Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Afghan Chronicles, September 11, 2013 Day 7

September 11, 2013 Day 7 Today is THAT day, you know the one I’m talking about—the day our world changed forever. I now it changed my world forever and the events of 9/11 is why I am here in Kabul this morning drinking tea and watching the sun rise over the city. 12 years ago at this time I was getting ready to go to my job at PS 42 on the Lower East Side. If you told me that 12 years later I would be working in Afghanistan, I probably wouldn’t believe it. But here I am, doing what I love. On that sunny Tuesday in September I saw 2,000 people killed before my eyes in one of the most unbelievable events in my lifetime. We mourn those innocent people as we should, but what about the thousands of Afghans who have been victims of terrorism for years? This is not to say that those people who died on 9/11 don’t deserve attention but when we talk about victims of terrorism, at least in the Western world, we forget about the innocent Afghans who have been subjected to bombings from all sides really, who live in fear everyday of another act of terrorism. I don’t forget them because they are my Afghan children and their families. Terrorism is a destructive force that seems to come from an irrational, narrow-minded and uneducated point of view. I am dedicated to fighting terrorism the only way I know—through education. As I watched the Twin Towers crumble before my eyes from a rooftop in Chinatown, I had a choice to make—to hate or to fight. I chose to fight, initially with a gun or airplane, but later when the emotions subsided, I chose education. For these past 12 years I’ve been educating Afghan students and opening up the world for them, giving them the critical thinking skills to make sense of the world around them and become free thinkers. Not only did 9/11 change America and our sense of safety and freedom, but also Afghanistan and its sense of tradition and adherence to ancient ways. 9/11 ripped the lid off of Afghanistan and exposed it to the world, bringing in all sorts of influences and ideas that may or may not have been so readily embraced by the local population. Yet it showed us one thing, Afghanistan needed to change and the youth of this country desparately needed educational opportunities. Education and rational thought are tools that I feel Afghans need to mold the future that they want. A more educated Afghanistan is the road for a successful future and that’s why I am here doing what I do. 2014 seems to be on everyone’s mind and something I talk about every day. Whatever does happen, Afghanistan will go on, and the hundreds of students I’ve helped educate and inspire will fight ot make their Watan the peaceful, productive country they all dream about.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Afghan Chronicles, September 9th, 2013 Day 5

September in Afghanistan Day 5 A quiet morning in Kabul, like Juma the streets are empty and you can hear singular sounds like a motorcycle going by, the spitting of the Parliament guards outside my window, a mourning dove giving her lone cry, the gentle tinkle of a bicycle bell as it sails around the corner of Park Street. Today is another holiday here in Afghanistan—the anniversary of Masoud’s assassination 12 years ago. Ahmad Masoud was the “Lion of the Panshir,” the head of the Northern Alliance that helped push out the Taliban after 9/11. His death seems like a prelude of what happened just two days later in New York. Where they connected? Who knows. In the west, his assassination overshadowed by the destruction of the World Trade Center, yet here in Afghanistan it is a solemn day of rememberance. There are fears that there will be some sort of attack today, so we will stay close to home. The fear causes anxious anticipation and every sharp noise brings a tremble. Who knows where or when it will happen, or if it will happen—we wait. Will it be near or far? Given that Parliament is right across the street, there is a good chance that it will be near. Still we cannot live all day in fear and must go about our business, with caution. Within this trepidation and anticipation, life does go on. Reports need writing, work needs to be done, emails sent, the 6 little kittens need to be fed. I have grown quite attached to one of the kittens, the one they named Tom. He’s an orange tabby, the kind I pan to get when I next get a cat. After 5 days of spoiling them with canned cat food, he has warmed to me and curls around my leg and lets me pet him to no end. Oh the temptation is there to bring him back to New York with me, but traveling through four countries before that makes it kind of impossible. I’ll just love him while I’m here I guess. The other ones are still a bit skittish but I have managed to give a few a good petting that has elicited purrs. Later today I’m going out to lunch with some former students, so we’ll see if that has to be cancelled. I hope not, being cooped up with just 4 walls to look at gets dull after awhile. I tell my students who come to see me that I now know what it feels to be an Afghan woman who is not allowed to leave her house. I suppose better to stay inside than to be at risk outside, and the risk is great from what they tell me. Going around during the day is OK but not at night. Just means I have more time to catch up on all the things on my to do list. One can see this as aggravation, I se eit as opportunity.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Afghan Chronicles: September 6th, 2013 Day 2

