As we approached Omaha a huge golden moon rose up over the plains. Bridget is a grandmother as well as a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Nebraska. Bridget met us at the door of her small home with two Yorkshire Terriers in tote. Lida and Mohsan were especially pleased to have one last chance to play with cute little dogs. Here we would only stay one night, because there were big plans in the making down the road. Bridget was amendable and very curious, asking loads of questions concerning the children and Islam. It was her worry that money meant to go to the orphanage had been spent on this trip. It should be restated here that this trip was fully funded by a grant from the Afghan Women’s Empowerment fund and from Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Project.
Bridget arranged for us to spend the morning at the Montessori school she teaches at. This was another unique and pleasurable experience for the kids, spending time with 2-5 year old American children, many of them with mothers or fathers fighting the war in Afghanistan. One child was very melodramatic, putting on a grumpy face. Hala was determined to get him to smile. Finally the boy came up to her and whispered, “I have to be sad because my grandmother is gone home!” Then he put his hands like shades on the side of his face and smiled at Hala.
This was followed by a tour of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the university. Founded in 1974 it is a unique program in America. Founder Tom Gouttierre, who spent years in Afghanistan with the Peace Corps before the Soviet era, was overjoyed to give the children a tour, as well as to practice his excellent Dari skills. It was a relief and a lot of fun for the children not to be asked a lot of questions, but merely to listen to this storyteller in their own language talk about the days before all the devastation. At one point Mohsan was coaxed to share his acting ability, so he stood up and impersonated a very popular Afghan comedian.
It would be a 13 hour run to Columbus, Ohio, so we made a dash for the highway that afternoon. Bridget, yet another person deeply affected by the children’s essence, was tearful as she hugged me and waved to the kids.
We stopped at an RV park on the Mississippi River. The residents of the travelling orphanage were suddenly very happy and excited to once again spend a night all together on the travelling beloved bus. We watched the film Dances with Wolves, and long as it is the children loved it. The setting of the great American Midwest was familiar to them now, and the history and clash of cultures fascinated them.
We began to feel the tug of our own saying goodbye to the bus, to this journey, and in a way to one another as a cohesive and singular family.
In Columbus Hala was once again united with her sponsor Patricia and her husband Doug. They had room for us all at the inn, so we settled in, had dinner, and I began to tell all the stories of our journey not only to catch Pat and Doug up but to help the children to internalize their own stories that they themselves will want to tell. It is a vital part of this endeavor: the stories that follow all the way through life, lessons that give strength when we need it.
The next day was a big one, our final presentation on the road. It would be held at an Islamic center, and lots of media coverage would be there. The turnout was huge. At least a hundred and twenty people and all very eager to help. The children did their usual performance and it was Nasrin’s turn to take the lead. She gave the best talk I’d seen her give in all the presentations. In the end the religious elder took the podium and basically led from the front. He donated a thousand dollars right on the spot and like an auctioneer challenged everyone to start donating there and then. It was miraculous. Then a group of children from a local school donated almost a thousand dollars, and finally an Afghan American college student got up and gave an emotional speech about giving and what it means to her to help her homeland she had never seen.
There were interviews for local news channels, and a group of physicians approached me and along with Patricia we started to form a proposal that would bring children from AFCECO to central Ohio for medical care, much in the same way SOLACE has done in the past. Only this program would be designed to serve AFCECO children specifically. Two sponsors showed up as well, one of Mohsan’s and one of Eraj’s. We later had dinner with two more sponsors. It was the most number of sponsors we had had in one place. It was fun as we watched one of the AFCECO videos and then saw our presentation broadcast on the nightly news. In all the children count 48 sponsors we have visited on this journey. One of the three objectives was to make such contacts, to strengthen the bonds in this extensive ever expanding family. With a few more in New York we will undoubtedly achieve that goal beyond our expectations.
The next morning we gave a talk to a high school class. This was a chance for the children to share some of their experience and to shine in front of the American peers. I couldn’t help myself as I asked a series of questions to the class: How many of you have been to Disney World? How many have been to see a Broadway musical? How many have been on an airboat in the Everglades, gone whale watching on a three mast schooner, ridden a trolley car, been down to the depths of Carlsbad Caverns, or seen the floats of Mardi Gras? How many have given a speech to ambassadors and the entire State Department, or been live on CNN? How many have raised tens of thousands of dollars for the care of orphans? By the time I finished, and I did go on for a while, the students were tremendously humbled and impressed. Though I was shamelessly bragging, it was time to stand before my children and let them know how much I am proud of them.
One of the students asked what the children think about American people. Maria took this one. “Before I came here, I thought the people of America and the government were same. But now I know they are not same. I know that government does not represent the people.”
This brought a great applause. And a whole lot of food for thought in this big election year.
Now we had to empty the bus, clean it and pack our bags. This took only two and a half hours, miraculous given the job before us. Thanks go to Patricia and Doug for helping us every step of the way. Again, on last time, we took to the open highway. Once again we had a 13 hour drive, so we would one last time spend the night together on the bus in an RV park. We chopped six hours off the drive and ended in a small Pennsylvania town at a KOA campground. I wanted to have one last dinner just the eight of us, so we found a nice country restaurant only a few miles away. For the first time on the entire trip we were all happy with our meal!
It was at this time I asked for the floor and for Nasrin to translate for me should there be any chance the children did not understand. I expressed to the children the need to anticipate a great transition back to Kabul, and to our loved ones and sisters and brothers in the orphanage. I told them they must understand that they are special, they are VIPs, they have been given a gift and their peers will wonder how these emissaries will have changed. I explained that they should never forget who they are, to remain humble and share their gifts generously. I explained that they may feel some confusion in going back, along with the joy, and that this would be natural and would evaporate in a short while. They all of six of them understood these things before I told them. They have perceptive abilities and wisdom beyond their years.
We spent our last night on the bus in the woods, alone in the park. It rained, and we fell together into a deep sleep. I dreamed of the children singing into my ear as we cruised across the American landscape in our little home.