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Ian Pounds

In 2009, Ian Pounds spent five months living and working as a volunteer in Mehan Orphanage in Kabul. It is an experience which affected him deeply. Those of us who followed his weekly journal were moved, educated and inspired. We came away with a much richer understanding of the workings of the orphanages and the world of our sponsored children.

Now, Ian is back in Afghanistan, once again volunteering with AFCECO at the Kabul orphanages. He will continue his journal and we will feature his posts here on Hope for Afghan Children.

I hope you will join those of us who already make it a habit to sit down with a cup of tea or coffee each weekend while we read Ian’s latest installment.

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First, everyone here is okay. The series of attacks this year are highlighted and little else, so I know that from outside it is magnified. We at AFCECO are moving along with all our programs. The children are fine, happy, thriving.

We have been consumed with preparations for a talent show next Thursday, the 22nd. There will be poetry, dance, drama, songs, and the audience will be full of notable dignitaries. I promise to report on this event here.

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The news you get is full of the war, gangster style assassinations, and perhaps even news of how Afghanistan has been tagged as the worst place in the world to be a mother (State of the World’s Mothers 2011 report, published by Save the Children). Meanwhile the children of AFCECO orphanages are thriving. This juxtaposition, which I do frequently, hopefully reinforces everyone's belief that this thing run by Andeisha is something that works, when all else fails.

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I have written a new song, something of an anthem for AFCECO children:

In The Heart of Asia

From the battlefield of Maiwand

To Ghorid’s Minaret of Jam

Rabia Balkhi's song of love

To the Hindu Kush and far beyond

Del ba del rah darat

I speak to the open doorway,

But I want every wall to hear

Lords of war I will not obey

Your blood for blood, your tear for tear

Del ba del rah darat

I’m the child of Afghanistan,

Of a thousand wars and the night,

The only one left to believe in this land

After the darkness there is light

I’ve seen it rain fire from the sky

More pain than snow on the hill

The dove that forgets how to fly

And dogs that only know how to kill

Don’t think there is no way to stop it

An orphan is not so alone

I have the truth here in my pocket

And soon it will shake to the bone

Del ba del rah darat

I live in a Parwarishga where free and equal from the start

Sisters and brothers together dare to find the way from heart to heart

Del ba del rah darat There’s a way from heart to heart… (repeat)

I’m the child of Afghanistan,

Of a thousand wars and the night,

The only one left to believe in this land

After the darkness there is light


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It was Hala’s turn to address her parwarishga sisters and fellow students in Leadership Workshop. She had practiced her speech for some days previous to her presentation. Thus the words of Susan B. Anthony had filled the bus on our way to football practice the day before, over the Iranian pop music blaring from the radio, over the chatter of all the other girls excited once again to be on their way to the field.

To them (women) this government has no just powers derived from the consent of the governed. To them this government is not a democracy. It is not a republic. It is an odious aristocracy; a hateful oligarchy of sex; the most hateful aristocracy ever established on the face of the globe; an oligarchy of wealth, where the rich govern the poor, an oligarchy of learning, where the educated govern the ignorant, or even an oligarchy of race, where the Saxon rules the African, might be endured; but this oligarchy of sex, which makes father, brothers, husband, sons, the oligarchs over the mother and sisters, the wife and daughters, of every household - which ordains all men sovereigns, all women subjects, carries dissension, discord, and rebellion into every home of the nation.

Hala had determined to memorize the speech, even though I did not require it. By the time she stood up in class on Wednesday afternoon she had even developed a good ehsâs, or feeling for what could be esteemed as one of the top five speeches ever given by an American.