September in Afghanistan Day 2 I’ll take these opportunities when I’m still adjusting to the time difference and I wake up at 5 am to write. The sun is almost over the mountain that I can see from my bedroom window. The streets are quiet given the hour and will be quiet all day as it is Juma, Friday and a day of rest here in Afghanistan. Once I finish this entry I will go on to do some more writing, but not the type I truly enjoy—report writing. I put it off until the last moment. One part of my job I really don’t enjoy. A few days before I left the US, I had a phone conversation with a former student of mine who came to the US for a 6-week entrepreneurship workshop and decided to stay. He got his credits form American University here in Kabul transferred to a university in the US. Last night I was chatitng with another former student who went for a workshop in Holland and instead claimed political asylum there. Anyone who gets a chance to leave Afghanistan is leaving. While it saddens me, I do not blame them. I try not to let these incidents waver my optimism that things will be better and the young people will make this country better, but sometimes I wonder. Will it get better? Is this a sinking ship? Will everything revert back to the way it was pre-9/11? Who knows. Everyone is panicking and dreading the worst but somehow I know it will all come out OK. It has to—the depressing story line we hear from this place must change. They always say hope dies last and I firmly believe that. So with that in mind, despite all the security concerns and bleak outlooks for Afghanistan, I remain optimistic about the future here. Probably more of my former students will get out and never come back, that is their choice, their path. Still many more will stay and make this place better. The Chinese say “May you live in interesting times.” These are definitely interesting times and I wonder how it will all turn out post-2014. Guess w’ll have to just wait and see.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The Afghanistan Chronicles: September 5th 2013, Day 1

September in Afghanistan. Day 1 It has been a little over 6 months since I’ve been here and it’s good to be back. Despite the crumbling security situation and instability everywhere in the country that people are reporting, I needed to come. Coming in for a landing and seeing all the mountains warms my heart, makes me feel in a way that I am coming back to some place that is familiar and welcoming, not unsafe and dangerous. Coming out of the airport after getting my baggage, the warm Kabul air embraces me like an old friend. The shuttle bus driver tries to get me on his bus to drive me the small distance to where the throngs of people await family members, friends and colleagues but I prefer to walk past the old airport terminal and across the parking lots, as I usually do. I’m excited to be back and want to take these few minutes to walk alone taking in the mountains, the other passengers pushing their carts, the music coming out of some cars. I have no fear of this place for it has become like home with colleagues and students who await me like family once I get through the security gate. Wadood, our driver, is there to great me with a big hug and a handshake. He’s looking very dapper in his new green parantumbar with a black pinstripe vest. I complement him in my broken Dari on his outfit and he thanks me. This man has seen so much in his life, from the Russians, the Taliban, and now the Americans, and still has his sense of humor intact. We make jokes in the car and laugh our way through the traffic jams that slow our way back to the office. He tells me of the 6 new kittens in the office. Apparently one of the cats that hangs around the office had kittens and now they have become part of the office, with everyone pitching in money to feed them. On our way, we stop at the Finest supermarket and I pick up some breakfast supplies and some Whiskas cat food for the kittens. Of course a trip to Finest with Wadood wouldn’t be complete without a Red Bull or two for him. He has two wives and always jokes with me that he needs two Red Bulls so he can please both of them when he goes home on Thursday. I come laden with chocolate I bought in Duty-Free for his children and family. He appreciates the gesture. Eventhough I have traveled a long way here, stopping in Delhi for a night, I am not tired. It is good to see everyone at the office and sit on the takhta under the arbor of grapes, drinking tea and catching up on the latest news. As we sip our tea, the kittens run around the big divan in the yard, awaiting something to eat. I go up and get the can of cat food and put it out on a plate for them. Within minutes they are swarming the plate, devouring as much as they can as if it is a race to eat the most. First there are three, then four. The fifth one, the largest of all, comes running from the back at lightning speed and plops himself almost right smack in the middle of the food, gobbling as much as he can. The sixth one races after him and soon they are all happily having a splendid dinner, equally getting their fill. There are three orange cats and three white and greys. How I would love to take one of the orange ones home but somehow dragging a kitten through India, Switzerland, France and Germany doesn’t sound appealing at all. They are adorable though and while tempting, impossible. Today I am up early with the meuzzin’s call to prayer, one of my favorite sounds here in Kabul. I have to interview potential candidates for my winter YSEL camp beginning at 9 so need to be ready to listen attentively to students all day. They’ve scheduled 26 for me, which is a lot, but somehow we’ll manage. I just hope I don’t start falling asleep! I hope to be up early everyday and able to chronicle my days here in Afghanistan for the next three weeks. There may not be tons to report but I will try to give my readers something to enjoy.

