The Magic Freedom Bus rolled into my sister Lindsay’s ranch northwest of Sacramento just in time to feed the horses. Here we would rest for four days, visiting with my father who is living with my sister and her husband Jim. They have a heated lap pool that would occupy the children for hours. An old and dear college friend and his family surprised me by flying down from Seattle to see me at my sister’s before I once again disappear to Kabul.
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My family worries a lot about my safety, but they support my choice to live in Kabul and be with the children. It is a bittersweet thing to meet with them, so wonderful to see them but in the back of the mind is the notion I will again leave and again wonder if and when we will see one another again.
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This was a time for the children to regroup, just to play, and for me to reconnect with family and friends and for Nasrin to catch up on her sleep and sort through the vast amount of materials we have accumulated: photographs, business cards, donations, gifts, various connections with people who want to help in the future, and so on and so forth. All before the final California presentation and then the big push East to New York.
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If there were a time during this journey for misfortune to hit, this was that time, when nothing was scheduled and we could address the situation head on. First, Hala required a trip to the dentist to address growing pain in a tooth she had broken a year before. It required extraction, and along with that five cavities needed filling. The doctor was tremendously gentle and generous. We walked away without a tooth, but also without any charges. That afternoon the children started a little game called “who can leap over the tennis net”. I was not there watching, and blame myself for not supervising them. I just couldn’t imagine what trouble they might get into on this very safe farm with no skateboards. Lida caught a toe jumping, fell and chipped her front tooth diagonally. It could have been so disastrous, a broken and bloody nose, a cracked chin or skull, but nothing else was damaged. Still, Lida was mortified. Her smile had been destroyed. I immediately set my sights on arranging for a dentist to see her in Denver, figuring the time frame and leeway.
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Lida wins the prize for most injuries on the trip, from a bite by a dog to scraped knees and bicycle crunches to crunched elbows she seemed to manage one injury per stopover. Never major, but always just enough to be noticed. I began to pray. Three weeks. Three weeks and Nasrin and I will have these children safely on a plane back to the sanctuary of the parwarishga. Please please get us there!
On our final day in Sacramento area we had a presentation at the State University campus. Wendy, a professor there had arranged for what she hoped would be a very successful fundraiser. We donned our Afghan clothes for this one and drove the bus into the city. Many Afghan Americans were there as well as other Moslems studying Islamic Studies at the university. Though we were a little rusty the event went well. Often people in such venues ask if the children receive instruction in their religion. It is important people know that all the children go to the public school where they receive the government issued curriculum in Islamic Studies. AFCECO also employs its own Islamic scholar that instructs the children on the actual and true content of their holy text. When people see the girls going swimming, not wearing their scarf or chadar, when they hear the girls speaking their minds and their hearts equal to boys they sometimes believe these girls are drifting away and becoming unfaithful. There are two things that come to mind in addressing this concern: first, please remember how Islam in Afghanistan was hijacked by extremists and their absurdist interpretations of the Quran, men that washed their country in blood (and continue to do so) of innocent and faithful Moslem citizens for these decades after the Soviets left. Because of this the girls do not attach the accoutrements and so-called laws of Islam with being truly Moslem in your heart. These girls are very very modest, and find the way American girls dress to be equally absurd, as well as the almost naked women in advertising and on television. A second point to be made is that I can say the girls see themselves as Moslem, believe in the true teachings of their religion and are pure of heart, chadar or no chadar. They respect the traditions of the Mosque and follow these expectations within its walls. They are in my view the very people that will create a lasting strength for Islam, rather than dismantling it or rejecting it.
A great treat for us at was the arrival of another volunteer who I’d invited to teach some years before, Angela Nibler. She had flown down from Idaho to see the children. She came with jewelry she had made for all the kids, and great tears of joy at seeing them again.
The short week came quickly to an end and suddenly we found ourselves loading up on the bus and saying goodbye to my family. My father is frail and has suffered many health problems over the years. He was the one that along with my mother who passed 16 years ago made me who I am. He was always there for me. Always. Every night he came home from work and played with his five children. Every night he lay beside me in bed and read to me, about history, about science, about adventures at sea, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. He is still there for me. I owe him everything, and though I am not the one in the family taking care of him now, I know that his greatest wish is that I fulfill my dreams, follow that sunrise, make some kind of place for myself in the world.
