone wise made me stop, I realized that I've learned a lot about what to pack, and what not to pack. So I thought I'd share!

*Disclaimer. I'm recommending items to take when you are moving abroad. Not forever, but also not for a two week trip. I'm assuming you have at least one, maybe two suitcases, and you are staying long enough to need this.

Things you'll regret not taking:

     A headlamp. Not a flashlight, but a headlamp. Preferably one that is easy to carry, uses normal AA batteries, and is really bright. I can't tell you how often the power's gone out and I've thanked God for my headlamp.

     Stamps and envelopes. I buy a bunch of Forever stamps before I leave and carry them in my wallet. If you are going to living in a more developed area, these may be irrelevant, but since international mailing services are expensive and difficult to find in some places, my biggest source for mail delivery has often been people who were traveling to the US from wherever I was living. They are almost always willing to carry mail, but it's much easier to be able to hand them a stamped, sealed, addressed envelope and just tell them to drop it in the mail.

     A sewing kit. Assuming you know how to sew. And if you don't, I'd recommend learning. At least enough to mend your clothing. Your kit can be small, but it comes in handy. It's also really fun breaking the stereotype that Americans don't know how to sew/cook/etc.

     Medicine. I know; that makes you laugh. There is medicine everywhere, and a lot of it is cheaper to buy than its equivalent here. But you know that one brand of cough drops you love? The mole skin you use every time you get a blister? You can't always find those overseas, and trust me, when you get sick, you'll want them. Don't bring a lot, but a small med kit of the things that make a sniffly you feel at home... it's worth the weight.

     Gifts. These are hard, because you haven't yet met the people you are buying for. But I find that personal is helpful. Things that say the name of your home city- mugs, keychains, even postcards can be fun. Things specific to your country or hometown- I've known a lot of Canadians who take maple syrup with them to share with new host families. In places where there are a lot of expats, they may appreciate gifts that remind of them of the homeland you share. Or gifts that are practical- in Afghanistan last Christmas, the best gifts I saw were from a family who had brought boxes of good matches for all their close friends, because the flimsy matches there drove us crazy every night as we lit the wood stoves.

     Duct tape. Enough said.

     Rechargeable batteries and chargers. Especially those cool chargers that can do both AA and AAA. Also, remember that your plugging-in situation might be complicated, and a really heavy charger attached first to a converter and then hanging from the wall will break, so pay attention to the direction of the plug when you are purchasing it.

     Household items. Tide-to-Go sticks, command hooks, double-sided tape, those little key ring things that open and let you put flashcards on them (please tell me you know what I'm talking about?) Fingernail clippers. Super glue. Dental floss.

     Extra passport photos. I buy ten or so at once (At a cheaper place, or photographing and printing my own) and keep them in my wallet.

     Ziploc bags. Not always for sale, but so useful. I just buy an extra box of gallon ones before I leave.

Things that could come in handy

    Backpacker's towel. I'm editing (Jan 2014) to add this. I bought a medium backpacker's towel for my current trip, and I love it. It's really lightweight, but it is moisture wicking material, so I can dry my whole body and start my hair with a piece of fabric 1' by 2'. I'm definitely bringing this in the future to save buying or bringing a heavy towel everywhere I go.

     Exercise equipment. A resistance band and a few workout videos (or whatever equivalent you use) aren't too much extra weight in your suitcase, and if you are traveling to places that may not have much emphasis on sports, there likely won't be a lot of access to sporting equipment.

     Black socks. Sounds silly, I know, but I've spent a lot of fall/spring days wearing black sandals and wishing I hadn't packed primarily white socks. Plus, black socks stay (read: look) clean longer.

     Water filter. I bought a backpacking water filter years ago that I take with me everywhere I travel, and I love it. I've gotten sick more than once from drinking water in places where sewage systems aren't very high quality, so now I'm very careful about what I drink. You probably don't need this, as bottled water is usually available, but it has come in very handy.

     You-specific stuff. Clothing can be purchased anywhere. You can almost always find a pillow or some aspirin or most necessities. The little things that make you happy, however, can't always be purchased abroad. Whether it's art supplies (I always take supplies to make homemade birthday cards) or a brand of toothpaste or a particular food you aren't likely to find (peanut butter is a common contender in this category, but I'm the kind who carries hot apple cider packets with me), I'm betting you'll be thankful you brought it. 

     Dictionary. You can get them on your device now, or you can buy one there, and those are great ideas. But considering the importance (in terms of safety, of respect for your host culture, of your own feeling of independence) of being able to look up a word on the go, it's useful to bring a small one with you.

     Miniature items. I don't like taking shampoo and conditioner with me, but I do like the pocket-sized containers. A lot of places abroad don't offer miniature containers and other items, but they are very useful. If you'll want them, plan ahead!

     Work-specific stuff. Do your research. A lot of my traveling has involved education in some way, so I like to know ahead of time what sorts of supplies I can expect to find. Few places I've been have had access to cheap stickers, for example, so I brought a sticker book to Italy, and my students loved it. Electronic timers for debating weren't available in Afghanistan, and many countries don't sell index cards like we do. All of these are things we are used to having at our fingertips, so it's helpful to think ahead and bring a few. 

     Things from home. The people you meet will want to see pictures of your family, and you may not have Internet to show them Facebook. Bring a mini photo album, a flag, postcards from your area, etc. They'll love hearing about the place you are from!

     Boys, look away... ladies, bring tampons. Most places around the world don't have them readily available. I didn't find ones I liked even when I was in Japan, and you know as well as I do that this isn't something you want to adjust to changes with. Just bring a supply and give away what you don't use; any foreigner friends you make there will love you.

Things everyone says you'll want but you really won't
     Toiletries- unless you have a specific brand you care about, can't bear the idea of adjusting, and are willing to bring enough to last your entire time. If not, just buy as soon as you arrive and adjust that much sooner.
          *My exception to this is deodorant, because I've never found a scent I like when purchasing in a foreign country. In a lot of places I've been, women wear deodorant that smells like men's deodorant or aftershave here, and I've never been able to get used to it. If you can, more power to you!

     Clothes. Let's be honest. How much do you know about fashion where you're going? Not much, I'd bet. Take the basics, but leave the multiple wardrobes at home. You can often survive on few clothing items, supplementing your closet with items that are better suited to the climate, the culture, and the fashion.
          *One exception here is boots. If you are going to a (developing) place that will want rain or snow boots, you likely won't be able to find good ones for a decent price.

     Converters. Again, this will be easier once you arrive. Your fancy-looking one you bought at that travel store or at Radio Shack will get lost, stolen, stolen but everyone will say lost, or left behind at some point. Just buy the cheap one when you get there.