Friday, August 09, 2013

4 am in Brooklyn and there are people up. Not the people I see when I usually get up and begin my day around 7, but my neighbors on a different schedule. What I love about New York is no matter what time it is, there is always someone else awake and there’s always a store open where you can get what you need. This particular morning I needed milk to go with my morning tea, and cat food for Lulu. Some old man comes in for something, another guy stops in for a coffee, asking for Sweet n Low form the guy behind the ocunter who is busily texting on his phone, a car service driver pulls probably for his morning coffee as well. Even at this hour, despite the drops of rain, it is humid and probably will be all day. I arrived from Ethiopia yesterday, doing my regular thing—cab from JFK to home, snuggle my cat and snuggle her some more. This time though I did not go out for a martini and Mexican food, but ordered Chinese take out and went to bed. I was tired! I was awaiting this day when I could just go to sleep and sleep for a long time, but it has been evading me this past week. Finally the opportunity came and I took it. I missed the martini, the Mexican food AND Shakespeare in the parking lot put on by my local bar but oh well—sleep was more important.
This past month has been amazing. Youth Solidarity and English Language (YSEL) program for 44 Ethiopian students at a site in Debre Zeyit, a city just 1 hr south of Addis Ababa. I can now happily say I have 44 more children to add to my bevy of Afghans. In Afghanistan, they cal me “Kaka” which means uncle, in Ethiopia I let them call me “Papa.” It fits and I like the sound of it when they say it to me. My YSEL-Ethiopia kids are so special—in this past month they have blossomed into amazing young men and women who will do great things in their futures. This camp was the spark for them, a motivation to do great things in their lives and I hope they never lose that motivation. I want them to all achieve great things, especially by going to university. That is my dream and I hope they are inspired by the dream. I will continue to motivate and inspire them, for young people need that and don’t get enough of it. Seems to have become my mission in life. Ethiopia, as I must have mentioned before, is a magical place. So earthy and green, lush and full of life. Like anywhere it is both wonderful and aggravating at the same time but I have embraced it all. No one culture is better than another, you just have to learn to adapt to different ways. Some of my Peace Corps teachers had a lot of complaints about Ethiopia as I’m sure anyone would, living in the small towns and villages like they do. Airing them is normal, but letting it get you angry is not healthy, plus it doesn’t make you any friends with the locals. I see the beauty in all places, the positive things, and don’t make a fuss about the negative things. When I was in Djibouti last March, I met a restaurant owner from Ocean Beach in San Diego. My mom ran in to him a few months ago and when she told me that she met up with him, she said, “You didn’t tell me Djibouti was such a bad place. **** said it was so dirty and horrible.” “It’s all in your perspective mom,” I replied. “Plus if I complained about it you would worry. Sure there were bad things about it but there were good things too. I like to focus on the positive.” That said, I’ll be singing Ethiopia’s praises for a long time. Now I have a few days at home before I head off to the next project. Washington DC on Sunday for orientation for arriving students from different countries, who are beginning their year in the US. After that it’ll be a few weeks in Afghanistan recruiting for our winter YSEL programs. Somewhere between September and December I do need to finish my book. Hopefully in October or November. We’ll see. For now I’m going to enjoy these next few blissful days in my house with my cat.