Then came Yasamin, my quiet, demure student from Nuristan who is gradually developing a strength of conviction, a courage to stand up for the acute intelligence she possesses, who until that day had never stood alone before an audience. She recited the words of the very woman who had addressed the Congress of the United States this week, Aung San Suu Kyi:

The last six years in prison gave me much time for thought. I came to the conclusion that the human race is not divided into good and evil. It is made up of those who are capable of learning and those who are incapable of doing so. Here I am not talking of learning in the narrow sense of acquiring an academic education, but of learning as the process of absorbing those lessons of life that enable us to increase peace and happiness in our world…

Then there was Sosan, Farida, Shagofa, and all the others taking each their turn in the stead of three trumpeters of human rights from three corners of history, the third being Benazir Bhutto, whose words almost half the girls chose to recite:

When I get up to speak I usually start slowly, and then I build up. I like to come up with arguments and I talk of the contrast. I talk of what we did, the Pakistan we inherited. Then I come to how we built it up and we built it up because we had your strength, your support, your confidence, the importance of the people in developing a society. I look at the people because when I look at them, then I can feel that strength just run into my body. I feel strong, I feel more determined and I feel that when I have this strength with me then I can move any mountain. It just seemed to me as I looked out and just saw a sea of humanity, that the fight for the truth is important because the day does come when you see the response to your struggle.

It has been a good week with the children of AFCECO orphanages. Spectacular, really. The girls of Leadership didn’t have to put so much effort into their speeches, but they did, and each excelled in her own way. The award would nevertheless have to go to Hala, loud, happy, animated, humerous Hala, a girl from the north, Mazar, who I have nicknamed Hala mandala for the balanced, symmetrical spiraling circles found in every religious tradition.

Another of my students, Manila, who I have been encouraging through up and down times, who is pictured on the porch of Mehan in that now familiar photo of the girls greeting me in April two years ago, got 100% on a particularly difficult quiz. She is in 8th grade, daughter of Shahima, one of the many widows who help keep the orphanages afloat. Manila was so happy as she was first to hand her paper in. She refused to show her pride, only in her motions and her eyes. “I failed. Zero!” she said, and started to pack her book bag. But she couldn’t stand it, and walked all the way around the table and to my side. “Correct it!” she ordered. And so I did. I muttered khoob twenty times as I marked each correct word in the text. The other girls in the room strained their necks to see, then dove into their own papers, doubly determined to do well in the wake of Manila’s performance.

I share the quiz here, so you can estimate for yourselves Manila’s achievement. Consider also that the students had no previous idea which words I would extract from the text for the exam.

In a remote ________ in Ghor province stands one of the most famous ________ of Afghanistan, the ________ of Jam. The Hari Rud River ________ rapidly by the lonely tower which is ________ by barren mountains. The tower lies 215 km east of Herat. It was only ________ fifty years ago. Built in the 12th century, it is the only well-preserved monument of the ________ empire. It is 65 meters tall, second ________ in the Islamic world.

The tower ________ on top of a low octagonal base some 8m across. The tower is made of three cylindrical stages. A wide band of blue tiles with a Kufi ________ runs around the top. The inscription includes the complete Sura 19 of the Holy ________ called Maryam. The minaret’s beauty is not its only ________ . It is also important for understanding the ________ of Islamic civilization. Much of its mystery has yet to be solved. ________ do not know why the tower was built.

For years, the unguarded site has been the target of ________ . Experts say many items have ________ . Sections of the minaret have been ________ out and stones have been removed from the wall and taken away. The minaret is also in danger of ________ . Built at the junction of two ________ the minaret is also threatened by water. Finally, another problem is a planned ________ that would cross the site.

torn / valley / monuments / disappeared / sits / Minaret / attraction / Archaeologists / flows / surrounded / inscription / history / discovered / rivers / collapsing / road / looting / Ghorid / tallest / Quran

Though I do list the missing words, this exercise circumvents rote memorization because it is suddenly very confusing to see twenty random words missing and then scattered about on the table out of context. It takes the faster students around thirty minutes to complete this kind of exam. For the girls of my 8th grade class this was a particularly difficult passage to comprehend. We do a variety of games to learn the meaning of each word, including pantomime, synonyms, drawn pictures, team competitions and even song. Manila had chosen to shine this week. There have been times in the past when she would cut herself down, become depressed even. There is so much for such young spirits to rise above, to grow through, and they do it without an army of specialists poking and prodding them for symptoms of textbook afflictions. Yes, AFCECO provides the environment, the opportunities, the ripe conditions to not only survive the past but to flourish. Still, these children do what they do with the arms of their fellow orphans around them and that is, when we get down to it, everything.