     Passport holder. So many people tell me to carry these, but I hate them. Modern women's clothing is not designed to surreptitiously have a passport holder hiding underneath, and when they hand outside, they are an invitation to get robbed. I wouldn't recommend them. (That's my opinion, but there are plenty who would contradict this, so use your own discretion.)

To conclude:
Most of the items I've listed probably aren't top-tier importance, but their presence may make you less homesick and more comfortable, and I think it's worth it. Everyone's suitcase will look different, and I hope you've done enough research to know the important items to take. (Remember- passport, visa, cash, cell phone. Chargers. Prescription drugs in original bottles/contacts/inhaler/anything else you may need. All that other stuff that proves you are a responsible adult.)

Lastly, a word of warning. You want to be comfortable, but you also will need to lug all this around airports, through customs, etc. You'll likely be moving it or unpacking it in front of people in your host country, who will see your mountain of oh-so-necessary stuff through different cultural eyes. So be cautious. Take what you need to live a wonderful life while you are there, but don't be afraid to let go of some of those physical bonds and embrace something new.

But don't forget the duct tape.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Culture Shock is...

When I take my headscarf off in the Dubai airport and show my hair in public for the first time in months. When I see men walking around in shorts and women wearing camisoles, and when I get a tan line for the first time this summer. When I feel strangely uncomfortable wearing a T-shirt and flip flops and I see my curls in my peripheral vision and realize how long it's been since I've seen that and can't decide if it's pleasant or just weird.

When we have errands to run on the way home from the airport and we stop at Ross to buy a few bits of clothing. We walk through the front door and I'm hit by the bewildering and frightening display of things-I-don't-really-need. It's not a big store, not compared to some, but when I've done very little shopping in the last year and the places I have shopped were stalls the size of a small restroom, a store with Juniors and Women's and Petite and Shoes and Children's and Men's and Jewelry is... overwhelming. When I think about the street children who were knocking on my window just days ago and their dirty, ragged clothing and bare feet, and I think about all the people in this store who are spending money they don't need to spend, and when I have to bite my tongue from saying all of this and sounding exactly like the holier-than-thou person I'm trying really hard to not let myself be.

When little things make me grateful: the feeling of walking into an air-conditioned house from the 109 degree heat outside, the convenience of drying my clothes in a machine instead of on a clothesline, being able to walk and run outside without fear, having sewage systems that are capable of flushing toilet paper. And yet, when I remember the cost of cherries or apples or medical tests in Kabul and compare them to what I'm now paying, and it reminds me that the US isn't perfect. I spend so much time longing for home whenever I leave, and sometimes, my memory is a bit selective. It takes coming back to remind me of the concerns I have for my country, for its people, for its future even as I am reminded of its good side and feel grateful again for having grown up here.

When little things make me homesick for the place that became my second home: silence during the time of day when I'm used to hearing the call to prayer that I've come to find beautiful and haunting and annoying depending on the hour, not having Fur Elise and the birthday song herald the coming of the ice cream truck, speaking Persian without thinking and having everyone in the vicinity give me blank looks, craving chicken kabobs and hot naan but having no way to satisfy that urge. When I get messages from friends in Kabul and think about the amazing people I know there, and when I picture Afghanistan's future, and realize it's not so directly tied to mine anymore, and realize also that I still want it to be.

When I go to church for the first time in weeks, to a Catholic church for the first time in months, to a Catholic church service in English for the first time in ten months, and when I lose myself in the music and the prayer and think how much I've missed this. When I, at the same time, remember my church community(s) in Kabul and remember the way they made me feel so at home from the very first time I met them. When I realize that a year ago, I had very little understanding of the meaning of freedom of religion, or courage, or faith, and when it makes me even more passionate about the necessity of a world where everyone has the right to say what they want to, write what they want to, worship how they want to.

When those moments of awareness hit that have nothing to do with politics or money or even what clothing I'm wearing and everything to do with the people I love. When I sing with my dad or laugh with my sisters or eat homegrown currants and realize how glad I am to be home, but also when I see posts on Facebook or get emails from friends I may never see again and remember how hard it was to leave them. Culture shock is a lot of things, but I think the root of it is unrelated to culture. The shock of coming home is more the realization that I have multiple homes now, and I love both of them, all of them, dearly. It's seeing how much I've changed, and trying to fit the changed me back into a community that doesn't know all the parts of who I am now. It's the understanding that going to one place means leaving another, and that's especially hard when you don't know if you'll ever be back there again, and when you feel guilty for liking either place too much when you have people you love in the other. Culture shock is knowing I'm home...but also feeling like it won't be possible for me to ever be one hundred percent "home" again.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Danger is Relative

Friends, meet jui. (ju-ee)

It is one of the many gutters that line the streets in Kabul. Those located alongside main streets flow high and fast in the winter, while their cousins on the quiet side streets fill with snow. In the summer, they ooze along, filled with trash and mud and and excrement and who knows what else. Every so often, workers shovel out all the accumulated muck and they set it on the streets to dry. The streets smell, far worse than the pigpens we had on the farm when I was a kid, and then, as the products of the jui dry, they get blown away as dust and inhaled all summer long.

I became intimately acquainted with a jui on my way home from work a few days ago. One minute, I was walking, and the next minute, I was up to my thighs in jui juice. Brown, smelly, mucky, jui juice.

I managed to pull my feet out, along with the five pounds worth of muck lining my pants, tunic, and shoes. It took some doing, and I almost lost a shoe and dropped my computer. Once I got my feet out, I propped them on the opposite side and just sat for a minute; it's been a long few weeks.

A jui is by no means the biggest danger here, but it's one of the small annoyances and concerns that I sometimes wonder about. Between the health issue and the falling in issue and the smell issue, I can imagine the outcry that would be raised if there were juis in most places I've lived. And yet, here, no one thinks twice about it.

That's true of other things as well. Medicine is often given intravenously, where the doctor puts a needle in the back of your hand and gives you the medicine to inject yourself for the next few days. When I first saw that, I was horrified. They keep a needle in their hand, for days. Does that not seem dangerous to anyone else?

Open ended wires sticking out right at face level. Sparks flying from the welders who set up in the middle of the sidewalk. Not wearing seatbelts/letting kids ride in the car standing up. Riding carnival rides with not only no seatbelt but also while standing up and sometimes not even holding on. When I mention these, others give me funny looks. What's wrong with adding gas to the car while the motor is running?

I've realized, though, that I don't think about or worry about these things as much as I did when I first came. After I stepped in the jui, it was disgusting, but it mostly made me laugh. Rather hysterical laughter, but laughter nonetheless. The next day, I was going to post something on Facebook about the jui, but just then, a bomb went off down the street from our office. The walls shook, we dropped to the floor. Gunshots fired, smoke went up in a cloud, and phones started ringing as relatives and friends checked in to make sure everyone is still alive.