Pre-camp thoughts...July 3rd, 2013

A soft summer rain falls here in Debre Zeyit, Ethiopia. The morning sounds have awoken me an hour earlier: the melodic chorus of birds, the staff going about their morning routine, and now most suddenly the pitter patter of rain. My window is open to allow the fresh morning air with all its earthy, African aromas to pour in my little room as the rain and the voices from across the way become amplified. This will be my home for the next month, the Jerusalem Child and Community Development Organization (JeCCDO) training site in Debre Zeyit, where I will be running the Youth Solidarity and English Language (YSEL) program—a youth leadership initiative for Ethiopian youth. It’s a new project, inspired by the success of the YSEL program in Afghanistan. Tomorrow, our 44 selected students will arrive in Addis, and Friday morning we will head down to camp for a month of magical learning. The summer camp idea is new for Ethiopia and so is taking a group of 44 students from all over the country, representing the diverse cultures that make up Ethiopia, and putting them together to learn from each other. Some people have their doubts, but I know this will be a great month. It must be. I am the director of the camp and I won’t let it fail. My staff is made up of Peace Corps Volunteer teachers, and 4 local youth who will be counselors. My trusty assistant Endalkachew is here to make sure everything runs smoothly. Kyle, my colleague from DC is also here to give support to the teachers and me. Slowly our team is coming together and vy the end of today/tomorrow we will be one happy family (and stay a happy family). This is my fifth time in Ethiopia; one time last April I came for a visit and see the sites, and the rest have been work trips. All building up to this YSEL camp, which commences on Friday. It is always a strange feeling to get to the start date of a camp, after so much planning and then realize it’s time to begin. I’m sure the next day or two will be crazy and for sure things will be nutty, but as I always say, it all works out in the end, and if it doesn’t work out, it’s not the end. So good luck to me and my staff as we begin this great adventure!

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Musings on a cold Juma morning in Kabul

