Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Overcoming Differences in Kabul

Heddy, our evaluator for the Creativity in Action project, reports from Kabul, where she was inspired by the activities she witnessed and the people she met.  

I'm back in Afghanistan, but just for a very short and productive stay! Driving through the roads of Kabul to get to the BST facility was a jarring awakening. Because I arrived in the afternoon, the city was bustling. The traffic was nuts! A snapshot of the million things I saw as we drove to the office/house: random people and random bicycles fearlessly walking between cars, students holding hands and laughing as they walk home from school, young mothers and fathers with their children, an old man coaching a young man as he prepared a meal on the side of the road, a young boy tossing water out of the doorway of a bakery, and the most heartbreaking--these young street children. They tap on the windows and beg for money, some of them carry these smoking cans that are some kind of incense blessing, I think. 

Overcoming ethnic differences
When I got to the BST facility in Kabul, the house was full of young people. There were 30 youth from 2 different provinces, Badakhshan and Wardak. These two provinces are very different ethnically, linguistically, and culturally. One of the main goals of this project is to bring young people together from different parts of the country, especially from different ethnic groups that have traditionally mistrusted one another. The young people kept saying how happy they were to have met the youth from the other province. Saying things like, 'I used to think that Pashtuns were bad people--now I see they are just like me--they are my friends.' It was inspiring to hear such hopeful words in a place that can feel so hopeless at times.

During the workshop, word came that the Taliban was making gains in Badakhshan. All the parents of the youth from there were urging their kids not to come back right away. All of the youth from Badakhshan made arrangements temporarily to stay with relatives in and around Kabul. But there were a couple boys who didn't have any relatives to stay with. One of the boys from Wardak contacted his family in Kabul and arranged for the boys to stay with them. This may not sound like a big deal--but it IS! The boy from Wardak was saying that he wanted to take what he had learned from the workshop - that people from Badakhshan are good people - and share it with his family. He wanted to change the way that Pashtuns and Tajiks thought about each other, and he would start with his family. He said he knew he would be friends with some of the boys he's met from Badakhshan for the rest of his life.

Connecting with the girls 
I stayed on the third floor with the girls, a couple of whom spoke English, which was fabulous for me since my Dari, while improved, is pretty lousy. They were still impressed that I managed to squeak out a few phrases, bless them. They were very enamored with my hair and my eyes, and I was enamored with how easily they drew me into their fold. The first night was a lot like summer camp, I hung out in their room and we giggled and exchanged basic information...first and foremost, was I married and did I have children? And then of course, why not? (not so different than the US really).

One of the girls told another of the girls (who then repeated it to me), "Heddy is such a good woman. Why she is not a Muslim?" This hit me so hard. This is the question right?! All the struggles we have at home and around the world about who believes the right thing. I was so happy to play a part in sparking this question. The girl who told me this said "I don't think it's about religion. I think we have to start first with humanity." I think I actually felt my heart swell.

The program in action
Seeing the workshops with the two groups was awesome. The workshops are all led by Afghan theatre artists, so lots of theatre and improv/role-playing type activities, but the ultimate goal is to come up with a community improvement project that the youth want to implement back in their hometowns. Once they come up with a plan, they have to write an official proposal and create a budget, and they are then given a small stipend to get their project started. The young women from Badakhshan came up with a plan to create a women's gym, because there really aren't any opportunities for women to participate in any physical activities, sports, or exercise. (I gave them a couple Pilates lessons to add to their regimen.) Some other projects have included things like an education program for street children, city clean-up initiatives, and a domestic violence support group.

Things quieted down a lot after the youth left. I then switched gears to the administrative side of my dissertation research, surveys and such, not as interesting. I've been able to see a bit more of the outside world on this trip. I went with the youth on their field trip day - the national museum, the gutted Darul Aman palace, and Babur Gardens (which date back to the 1500s!). Yesterday we visited a shop inside of a guest house that typically houses people visiting with the big NGO's like World Food Program, UNICEF, etc. We had to go through three security doors and when we finally got through it was like a military compound. There were foreigners lying on the grass and playing basketball. And there was a Japanese restaurant (the tempura was not bad)... it was surreal to say the least. One big bonus of shopping there (in addition to the tempura) was that we didn't have to do all the bargaining and haggling, which always stresses me out. I'm sure we paid more for that convenience though.

The man on the left has been the groundskeeper at the Darul Aman palace since it was built in 1920!
It's been a whirlwind and a great trip. The food is still fabulous, ('teka' kebab is my fav) and the Afghan people I've had the opportunity to meet are incredibly warm and kind. And all very tired of living in a country so broken by war.