It was the I've been to a bomb, and it hit home a bit because it went off on a road I walk down, where friends of mine live nearby. It shook us, emotionally as well as physically. How could I post a whine about juis after something like that?

Danger is relative. When you grow up as sheltered as I did and when you like rules as much as I do, little dangers sometimes seem important. They can be dangerous, yes, but I can see now how so many others here don't notice them or worry about them. It's Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs; when you are accustomed to explosions shaking your windows, you don't worry so much about seatbelts. It's understandable that planning for the future, personal finance, etc are not very commonly practiced; if you might die tomorrow, why not spend your money and go on a thrilling, if dangerous, carnival ride? It's hard to worry about little things when basic survival is such a concern.

That said, definitely have no desire to get acquainted with my friend jui again, no matter how minor that concern may be!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Hills and Valleys and Remembering to feel blessed

There are days in Kabul where I get very tired of life here. The days where no matter how hard you try to be positive, you just feel down. It's easy to feel that way sometimes, when upset stomachs are so common that we hand out Cipro like children's vitamins and when giardia is appropriate lunch conversation. When the heat makes everyone irritable, and the open stares and little comments of men on the street make me long for home. When the electricity keeps going out, and the Internet keeps going out, and it seems like every truck in the city has to drive by my window fifteen minutes after I've finally fallen asleep and then every ten minutes thereafter.

All of these are minor irritations, usually chased easily away by the taste of a juicy Kabul watermelon, carefully washed, or a barbecue in the garden, ignoring the barbed wire on the compound walls. But sometimes, the seriousness of life hits, and those concerns aren't so quickly dismissed.

I just heard that a friend was badly injured in a recent attack. She was in the shower when an RPG hit her building, part of a coordinated attack that threatened the lives of several people I know. There were armed men who broke into the compound, guards who fought back, a gurka who died a hero as others fled to safety. My friend escaped with her life but with 3rd degree burns on 99% of her body.

I heard all of these details as I sat on the sidelines of our weekly Frisbee game, beside a guy who is a tough and talented Frisbee player but who broke down a little as we talked. Because Barbara was his friend, because he had other friends in that compound, because he'd been at that compound just before the attack. But also because that attack violated something that we take for granted- the safety of our homes. It was a reminder that the danger here isn't confined to Helmand or Kandahar, isn't avoided simply by using common sense and not driving in the bad areas. Sometimes danger comes to you even when you do nothing wrong. Sometimes even the most heavily guarded compounds come under attack, and although Frisbee games and garden barbecues help us stay sane, sometimes those bits of self care just feel frivolous. It feels wrong to play when Barbara is in critical condition, and it feels wrong to laugh and joke like everything is okay when so many of us are as shaken as my fellow Frisbee player on the sidelines.

Between all of that, and feeling really sick for the last four days, and saying final goodbyes to some very close friends, it's been not such a good weekend. And since I'm so close to going home, there's a part of me that wants to cling to that departure date, to dream of the day when the frustrations of life here will be gone.

I was at a meeting yesterday, though, where someone told us to feel blessed in being allowed to live in Afghanistan. Not to act like a martyr and struggle through, but to wake every morning and thank God for sending me here. It reminds me of all those times I've been told to live in the moment and to not worry about tomorrow and to just rejoice in today... and how I'm I'm better at feeling like a martyr, even when it's rarely justified.

So I'm working on that. There's a part of me that remembers all the rougher days throughout this year, but also remembers the fact that they passed, as these days will too. I remember that the next few weeks are my last ones in Afghanistan, and if I wish them away, I don't get them back. There are so many things I love about being here, so many things I will incredibly miss about this country. Yes, there's dangers, and annoyances, and frustrations, but on the whole, it's been a wonderful year. During the rough times, we have to cling to the good times, remember the beautiful moments that give us strength. It's the rough times that make good times that much better, because without the valleys, there would be no peaks. And even within the rough times, there are blessings and reasons to be thankful. It just takes the right attitude to find them.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The beauty of little dancers

I laugh when I tell people that Afghanistan is beautiful and their response is a confused, "Huh?"

In the international media, perhaps, it's not a place you would describe as beautiful. There's nothing beautiful about explosions and attacks on governmental and NGO compounds or in photos of sobbing mothers holding their dying children. Yes, it's hot and dusty in the summer, and yes, our roof leaked all winter even as the pipes froze and the electricity left for two weeks at a time.

But Afghanistan has a beauty all its own, a beauty that the media seldom shows you. It isn't just the beauty of the landscape, a beauty that is different but equally incredible during all four seasons.
It isn't just the sunsets that leave nothing to be desired
 or the feeling of timelessness that you get at its historical sites
or the colorful fruits and even more colorful voices at the bazaar.

It's this.
And this.
And these.

Last week, the Kabul Dance Studio ( held its annual spring recital, and I was privileged to be a part of it. About 100 little girls waited anxiously backstage for their turn to dance, to show off the moves they've spent a year learning and the dance they've been practicing nonstop for the last month. Despite security and rain and costume troubles and everything else that Murphy's Law could produce, it was five o'clock on a gorgeous Sunday evening, and they were about to show the world just how beautiful Afghanistan is.

The beauty in this recital was in the sun reflecting off the outdoor stage as the school principal requested that the audience not take pictures, so as to adhere to the wishes of families who don't want their daughters' honor spoiled.

It was in the tiny dancers representing Mexico, who shook maracas to the music, and in the little one whose maraca broke and who paused in the middle of the dance and spent a good thirty seconds staring at it to try and put it back together. It was in the audience who laughed and clapped for her when she finally succeeded and rejoined the dance with a joyful smile.

 The beauty was in the girls from the local orphanage and from a domestic violence shelter who use dance as an escape from life. In the orphans who whirled across the stage to Indian music but never grew dizzy enough to fall, and in the four sisters from the shelter who wore pristine white dresses and said they felt like the King's daughters as they gently touched their reflection in the mirror before the show.
It was in the Mommy and Me dancers, who wore kangaroo suits and hopped around a circle as the song declared, "Aus-tralia, Aus-tralia. Land of sun and sea!" It was in the little blond kangaroo with the infectious smile, the little black-haired kangaroos who grinned delightedly at the audience, in the little boy in a kangaroo suit who didn't hop even once. Not because he had stage fright, but because he just doesn't do that.

There was beauty in every single one of the faces on that stage last week, from the tap class who dressed as cowgirls and line-danced across the stage, to the dancers in the traditional Afghan attan dance, who flourished their scarves and jingled as they danced on bare feet. The confident dancers who led their fellows with smiles from the front of the stage, the scared ones who hid behind a partner and focused far more on steps than on crowd appeal, the aloof ones who did the very least they could and just looked bored all the time. The little blond who broke her ankle a few weeks before the show, was heartbroken about not being able to dance but stood onstage in her costume and smiled along with the music anyway.