I tried to hide my tears from the children. They watch me like little hawks. Their silence was respectful, and the power of their love the greatest comfort of all.
Ten hours to Salt Lake City. The weather over the mountains couldn’t have been better. It was, all considered, uneventful and easy. We arrived at Sandra’s home by 8pm, another sponsor offering to host us and arrange a fundraising event.
Here was the first stop where the family had children all the same age as our six emissaries from the orphanage. They were all extremely polite, engaging and talented. Recitals on piano and singing were first order of the night. They all stayed home from school to spend more time with their special guests. The next morning It was a first experience with the trampoline. Eraj, after spending an hour bouncing around came walking into the kitchen exclaiming, “Ian, I cannot walk! I feel like I am still going up and down!"
Sandra planned a silent auction to raise money. This included dinner that was donated and a great assortment of products from quilts to artwork to gift certificates to fancy stores for people to bid on. It added another thousand dollars to the kitty, pushing us beyond $60,000. The people were so kind, and Sandra later stayed up late sewing blankets that fold into pillows for all of us to take on the plane with us back to Kabul. All too quickly our two nights in Utah came to an end. I’d planned the push East in five legs, breaking each up with two nights in each destination.
Our drive over the top of the continental divide afforded our first encounter with snow the entire winter trip. I pulled off in Glenwood Canyon, a most beautiful mountain river where plenty of snow carpeted the ground. I went to the bathroom and upon my return Mohsan asked me where to find the toilet. Something sneaky about his crooked smile as he snuck closer and closer to me. Suddenly a barrage of snowballs were flung at me from all sides. All out war. I believe Maria got the worst of it, snow down the back and all. Nasrin also got hit hard by Maria, an ice ball to the wrist. The sun was bright and the temperature was seventy. It couldn’t have been a more beautiful spring day. I subjected everyone to my John Denver collection the rest of the way down into Denver.
We arrived at our new host family’s home at 7pm, not knowing what awaited us. Halima and her Husband Wahid were both Afghan Americans. Wahid’s father had been abducted and killed by the Soviets before the family fled the country. We entered their majestic home to find no less than fifty people awaiting our arrival, a feast set out and a steam room all ready to go for the weary bus driver. The children fell right in, as there were a score of other children, many of them able to speak Dari. I held on for a while, helping Nasrin navigate the dozens of questions people wanted to ask. But our new host kept pressing me to try that steam room, and I could no longer resist. The driving was finally beginning to get to me, and my body was starting to break down.
The children stayed up to two in the morning. I slept deeply. In the morning I followed Wahid to get some errands done: some medicine for some skin cancer on my leg, a new gas cap (yup, I lost another one) and an oil change for the bus. Then we met the children and Nasrin at a hair salon where all of us, myself included got a free cut. We all agreed Lida got the most points for style. Then it was off to a pizza house and finally to another first experience: a professional sports event. The Denver Nuggets took on the Cleveland Cavaliers and friends of Halima and Wahid had reserved a box for all of us. This was a quintessential American experience. Of course Hala had to root (loudly mind you) for the visiting team. Why? “Because my sponsor lives in Ohio!”
Cleveland won in the final seconds. I was certain I’d have to sneak Hala out quickly as she whooped and wailed for her team.
I later was pleased to sense that the children really didn’t get blown away by all the pomp around the game, the crowds and balloons and cheerleaders and noise and signs and head banging music. They mostly were enamored with the game itself, how it was played and how the tide kept swinging back and forth.
The next morning we gave a presentation at a Denver area Rotary Club. When all the agendas were finished we only had a half hour. Everyone was so tired, I decided to take the lead on this one. The kids sang one song and recited one poem. I gave this group what seemed to be what they wanted, the story of an American volunteer in Afghanistan. So for only the second time in all our presentations I told the tale. Then it was off to the dentist, where Lida received a cap on her chipped tooth, again for free. Dr. Grossman made her tooth look like new. Lida began to smile again.
Another tearful goodbye, and we were on our way across the great belly of America, Nebraska. Omaha was our next stop. The great expanse of the plains opened up to the Magic Freedom Bus. Like an ocean.