Santa Barbara was a stop arranged by another sponsor, Jennifer Shively. The pristine park and rows of neatly trimmed palms greeted us as we pulled the bus into this quintessential California Shangri-la. Jennifer and her good friend MaryJo met us with sandwiches and we spent the afternoon playing games in the park. The eight of us on the bus by this time began to feel the significance of this journey together, the closeness and the fact nothing like this has been done and most likely will ever be done again. As I instructed the six kids to make a people pyramid I felt our reconstructed family bonding in ways I could not have imagined. It is as if Nasrin has indeed become mom, helping them in ways I could never, the one they can confide in, the one they can communicate with best. I, the dad, am unpredictable and yet always there in a pinch. All seven of them have begun to worry about me a little, can he last, can he keep this thing going? I have made them to depend on me too much, a fault I must alleviate somehow.
MaryJo had not known of AFCECO or very much about this group, and had been wary of opening up her sanctuary to strangers especially since she had a few housemates to think of. But only a few minutes with the smiling, open, trusting, inquisitive children and she flung her doors open wide. She invited us to stay at her house in the mountains overlooking the ocean. This home is the most artistically designed I’d seen, a Spanish theme with pieces from all over the world. It felt like a sanctuary, nestled in the folds of the hills, with horses and landscaped gardens and the salty air. All around us adorning the walls, in the architecture was art and remembrance of MaryJo’s beloved sister who had passed away some years before. We learned about a different sort of love that can linger long after a person is gone. It was wonderful to see the light the children brought to MaryJo’s home, and to see them engaging at the fish pond, or the barn with the horses or surveying the gardens.
This was merely a rest stop on our way to San Francisco, but it quickly turned into a significant chapter. Many guests arrive the following late morning for a presentation that turned out to be one of our best. There was a famous chef in the audience that was kicking himself wishing he had time to prepare a big fundraiser. He said that he would invite some of the biggest celebrities that are huge fans of his cuisine and hold a $1,000 a plate event. Yet another thread for the future. Several sponsors showed up, and with each and every one we all told stories about his or her Afghan child. An important goal of this trip is to connect and solidify AFCECO’s relationship with its sponsors, and on this day we made great strides. It would be a dash to get to our next performance: north of Monterey by 6pm, so we actually had to say goodbye as soon as we were finished with our Santa Barbara show. Now we really are beginning to feel like a rock and roll tour!
Skirting one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, the Magic Freedom Bus wound its way north another four and a half hours. Following the commands of our precious GPS, loaned to us by my cousin back when we swung through North Carolina, we arrived exactly at 6 o’clock in the evening, just as the crowd was showing up for our little show. Here again we were met by several sponsors. Our organizer and host Roger Aikin who sponsors two girls from my Leadership Workshop (Sosan and Sediqa) walked up to the driver’s side window smiling and applauding. “Timing couldn’t have been better!”
The Interfaith Fellowship Hall of Aptos was full of people, as well as reporters from two different papers. More gifts for the children awaited them in specially prepared bags of goodies. Among the crowd was an elderly gentleman that had been in Afghanistan with the Peace Corps back in the sixties. He told of how beautiful the country was at that time, and how much he fell in love with the people. This group of people were especially interested in the future and what is actually happening on the ground in Afghanistan. Everywhere people seem to realize they have been kept in the dark, only getting the revolving reports of embedded war stories and corruption. We gave our presentation and were then whisked away to Roger’s home. The girls would stay with a neighbor, the boys with Roger and his wife Wendy, and Nasrin and I would stay with a close friend of theirs. We were served a hearty Italian dinner and then given a tour of Roger’s collections. He has been around the world and his home reflects it. Especially impressive to the children was his impressive collection of chess sets.
These days of reprieve from sleeping in the RV are so valuable in terms of really getting to know people from all persuasions, all ages and backgrounds. Thus far the children have experienced such a wide swath of Americans they are beginning to realize one of the great things about my country: its diversity.
The next morning Nasrin and I returned to find Frishta hopping upon a skateboard and the others tooling around on scooters and bicycles, the two boys having dashed down a winding mountain road. Though they were having the time of their life I was simultaneously relieved none had broken a skull or elbow and annoyed I had not been there to monitor their activities. The neighbor was used to American kids and didn’t realize the extent these children fear nothing and lie about their ability to use these dangerous contraptions. I barked at the kids, “No helmets, no using. And no skateboard!” I was an ogre, but I just can’t let another incident such as Maria back in the Florida pool have a chance at making sudden tragedy.
This was yet another brief yet very full visit. Now once again we had to press on. This time for a noon lunch and then tour at Google corporate headquarters in Mountain View. We packed up, took our pictures and waved goodbye. The resilience of this crew, of the children with changing schedules and a grumpy dad, of Nasrin having to be on, on, on all the time with the children, managing AFCECO business, being communicative and magnetic with the hundreds of people we encounter and all their questions and needs, for all of them performing in so many presentations and having to live on such a strange American diet impressed me to no end. For me this kind of thing is not so terribly strange, it is indicative of the life I’ve led. For them everything about this journey flows against the rhythm of their life at home. Yet they do not complain, and they rub my tired shoulders and sing their songs and keep our little freedom flame alive and well.
Google is located in the shadow of Stanford University. We made a round of the grounds in the bus before settling on a spot reserved for us with orange cones. Around 32,000 employees, and dozens of state of the art buildings. Public art is everywhere, sculptures and places to relax. Two of the people on staff, Mary and Steve were there to meet us, both having chosen to sponsor AFCECO children after once visiting Mehan orphanage. We were given a full tour of the facility after a lunch that included the choice of food from around the world. Not too many people over the age of 35. I think the children were infinitely impressed that this could be a place where people work, where they seem to be so well taken care of. Nasrin and I spoke with our hosts about the need to pursue some diversification in funding for the orphanages. Quickly they came up with a variety of ideas. These are, quite obviously, idea people. Though they could only fit us in for a few hours, I know they are committed to helping us solve some of our problems in the long run.
Before heading to our next host, we wanted to drive across the Bay to see what everyone had been calling “Little Kabul”. In our minds it was a place that resembled a street in Kabul, a half mile of shops, businesses and restaurants all run by Afghan Americans, in the same way you see ethnically homogenous streets in cities everywhere. We were terribly disappointed as we drove into the main road of Freemont. It looked like Everywhere USA, fast food and chain stores and gas stations. There was only one Afghan grocery, and two small restaurants. We decided to buy some nan, at least, then we sat down in the restaurant to order a little food. Then in walked an older couple, relatives of Afghans we had met in San Diego. They had tracked us down somehow, and the evening was saved. The woman was so happy she cried, and made conversation with the children for an hour and a half about all things Afghan.
Something important transpires between the children and the expatriates they meet. Afghan Americans initially are compelled to save the children, to draw them into the fruits of their adopted home, to give them cash, gifts, food. Many ask about adoption. The children accept these gestures graciously, but they give no indication they desire anything from America other than support for their orphanage, and that they have no intention or even dream of coming to America, but to stay in Afghanistan, to become strong, to help their people there. This touches the hearts of the American Afghans so deeply as to produce tears of joy, of guilt, of yearning and of admiration.
Soon we would arrive at yet another household, this time Indian Americans in South San Francisco. The city so many people have told us is most beautiful in the country awaited us, and we were eager to see it.