And it was even more than that. It was in the fathers who watched with pride in their eyes as their scarf-less daughters skipped across the stage, and in the costumed dancers who had to stay backstage but who crouched as close as they could to the backdrop in order to the watch the other dancers. In the myriad people who gave their time to help, in the busy high schoolers who put in extra hours to learn their dances in the midst of sickness and exams and everything else. It was in the little ones whose eyes shone as they watched the older ones dance, who came up to me after the show and told me they want to dance en pointe someday too. It was in that moment onstage when I was balancing on toe shoes with my arms lifted to the sky and the sun shining down and it seemed like even God was glorying in the beauty of this place.

Yes, Afghanistan is beautiful.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Declining the Peace Corps, and trusting God

I declined an invitation from the Peace Corps last week, and it was one of the scariest things I've ever done.

Ever since my great-uncle told me about his time in the Peace Corps, it's been something I've wanted to pursue. I like the PC's mission, its emphasis on serving the community and doing what the community needs, its desire to educate both Americans and those in our host countries in order to increase understanding and mutual respect. I know those are a lot of big words that could come right out of an advertisement, but these are things I've seen play out in my last few years working in the nonprofit sector. Projects don't last unless the community wants them to. Communication and shared experience are some of our best tools in creating peace; think how many conflicts could be avoided if ordinary people on both ends knew and understood one another. These are ideals that the Peace Corps works toward, ideals I admire and believe in.

Despite my long-lasting interest in the Peace Corps, though, when I got my assignment, I think I knew that it wasn't right for me. I was assigned as a health volunteer in Peru, which seemed to mean working with child development and HIV/AIDS prevention. The first interested me. In principle, I agree with the second, but I don't agree with the methods that are commonly used. Primarily, promoting condom use, even in students as young as fourth and fifth grade.

On both a practical and on a religious level, I have trouble supporting that practice. Condoms don't always work, and they aren't very accessible in many countries. They are poorly made, and the high levels of contracts being passed around leads to high levels of corruption, and more poorly made condoms.

Yes, all of that was really general. No, I haven't intensely studied the pros and cons or theory of HIV prevention. Yes, I know some people are going to attack me for that, but the simple fact is that outside of the practicals, this assignment just didn't feel right for me. When we teach young people to use condoms, to have safe sex, the underlying message is that sex is okay as long as it's safe. I don't agree with that. I don't think that's the message we should be passing on to children at home, and I don't think I'd be comfortable moving abroad and promoting that message for two years. There's a lot more to the Peace Corps than that, but if the community asked me to teach sex education, I would have to do so, and I didn't think I could do that.

The PC is really selective, and it's hard to get a first invitation. Getting a second invitation used to happen sometimes, but since there are so many applicants now, it's extremely rare. I knew that saying no to my first invitation meant saying goodbye to my dream, and that was really frightening.

The logical part of me fought it. I argued with myself for a full week. It was possible I'd never even have to touch this part of it, would spend the whole time on child development and other health aspects. Peru is a beautiful country, one I'd love to see. But do I want to live there? I already speak the language, could work on really becoming fluent in Spanish. But do I want to spend two more years learning a language I already speak, instead of mastering a new one? The Peace Corps is one of the few organizations I know of (and I've done quite a lot of research on this) that offers paid (sort of) international work while integrating volunteers into the community instead of creating a little expat community. I would leave in September, which was more than enough time to get over the burnout that's been hitting the last few weeks here and prepare for a new adventure... right? I'd be living with a host family, which would provide challenges, but I'd learn a lot about the culture and the language; I was ready for that...right? Sure, I was uncomfortable with bits of my job description, but that was just part of working for a non-religious organization, right?

One night, just before my decision was due, I decided it was time for some quiet time with God. I'm not very good at that, because I tend to fall asleep (six years of sleep deprivation catching up with me), so I went outside this time. It was a quiet night in Kabul, without a lot of passing cars or barking dogs. I sat in the swing in the garden, surrounded by high concrete walls, alone and yet able to hear the voices of every pedestrian who walked past our gate. I sang and re-sang “The Summons,” which is a song that's been on my mind lately (if you look at the lyrics below, I'm sure you'll see why.) I laid in the grass and read my Bible, tried to get inspiration from Jeremiah and Isaiah and Paul's many journeys.

And then, when the sun had set and I couldn't make out the words anymore, I laid in the grass and watched the stars come out. For the first time, I laid it all before God. I told Him that I'd go if He wanted me to, that my brain was saying I should go, but that it didn't feel right. If He had other plans for me, I prayed that He would make it clear to me. Maybe not what those plans were, although that'd be preferable, but at least that He'd make me feel without a doubt that this wasn't the plan. I prayed for certainty, after a week of battles between heart and head.

Lying there, looking at the stars, my uncertainty melted away. I knew that I was going to decline. I realized that I can't call myself Catholic unless I act what I believe, and how could I spend two years teaching something I'm against and my faith is against? How can I stick to my values on the small things and then turn my back on them on the big things? No matter what others believe, my values are my own, and they aren't much good if I abandon them in the very moment when I should be relying on them to guide my path.

So I said no.

As soon as I did, the most amazing feeling of peace came over me. It was like nothing I've experinced before. My job here is ending in just over a month, and after that, I have no plan. Nothing. No clue what to do next. Normally, that would scare me to death, because I ALWAYS have a plan for what's coming next. And yet, this time, I wasn't worried. For the first time in a long time, I trusted in God and followed what my heart knew to be right, and it felt wonderful.

The story could end there, because that's a pretty amazing ending. The equally amazing part is that that's not the end.

When I sent my email to decline, I told my placement officer that I'd like to be considered for a second invitation. He'd basically told me that I probably wouldn't get one, but that a panel of placement officers would review my application and my reason for declining if I asked them to, and then we'd see. So I asked.

I never expected to get another email the next day. “Peace Corps- invitation!”

This time I was invited to go to Morocco. Working with youth development at a community center, which meant I'd have options to teach everything from English to computers, soccer to debate, writing to dance. All the things I love to teach anyway, and chances to teach many classes on topics that give important skills to modern youth. Leaving in January, which would give me time (including Christmas) at home with my family, enough time to get tired of living in the US and be ready for an adventure, time to watch my sister's senior soccer season and another sister's dance recital and be a part of their lives for the first time in ages. Learning Arabic, which Dari has both spoken and written roots in. In a country that is Islamic but appears to have more diversity and more varied influences than Kabul- a chance for cultural learning without having to wear a headscarf!

In so many ways, this position felt right. It felt like something I'd be good at, something I find important, and something I feel comfortable teaching. It felt like a good fit for me, and I was so incredibly amazed to be given the opportunity.

