I came to Afghanistan through the generous and loving support of family and friends. I could not be having this invaluable experience without their shared participation. It is a profound privilege to be representing them, and each of you, on this journey of solidarity and education.
I have been reflecting quite a bit about “privilege” on many levels since my arrival 12 days ago. We talk about “simple living” in the United States but even those who have chosen to live more closely to the poor typically have continual access to electricity, refrigeration, running water, laundromats and frequently washers and dryers in our own homes. Virtually all have stoves and TVs and most have some sort of transportation—cars, bicycles, or a pass on Muni or BART. I am personally grateful for all of these amenities.
This radical change in simple functions of daily living is the first things I notice being here in the women’s community. We bath with one or two pitchers of cold water in a concrete walled small room with a hole in the floor (actually I am enjoying how refreshing it is in the constant heat of summer but wonder how well I would do in the freezing cold winter months). Cleaning is done with brooms; laundry is all by hand, and hung in the summer sun to quickly dry; cooking is on a small gas burner, after chopping is done on plates while sitting on the floor. The room used to prepare meals has no stove or sink. And, this life in Kabul, where we live in community, is actually so much easier than in any of the villages the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV) come from. I have adapted easily, but I am not sure I would in the countryside where life is so much more difficult.
It would be easy to stay focused on the creativity I see displayed every day here —these women are solving challenges that are so simply resolved in my easier life in California. However, what is most remarkable to me is the courage that I see displayed each and every day. It is firstly an extraordinary thing for women to leave their often very remote villages to come to Kabul to get better education; this is the most frequently expressed dream for them, and they, themselves are leading the way for change.
Put in the context that these youth have never known anything but war, with massacres of civilian family members by the Taliban and by US drones, I am profoundly moved by their bravery. I have learned that Australia’s University of Queensland’s researchers published a 2013 study which showed that Afghanistan has the highest number of people with depression in the world. Experts estimate that 60% of the Afghan populace suffers from mild to severe mental illness. In 2013, more than 2500 Afghan women had committed suicide.
And yet, youth like 21 year old Zarghuna have refused to continue living in fear, not only from war, but also from neighbors of other ethnic groups. I’d like to share her story to illustrate the courage and vision I am seeing here among the youth.
Zarghuna is 21, from Bamiyan, an agricultural area where most of the people are Hazara. Her father and grandfather were killed 14 years ago, by the Taliban, when Zarghuna was seven years old. Her mother was widowed, with six children. Life is very hard under an economic system which maintains poverty and within the country there is severe corruption and continual fighting.
She hopes that all Afghan girls will be able to complete their education and, through schooling, obtain their rights. She seeks to help build a new Afghanistan where leaders will share resources fairly with people and guide people to overcome hatreds and deep ethnic divisions. In a country rich with mineral and other resources, where the concentration of development is in the hands of the very wealthy, this goal seems almost insurmountable.
However, two years ago Zarghuna was given an opportunity to travel to India to visit a remarkable place called Barefoot College and to participate in the National Right to Food conference. There she learned from the work of nonviolent activists and the Indian women who were able to come together and speak up for themselves. She also saw the possibility of a simpler lifestyle based on equality. Zarghuna thinks more can be done in Afghanistan to help the poor, even though the “economic system is fraught with elites who seem not to care about extensive poverty.” She longs to make that vision real and hopes her studies will be relevant.
Her greatest wish, echoed by other youth I’ve interviewed here, is to end all wars. She, like so many, fears that Americans demonize Afghans because what we most frequently read about are the Taliban. She shared this message for the people in the US: “Afghans are not like the Taliban. We urge people to demand an end to war and stop sending money for a few corrupt people. Instead, Americans could help with education, nutrition and health care, and be a part of the true change we are seeking for Afghanistan.”
Zarghuna believes that patience is very important, and it is also imperative to persist in learning valuable skills like nonviolent conflict resolution. She cites her own experience of growing up believing that all Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras could never get along, and that all Pashtuns are Taliban. Now she lives in an inter-ethnic community and, as an Afghan Peace Volunteer, she and others at the Borderfree Community Centre of Nonviolence are building the foundation for a new Afghanistan (see video above). Their resolve, to me, represents real courage.
August 18, 2014