A bright sunny morning in Kabul. It’s one of those winter days I love; clear, chilly, glistening snow everywhere, making the place so magical. The conference room I’m sititng in is cold, I could put some logs in the bukhari, the wood burning stove, but the sun beaming through the two large windows is enough warmth, plus I have my patou, a large brown wool wrap that keeps me sufficiently warm. It has been ages since I’ve written here, but today seems like a good time to sit down and write my thoughts instead of worry about work. It is Juma, Friday, and all of Kabul is quiet. The one day off in the week when people can sleep in, rest, and enjoy time with their families. The office is quiet, not students clamoring for my attention, no colleagues, just me and my thoughts. I’ve been running workshops for our alumni this past week and tomorrow I begin another week of workshops for another group. I focus on three: English teacher training, Essay Writing and Research, and Project Design. Important topics for these budding leaders. I am totally loving it and so are they. Since they have off from school until March, might as well keep them busy. As I sit here looking out on my sunny day, my base, Brooklyn, is getting ready for a snow storm. It will be almost spring when I get back there—mid-March. I’ve been away so long. I enjoy my work but I do miss home, and I miss my cat Lulu, as I know she misses me. I’ve been made full-time with my job and who knows how much time I will be away from New York this year—quite a lot I believe. I’ll have to figure out something with my apartment and cat and garden when I get back. Hire a live-in super or something. Afghanistan is still in the throes of insecurity and fear of a post-2014 world, but I see many signs of hope and normal life around Kabul. The first day I was here there was a bomb blast at the Kabul equivalent of the DMV. We have a running joke in the office, whenever I come to Kabul, they meet me with a big salute, because there always seems to be a bomb blast. Not very funny but that’s the humor of the people who live through this every day, and have lived through much more. The pace of Afghanistan is so different form everywhere else, almost outer world that when you get here you get sucked into it and your over-worked, driven American work ethic just floats away and suddenly deadlines and emails demanding immediate responses seem to not exist. Life here is so invasive that it’s difficult to get anything done in a reasonable amount of time. For example I had a proposal to look over and respond to the other day, but then one of my students’ father came to the office and invited me to dinner. Culturally, it is too rude to not receive the person, plus he is one of my favorite people here, so proposal got to sit on my desk for another day. It is a big plus and also a hindrance to advancing, but cultural values are important and need to be taken into account. This country will change, it will develop but at its own pace. The young people I work with will make that change, inshallah. I already see it little by little and as long as they have the courage and drive to do their part, this is going to be a fabulous place to be. Ok need to go get ready for my day out. I’m not sitting in the office on such a glorious day. One of my former students has invited me to his social entrepreneurship class and to lunch with his family. Afterwhich I have more people to meet and places to go. Looking forward to getting out of my “prison” and enjoy a day off for a change.

December 15th--Another camp begins

5:15 a.m. Jet lag wakes me early and I embrace the few hours of quiet here in my bedroom. I am in a familiar room; one of the teacher’s rooms at the hostel of CT Public Schools in Jalandhar, Punjab, India. It is my fourth time spending one month in this room, and not much has changed. The big blue daisies on the sheet, the shiny gold foil pictures of the Golden Temple in Amritsar on the walls, the old, red refrigerator, the almiras with graffiti from students of years past. My clothes and personal items are placed in the usual places. The CT school students who live in this hostel are the same but maybe a little taller or fatter, more facial hair or wearing a different coloured uniform. In many ways, my life has become like an international version of “Groundhog Day”, the classic Bill Murray movie, given my travel to the same three ocuntries; India, Afghanistan and Ethiopia, but it never gets boring there is always something new to discover and enjoy. Mainly with a new group of students each time, there is no dull routine but an excitement at teaching and watching the changes in them from day one to the end of camp. This camp is going to be special, what with Christmas and New Years. Of course I will be missing the excitement of the holidays in New York and the chance to celebrate with my friends and family there, but there is something truly special about celebrating the holidays in a different place, with students for whom Christmas and New Years are foreign. It will be like discovering the holidays all over again. I arrived three days ago, with two of my colleagues, burdened by 8 large suitcases of camp supplies, books, and lots of gifts, stockings, and decorations to make this holiday being spent in India a specal one. I’m excited and I think all my staff will be feeling the same. I’m trying to get ym assistant to don the Santa suit I bought at a 99 cent store in Brooklyn, but he is refusing. I still have some time to cajole and convince him. Besides being the holidays, this camp will be special for our students are lower level students and we have tweaked our curriculum to better suit their needs. I don’t know yet how it will all work out, but it will work out. It has been a long while since I’ve blogged, mostly I seem to have gotten out of my rhythm of it, but I will try to get back into that rhythm and post maybe not on a daily basis but a few times a week. There are new discoveries to make as we teach a new group of students and help change the lives of a future generation of Afghanistan. I see the change and impact when I talk to my counselors, former campers, and they tell me how much their lives have changed because of the Youth Solidarity and English Language (YSEL) program. When I hear their stories, the routine of my international life doesn’t seem so routine, and I am thankful for having this opportunity to live my life this way.