Tonight, I responded to my second Peace Corps invitation very differently. I said yes. Fully confident that this is where I belong, where God wants me to go. I've had that surety so few times in my life, and it feels amazing. What an incredible ending to an up-and-down week and a half, and what a lot I've learned along the way!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

I wish you could...

I wish you could taste warm naan on a cool spring evening. When you are walking home from work and the guys at your favorite naan shop call out to you to say hi, because you had a thirty-second conversation the first time you bought naan there and now they think you are best friends. When you see that the shop has your favorite type of naan, the thick kind with an almost-hollow center and little spices baked in the top. You buy one for only ten Afs and you can't picture anywhere in the States where you can buy bread like this for only 20 cents. When you take your naan and wave goodbye to your shopkeeper friend, heading down the street with the naan warming your hand. You tear off a piece and let it melt in your mouth, and it's a little piece of God's gift to man.

I wish you could watch as graceful hands swoop and swirl across the page, making strokes that mean words that you can't understand. You try to puzzle them out, try to force yourself to concentrate on possible meanings, but you are mesmerized by the way the pen dances from right to left, right to left. Loops and lines, dots and dashes. It feels like a Morse code that you haven't yet been taught, but you are content to watch magic be made.

I wish you could hear the cacophony of a Kabul street as the officer workers and fruit vendors and traffic police start their day. You hear the vendors hawking their wares- bedrang! Bedrang! Yak kilo da rupya! (Cucumbers, cucumbers, 10 Afghanis per kilo!)- from the back of a cart pulled by a tired donkey, and the ice cream man pushing his cart down the street as his horn blares the thousandth rendition of Happy Birthday. Big police trucks go past honking, armed guards sitting in their bed, and Indian music floats out the windows of little white Corollas decorated with flowers and on their way to pick up a bride and groom. Little red motorcarts, with carpets draped over over the backs to make miniature taxis, splutter their way to movement, and gangs of schoolboys in matching blue uniforms push down the street in a clump, their rapid Dari interrupted by farts and whistles and laughter- boy noises that are the same in any language. You see blue burqas with bright purple pants sticking out below and hinting at the person beneath the veil, hear the swish swish of colorful chadars bustling down the street, admire the music made by the stomping feet of a two-year-old with bright white shoes. It's a smorgasbord of sounds and colors, a world that seems straight out of Aladdin but is real, daily life.

I wish you could sit in the circle with us in the grass at the family park. When the sun has set and the stars are twinkling, but the bright lights around you twinkle more forcefully, decorating practically every stationary surface within the park. You sit on a blanket and eat a picnic with your host family for the week, as little children run around with delighted screams and the Ferris wheel across the park whirs to life. It feels like a Fourth of July celebration from childhood, like you are back with your family as you eat and laugh and chatter with one another. Families here are just like families from home, who just want the peace to sit in the grass and eat buloni and ride the mini amusement park rides.

I wish you could walk down a Kabul street with us and see the kids playing with sticks and rocks and bits of dirty rope. They play jump rope with a muddy piece of twine strung across the unpaved road, tied to a dumpster on one side and held in someone's grimy hand on the other. But the dirt and the mud and the grime matters so little to them, for their grins are a mile wide and their delighted shouts echo off down the street. They grin wider when they see you coming, for you've become fast friends in the months you've been walking past during playtime, and they scamper over to say hi. They hold out their grimy hands to shake yours, and you bend down to give them the customary air kisses- one, two, three. They grin even wider; there is nothing quite so cool as being kissed by a foreigner.

I wish you could be here to experience all of this with me.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

They show it better than me...

I'm not very nice about asking other people to guest blog for me, because that requires telling other people that I blog, and it requires sharing, which I'm not very good at. But there are so many others sharing the amazing things going on in this country, and I wanted to pass them on to you.

My coworker, Josh, writes a blog purely about debate in Afghanistan. His articles are much more informative than mine, since he sticks to the facts and I take advantage of a blog's ability to let you rant. He's a good writer, though, and his site does really good work to spread the knowledge of what we do here. I encourage you to check it out here.

Pax Populi is another organization dedicated to peacebuilding. We partner with them to give our students chances to have a native English speaker as a tutor through classes over Skype. They do a lot more than that, though, and their work is really impressive. I especially like their interview with our Executive Director- found here.

If you couldn't tell, I really like the organization I work for and truly believe in what they are doing. But there are a lot more groups doing great work here. One organization that really impresses me is Morning Star Development, which puts on leadership classes, among other things. They also provide medical services through clinics and traveling doctors. Check out their site here.

I've done some work with the Kabul Dance Studio while I've been here, and although I plan to write a whole post about it later, let me just say that this is a labor of love I never expected to find in Kabul. In a place where girls have so few outlets, dance gives them a place to express themselves. It's really beautiful to watch. They have a blog here. We are preparing for a recital in about a month, so I'm sure you'll be hearing more about this group!

There are a few other nonprofits I like a lot. PAD offers classes and other tools to support education. When I was here in 2011, I got to visit one of the schools they run (used to run? I'm not sure), which was a really neat experience. Omega International is another organization that works with education, with a focus on training teachers- a service that is very needed here. There are groups opening soy factories to help introduce more protein into the carb-heavy diets here, groups offering badly needed services for the deaf and for the disabled, groups working with street kids to teach both trade skills (sewing, etc) and academic skills, groups working to lower unemployment rates by donating the tools that young men need to become apprentices and then to open their own shops- carpentry, welding, etc. So many fascinating projects!

Colgate University and Linfield University both competed in our Debate Without Borders Skype Tournament, and they posted really nice articles about it. 

The organization I work for, APT, participated in a radio program designed to introduce various members of the United Network of Young Peacebuilders to the world. We created a radio program that introduces APT and shares our vision for Afghanistan's future. You can listen to it here- it's pretty cool.

I don't want to make it look like the only ones creating change in this country are foreigners, because there are lot of really cool articles about Afghanistan and its people and the incredible things they are doing. From the women's soccer team to the bowling alley that an Afghan woman opened to the first female Afghan rapper- there are so many things here that I just love hearing about. I hope that they fill you with hope just as they've done for me!

Friday, April 19, 2013

The beauty of a taxi ride

The taxi bounces along, speeding over roads just paved enough to allow us to drive quickly but full of enough potholes to make a morning ride to the airport feel like an amusement park ride. I have a water bottle in my hand, but taking a sip seems a risk on par with crossing the street in Kabul or swallowing water from the outdoor pool back home.

The streets are essentially deserted at this hour; the sky hasn't yet given birth to the sun, but the faint light emerging on the Eastern skyline indicates that the hour is approaching. The rest of the world is still in their beds and I'd rather be with them. And yet, there's something beautiful about our early-morning drive through Herat, something that makes me feel as though I'm intruding on a world in which I don't belong. It is the time of birds and shepherds, the hour of sleepy guards who drew the short straw and mothers whose wailing infants demand they rise. This is their world, not mine; they have allowed me but a glimpse into this alternate existence, and as we fly through the streets, I discover a side of Afghanistan I rarely see.

We pass the park, where yesterday there were food carts and print shops, children playing on a tiny ferris wheel, street kids shining shoes and trying to sell packs of tasteless gum. It was a park bursting with life, from the games of street soccer to the businessmen passing through to the women in burkas or long hijabs who sat at the tables to share a cold drink and a friendly conversation. Now, though, the park is empty, the food carts shut and their shades locked down as though winter has come and they are bears hibernating until the snow melts. The concrete soccer fields are abandoned, the one functioning swing on the playground creaking back and forth in the wind with mournful aloneness. At this hour, the park's only inhabitants are the packs of dogs who frequent it, trotting through as though they own the place. Which, right now, they do.

We leave the park behind and pull onto a busier street, with other cars and motorbikes and bicycles taking ambitious workers to the office or teenagers to their early classes. Some have their headlights on, but the bikers don't have that option. We almost hit one, a youth with a scarf around his head, but he swerves, looking more cold than angry.

As we leave the city proper behind us, the number of cars diminishes, leaving us on a once again solitary drive. We drive past compounds of dirt houses, built into one another, each with thick mud walls and sprouts of grass at the base to announce that spring is here at last. A lone guard stands outside a security gate; he yawns and inspects his fingernails, lured into sleepiness by the peaceful world around him. A shepherd chivvies his flock through another gate and down the path- not a hard task, since his flock includes only three grown sheep and two lambs who skip and cavort after their mothers. The shepherd follows, no skip in his step, leaning on his stick, his weathered face weary but patient.

Trees line the side of the road, funny trees with long, smooth trunks and then a bird's nest of leaves forming a head at the very top. The larger trees rise above the buildings and look proportional, if not exactly majestic. The smaller ones have yet to grow much of a trunk, and they just look like gawky, awkward teenagers who have Afros too big for their bodies.

We pass a motorbike with a man and a woman, the first female I've seen all morning. She leans into his back, gripping his shirt with one hand while desperately trying to control her hijab with the other. It is big, as all hijabs are, and its black and white patterned lengths flap in the wind, eager to escape. Another motorbike slows down beside a fruit stand, only to find the stand closed, the watermelons and oranges locked away until day dawns and there's enough business to warrant the fruit seller starting his workday.

We pass decorated roundabouts, with a giant fruit bowl adorning the center and the graceful curves of Dari lettering lining one side. I manage to read the first word- چَوىي (roundabout or square)- but my reading is too slow to absorb the second word. We pass compounds with walls short enough to see over, allowing us a glimpse into a young girl's morning routine, the way she stands from the pump with a full water jug in her hand and pauses to survey the sky, perhaps feeling God's majesty as much as I do right now, despite the fact that we worship different gods. We pass a series of buildings that appear to have the shape of a grenade- spherical base, the size of a large water tank, with little square tops that stick up above the rest of the buildings. I wonder what they are, but my quiet query in the taxi is met with no answer, either because no one knows or because no one wants to disturb the silence with a reply. We pass a field of grass, and the first rays of the sun tip over the horizon just in time to angle across the tops of the grass stems, as though reassuring them that the light that gives them life will soon be back.

All too soon, the barricades that signal an airport's gates appear through the front windshield. It is time to go back to the world of security scanners and ticket counters and airplanes with loud jets. But this morning's taxi ride has given me the tranquility to survive, the calm heart to step back into real life and all its hustle and bustle. The break from reality, the glimpse of the beauty of Herat's pre-dawn world, have reminded me yet again what a wonderful world we live in.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Debate Without Borders Skype Tournament

I spend a lot of time telling students the reasons we debate. It's not hard, because, just as my dad told me almost ten years ago, there are lots of reasons. It teaches skills- listening, respect for one another's ideas, public speaking, the ability to b.s. your way through practically any situation (yes, brother, that was directed at you.) It gives you knowledge- about your country, about the world, about random countries in Africa, even about yourself. It makes you think critically, question everything, see flaws in logic everywhere.

It's easy for me to tell students these things, because all of them are true and I've seen all of them manifested in my life. But until I moved to Afghanistan, I didn't know that debate also offered cultural exchange, or what an important option this could be.

My organization, Afghans for Progressive Thinking, recently ran an entire tournament completely over Skype. Sixteen universities competed, sixteen universities from three countries, nine cities, six time zones. I walked to work in Kabul as the sun was rising, but by the time the tournament began, the sun had long since set on our teams in the U.S. The last rays of the sunset disappeared from Kabul's skies during our final round, just as the first hints of light were shyly peeking through the Oregon team's windows.

It's so easy to think that debate doesn't offer real cultural exchange. In our final round, 'tournaments are the best future for debate', one team even argued this. Debaters are told which side to defend and which topic to discuss, which means that their arguments may not, probably don't, represent their actual opinions. How can you learn about someone's culture when you never get to hear what they truly think?

But as I watched and listened to the round of this tournament, I realized that isn't necessarily true. All of us are raised seeing the world through a certain lens. It is a lens created by our family, our town, our religion, our politics, our culture. It's a lens that even the most open-minded of us possess, because no matter how willing we are to see other opinions, the mere fact that they are 'other' opinions means that we have something to compare them to and to measure them against. Good or bad, we grow up looking at the world in a certain way.

It isn't until we have conversations or debates with other people that we realize what our lens is like. Japanese internment camps from World War II work as an example when your opponents and your judge know what they are, but when they are a part of US history that Afghans have never heard of, they suddenly become useless in a debate. When a debate about women traveling alone is relevant, or when a topic about media altering the shape of models talks more about Big Macs than body image, or when trying to use 'Titanic' as an example in a debate class is a bad idea because it could potentially seem like I'm trying to make my students think about falling in love, I realize how different my lens is.

One of the things I love about my job here is seeing people become aware of their lens. I love talking to students about life here and about life in America, swapping stories of a childhood on a family farm with stories about a childhood as a refugee in Iran or under the Taliban. Both sides latch onto the tiniest things- they are fascinated by the fact that I've raised pigs, that I don't live with my father any more, that I can type so rapidly. I am awed by the way Afghan families live entirely in shared spaces, by the way they sometimes sleep in their head scarf because they forget it's there, by graceful dance of their fingers as they swoop and swirl their way through written Dari. When we comment on these little things that are interesting, these little pieces of life that seem so unremarkable to one side and like such novelties to the other, we learn about both cultures at once.

When I first arrived in 2011, I was told firmly that the people of Afghanistan are 'Afghans. The currency is the Afghani. They were very intense about this; any time I said it wrong, I was quickly corrected. When I returned to the States, I mentioned that to a lot of people, including the American debaters I worked with, one of whom competed in the Skype debate last week. At the end of the round, while the judges were deliberating, the final teams from Oregon and from Kabul continued to chat over Skype. I heard one of the Oregon debaters say 'the Afghani people,' and then I heard the quiet correction- 'Afghan.' But the correction didn't come from any of the ten Afghans in the room. It was his teammate. How's that for cultural exchange?

Students during the final round at Debate Without Borders.

The terrible cost, not just in Boston

I was shocked and saddened to hear of the explosion at the Boston Marathon earlier this week. And of the thirty people who were killed in Kandahar when a wedding was bombed. And of the university chancellor who was kidnapped and murdered a few days ago. It seems like every day we turn on the news and see more deaths, more senseless loss of life.

The saddest part was talking to my Afghan colleagues about Boston and hearing him say, “I'm sorry people died, but I'm not sorry that they get to know what this is like.”

I couldn't believe it, and yet, I could. Someone else commented that no one cares when ten kids are killed in Afghanistan, but when one dies in America, it's headline news, and it's not fair.

He's right. It's not fair. Death, especially the senseless, terrible death that sometimes seems so common, is never fair and never understood. It's not fair that we don't feel outraged every time a child dies, no matter where, no matter how. Our threshold for bad news can only stretch so far, and there comes a point when we have to train ourselves not to feel so deeply for the victims of each headline, but my heart mourns for all of those who have died without so much as a headstone to remember their life. It's sad that people all over the world are dying unnecessarily, and it's a shame that the rest of the world doesn't cry out in constant outrage over their deaths.

But at the same time, my co-worker's comment was frightening. What does it solve, wishing more pain and death on others? It won't bring back any of the children who have died in the years of bloodshed that Afghanistan has gone through. It won't change the past. It'll only make more families grieve, more children lose their chance at a future, more lives are wasted for no good reason.

And that sort of thinking only puts more obstacles in the way of true peace. As long as we keep wishing death on one another, death on one another's innocents, we will never be able to get along. How can we? Peace requires understanding and the ability to consider the terrible cost exacted by your fighting. If you see the other side as someone who deserves your bullets, someone who isn't good enough to warrant the right to life, someone inferior, then of course you will feel justified in bombing their children. It's the 3/5 Compromise all over again; the slaves aren't 'fully human,' so their suffering doesn't count. From the Roman Empire to the Rwandan genocide, from Genghis Khan to 9/11, we've seen what happens when we let divisions- be they ethnic, sexual, national, or any other- give one group license to see themselves as more human, more worthy, than any other. We've seen the pain, the suffering, the terrible consequences. And yet we continue to let ourselves think this way.

When will it stop? How many more eight-year-olds must die for their parents to learn the lessons that history has striven so hard to teach us?

To those who lost loved ones in Boston, I'm sorry for your loss. To those who lost loved ones in Kandahar, or in Syria, or in Herat, or Bangalore- I'm sorry for your loss. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Going out, Coming back, Finding 'me'

I took a week off this month and went to Japan. It was a hard decision for me to make, because every time I saw a beggar on the street, I felt guilty. I thought about all that money I was going to spend, and I thought about all the good that money could do here, and I wondered how I could justify spending it all on just a vacation.

Eventually, I talked myself into going, and I had a fabulous time. No matter how much I love this country, no matter how enjoyable and meaningful my work, no matter how adjusted I've become to daily life, I can't deny that my trips out of country have been little tastes of freedom. Japan was a fascinating place, and it was great to spend time with my friend Leah. While I was there, I wore T-shirts. Gasp! Took off my headscarf. Gasp! I went running every day, wore jewelry, ate frozen yogurt (and sushi, of course!), went hiking, saw more of my skin in one day than I have in the last six months. Gasp!

But the thing about vacations is that they end. And you return to normal life.

That moment came when the loudspeakers at the Delhi airport announced my flight. I went to change into my Kabul-appropriate clothes, and just like that, I changed into a different me. The one who doesn't wear T-shirts, who doesn't leave her hair down, who keeps her gaze down when she walks. The one who has (partially) learned to guard what she says, who has discovered that freedom of religion isn't universal. The one who walks past street kids on her way to work. The one who sat in the Delhi airport with a scarf wound around my neck, delaying the moment when it had to go on my head, when it ceased to be a pretty accessory and instead became a chadar, an annoyance, a blinder, a symbol that trumpets my gender and my worth and my status in society.

When I got back to Kabul, culture shock didn't hit me so much as knock me over with a sledgehammer. It broke my heart to return to streets with beggars in burqas and little kids selling sticks of gum. Tiny linguistic misunderstandings made me want to throw my arms up and leave, and I couldn't bear the thought of living through several more months of that. I got annoyed when I couldn't take a hot shower, or roll my sleeves up on a hot day, or walk down the street without being stared at. The call to prayer woke me up at 4:30 am again, which hasn't happened since I first arrived last year. My running shoes sat in the corner, resigning themselves to more months of disuse.

And then, a week after I got back, I had a day off. My cold was finally on the mend, the sun was shining, and I had enough free time to sit in the garden for a while. I brought my Bible and my journal and a book, but once I got outside, I didn't touch any of them. I just sat there, eyes closed, face turned up to the sun. And I heard the ice cream truck go by, and it made me smile. I heard the scuffle of a street soccer game, felt our dog lick my hand, smelled the fresh naan that the guard had brought for lunch, and they made me smile.

I'm glad I went on this vacation, no matter how hard it was to justify the cost. Even more, I'm glad I'm back. When I boarded that plane in Delhi, I wasn't an entirely different person than I had been in Japan. I was a blend of the two, and in the process of blending them together, I learned something about myself.

They say that living abroad gives you new perspectives, but it's not until we stop to examine that perspective that it has any impact on our lives. I've become so accustomed to daily life in Kabul that I couldn't fully appreciate the changes it has made in the person I am now. Those changes are sometimes hard to see until we take a break from ourselves and remember who we used to be. Until we leave for a while, return to the person we are used to being, and realize exactly how different we've become. That's why vacations are so valuable, I think. They give us a chance to distance ourselves from the changes, to go back to the person we were before, just for a little while. Away from communities that know us and people who expect things of us, we have time to examine what we have learned. We can separate the personal growth from the pure survival. We can find the elements the have made us better, or worse, or simply different. We can decide which elements of the “new me” get to stick around.

A few photos from Japan:

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Phenomenal Women

I spoke at an event for International Women's Day this week, and several people asked me to post a copy of my speech. I spoke off an outline, so I can't guarantee that the wording is exact, but I think this is pretty close. I'm so grateful to have been a part of that event, of a day that celebrates all the incredible things that women have done and urges all of us to fight for those women who don't yet have the rights we have. So much has been accomplished, yet we still have so far to go.

Phenomenal Women

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies...
I say,
It's the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet...
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

This is a poem by an author named Maya Angelou, who truly is a phenomenal woman. She's an African American writer from the United States who has survived abuse during her childhood, single parenthood as a young woman, an interracial marriage during a period when it was condemned, campaigns to fight for civil rights in the 1960's. And yet she remained strong, continued to fight, continued to view herself as phenomenal.

When I was asked to give this speech about life as a woman in the United States, I have to admit, I wasn't sure how to approach it. Just as there's no single “Afghan woman,” there is no single story that encompasses all American women. My story is very different from Maya Angelou's story, and I can't claim to represent all the incredible women or all the tragic stories from my homeland.

In fact, as I was first looking at this topic, I was overwhelmed by the differences. Among the women in America, but also between women in America and women in Afghanistan. From culture to educational opportunities to clothing. My chadar, for example- I'd never worn one until I came to Kabul, and honestly, I don't know how you ladies do it! I'm hoping that I'll someday manage to eat rice without having most of it end up in my chadar.

Though the differences between our cultures are easy to spot, we can look back through history and see that our similarities abound, that there are hundreds of years of phenomenal women who have brought us to where we are now, that the challenges Afghanistan is facing now are the same challenges others have faced and are facing still.

Education, for example. Education was always an important part of my life, something that my family really emphasized. It was never something I had to fight for, though. I never had to consider life without school, never had to worry about whether or not I'd be allowed to attend, or whether it was safe for me to continue studying.

The reason I had that luxury, though, was that there were hundreds of years of women who came before me and fought for that right. Colleges in the United States have only accepted women for about 150 years. The first woman to receive a medical degree, Elizabeth Blackwell, graduated in 1849. She was a phenomenal woman. She applied to college after college, but was turned down again and again because she was a woman and 'intellectually inferior.' She was finally accepted, and went on to graduate and become a social reformer and pioneer the field of medicine for women.

Women like Elizabeth Blackwell, who faced adversity and continued to fight for their right to receive an education, made that right available for me.

Afghanistan has its own phenomenal women campaigning to make education accessible. All the women who ran secret schools during the Taliban period. All the teachers who continue offering an education to their young female students, despite acid attacks and bombs and threats. All of the students and teachers here with us today, who are fighting to get an education despite the voices telling them not to. Anyone in this room who has ever defended a young girl's right to attend school. There will come a point when girls in Afghanistan worry as little about their education as I did, and it will be your efforts that made that possible.

Voting and political participation was another aspect of my life in the United States that I never had to worry about and another example of a right that was won by generations of determined women. Emphasis on political equality in the United States began with another incredible woman named Abigail Adams. Her husband was a part of the Continental Congress, and Abigail is known for her many letters to him, urging him to “Remember the Ladies” as the new Constitution of the United States was being written. Thanks to Abigail Adams, the Constitution says “persons or people” instead of “man.”

The US has continued from simply remembering the ladies to having them be an active part of politics, but it took many years to make that happen. It took women like Susan B. Anthony, who voted illegally and went to court because of it. Women like Alice Paul, who conducted hunger strikes to protest female voters being jailed unfairly. These ladies made it possible for my generation to vote and run for office and take it all for granted.

In Afghanistan, more and more women are calling for us to “Remember the ladies.” There's a quota for women in Parliament. There are female MPs challenging opinions of their male colleagues. Fawzia Koofi is even running for president! Ten, twenty years ago, could you have imagined any of that being possible?

Change happens because phenomenal women let themselves become phenomenal. We have to embrace the part of ourselves that believes we are extraordinary. We have to believe that we have the capacity to be just as phenomenal as Abigail Adams or Fawzia Koofi.

Change also doesn't have to mean moving mountains. I'd like to introduce you to another phenomenal woman. She's one of the most influential I know, but you won't find her name if you search her on Google. She's my mom. She's not famous or rich, but she's made a difference in this world by raising five children to care about others, to believe in themselves, to fight for what's right. She's proof that change, important change, can start small. Ask yourself: how can you make a difference today? If each of us in our lifetime changes the lives of two other people in a positive way, the world could be twice as good as it is now.

And as you fight for change, whether large or small, remember: You aren't alone. The struggles that Afghan women face sometimes seem insurmountable, but know that you aren't fighting alone. Half of the world's population understands what you are going through, has faced similar barriers, is taking strength from your strength in order to face these challenges and others.

So I challenge everyone in this room to give yourself permission to be phenomenal. Let's celebrate our abilities, our talents, our dreams. Not simply because we are women or because we are men, not because we are Afghan or American, but because we are phenomenal.

The end of Maya Angelou's poem goes like this:
Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud...
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Before we offer the job, can we meet with your parents?

The last two questions of the interview were hardest for me. Mariam was the second young woman we were interviewing for an opening at the APT office, and most of the questions were pretty standard. Work experience, life vision, why do you want to work at APT? But then came the questions that I have such a hard time with.

If we offer you this job, would one of your parents be able to meet with us?

What is your marital status? Can we meet with your husband or fiancee?

Most of the young people we interview answer these questions without hesitation. Mariam was the first to question it.

I've been working for six years, she said. I support myself. Why do you need to talk to my parents?

We think it's important for your parents to know us, and us to know them. We've had trouble in the past, when a young woman came on an exposure trip with us and was met at the airport by her enraged fiancee, who hadn't given permission; we don't want that to happen again. We meet with the parents of everyone we hire, both men and women.

She glanced at me. Did you meet with Rachel's parents?

After the interview, I was talking to the others on the hiring committee. I could see why we have to ask when we take students abroad, but adults? I can't imagine an employer at home asking that; I can't imagine my reaction if they did. I love my parents, but since I turned eighteen, I haven't always even consulted them when I took a new job, much less had their permission be a requisite of taking it. Doesn't Afghanistan have an age of majority?

Technically, they told me, eighteen is the age of majority. But in practice, it doesn't work that way. Young men live with their families until they are married; their parents have a say in where they work, how they spend their evenings, not to mention who they marry. A friend of mine is a young professional, several years out of college, but he told me that even his parents still like to control whether or not he goes out in the evenings. Young women are in the same place, except that after they marry, their husbands replace their parents. Even the most independent young people I know don't ever truly have the independence that I am so accustomed to.

There's a part of me that loves the family-oriented culture, the way that children stay so close to home and such a part of their families even when they are grown and have children of their own. You wouldn't know it from how far I live from my family, but that kind of atmosphere really matters to me.

But at the same time, I ache for the young people who are trying so hard to become independent, who can't get a passport without their parents' permission, who apply at awesome jobs like APT and still get asked those interview questions.

We are relying on them to be the future of this country, but they don't yet have the freedom to even be their own future.