There have been times this semester when I had doubts about my teaching ability. It was doubly difficult given that you’d think after two years of doing this I’d have developed a strategy, a confidence of my own. But there comes a time in the classroom and I suppose in life when you’ve exhausted all your “gifts”, your tricks and smoke and mirrors and all the other goodies we use to make ourselves attractive to other human beings. Under it all I believe we do, even the perceived stern and strict among us, want to be liked or even loved. But in my particular situation, unlike most teachers I do not get a new crop of children each autumn with which I can re-run my tricks. Sure, a smattering of new faces pop up each year, but for the most part I have been teaching the same children approaching the end of a fifth semester in a row. This is exciting, challenging and it has its unique benefits. I know these children so well, I know their learning styles, and I also know their tricks! But it also has its dangers. Manila has seen me on my worst days. She knows every string I pull. She knows every button she can push and she knows that she doesn’t have to perform well in my class if she doesn’t care to. There is no leverage, no grade, no decisive consequence other than not learning what I decide to teach. I am no longer exotic, mysterious, or even particularly interesting, given that the orphanage is always introducing new and wonderful things, ideas, activities and people to discover. I am just Moma Aziz, whose hair needs a good cut and who goes on incessantly about Ahmad Zahir’s songs, a love of dogh and distaste for shola. I am, in the end, forced to choose: either grow along with the children or give up. It may seem like a simple choice, growth over failure, but we must never underestimate the allure of giving up. I believe for anyone it can seem the most attractive of options. But as with that long foot race I ran three years ago, the Marine Corps Marathon, I'd sooner die than give up. A young man that I helped raise from the time he was two to the time he was sixteen recently told me about a latest lesson in psychotherapy as part of his masters program in San Francisco. “Since experience is so subjective,” he wrote, “tolerance of experience is the only constant which we can aspire towards when trying to become healthier.” I agree, but I contend that more is required than a sort of stoic equanimity, at least here in Kabul, in the orphanage, in my classroom. I cannot escape nor abandon relationship, even though it inherently involves risk, a risk that is exasperated if supposed authority is a part of the equation. My students excelled this week, and consequently I am a rejuvenated, happy teacher.

This week was also special in that I shared a video with all the girls, a wonderful celebration of Afghanistan, of women, an empowering performance by a group of dancers from the Bay Area that call themselves Ballet Afsaneh. This particular performance features some tremendous choreography that is based on Central Asian traditions, in particular the Afghan Attan. It also features extraordinary rabab and tabla that are the mainstay of Afghan music. All my students were transfixed by the performance, applauding and cheering in the end. They are very much familiar with this long suppressed expression of woman-power. When some of the dancers removed their chardas and started throwing their long hair around, I could sense a great celebratoryyes! in the room. There are just a few among AFCECO’s girls who still initially react according to the wiring they received from their earliest years, where a girl who dances is considered only one step short of a prostitute. But when I called their bluff, motioned to shut down my computer, they stopped me outright. They could not resist the liberating energy of the dance and the heartbeat of freedom from bondage and dependence. Here is the link:

YouTube - Afghan Dance: Ballet Afsaneh

This week culminated with the first concert performances by all the children enrolled in the music program atThe Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM). AFCECO has found a most dear companion in ANIM. Its director and founder Ahmad Sarmast is an Afghan with kindred spirit to Andeisha’s in terms of sacrifice and purpose. He too was there at the concert, offering his support to the children. Numerous instruments have been donated to fill out our own blossoming music program at the Center, all thanks to him. Last night the New Recourse Center was vibrant as ever, filled with children, staff and guests. Our budding musicians and singers took the stage with their teachers, aplomb as any veteran and yet exquisitely bursting with joy in this the first performance of their lives. There was Nasira on cello doing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and then Mosan on clarinet, plucking out the at once forlorn, timeless and celebratory notes of ai saraban. Gulalai on sitar, Negin on sarod, and Muzhgan on gheychak. Piano, hand drum, and corno were also represented. In all about 15 children performed. Their instructors gave short recitals of their own, from Bach to Bassa nova. The concert concluded with a twelve-minute raga by sarod master Irfan Muhammad Khan accompanied by tabla.

In the meantime AFCECO’s staff and students had prepared a festive banquet in the beautiful rose garden courtyard in front of the Center, so we all strolled out to enjoy the beginning of summer as I can’t imagine it ever being matched. It was a celebration of hard work, of a stick-to-it attitude in both children and the AFCECO staff, the music instructors, the cooks and guards and organizers who somehow manage in the midst of one of the most dysfunctional cities in the world to make magic happen, the magic and happiness in reaching and achieving. Culture is returning to Afghanistan. It is rising up from the dust of 30 long years of suppression no differently than the fact that longing itself cannot be smothered. I sat with a woman from Mexico who teaches drum, the sarad master Irfan, a pianist from Italy and beside me a new instructor from Jalalabad who had come to teach the children computer skills. Across the green the children ate their kabali polao and sipped their white dogh, and up above us the lights of the “Pink House” glistened deeper and brighter as dusk descended upon Kabul. The air was hot, dry and yet refreshing. A slight breeze kicked up, but not enough to stir the khawk from the streets. It was Thursday night, and the city was finally at rest.

As we loaded up the mini bus to go home, children and faculty and staff, and as we bumped through the empty streets under the still solstice feel of the night, I could not imagine a better place in the world to be. The struggle we read about is raging everywhere around us, it is almost impossible to imagine how it will ever end, the children I see every day eating from garbage, the widows sun-baked and begging in their burqas, the men without limbs, without pride, sitting down in the middle of the street with outstretched hands, and the thievery, the bombs, the raping and the starvation. There are an estimated 43.7 million refugees in the world, and one third of them are Afghans. The Goliath that is the human disaster of this country can drive anyone away, even the most powerful and prosperous nation in the history of civilization. But this week I saw a crack in the armor of all that hopelessness. I saw something so beautiful in the heart of Afghanistan that is the heart of Asia, land of the conqueror’s conqueror, Alexander, Babur, and Khan, of dreamers who dream of heaven and riches, people the likes of Rumi and Marco Polo, of the Zoroastrians, the first people to believe in only one God, of caravans and emeralds and pistachios and olives and orange blossoms and plums, of the solitary Pashtun shepherd and his flock, singing his song to the stars and their night, learning the language of the Universe that has no words, feigning there are no wolves but fear of wolves, believing instead that the sustenance of life is not the purging of death, but within the belief that each moment is eternity, that I cannot imagine failure, that time is always on the side of love, and through the children the path to wisdom and a higher existence as if Earth itself matters will become clear, and steadfast, and ever present as songbirds that do not fail the morning, and the wind of seasons changing that never fails the setting of the sun.


Hala reciting Susan B. Anthony speech




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Future Leaders,

It is hard for me to believe we are coming to the end of our second Leadership Workshop. It has been my honor to stand here, to build upon all we have learned together. Each class only happens once. Take advantage of what you have.

We began this class talking about the power of words. We read a poem by Meena. The poem ends with these words:

Along with you I’ve stepped up to the path of my nation,

To break all these sufferings all these fetters of slavery,

Oh compatriot, Oh brother, I’m not what I was

I’m the woman who has awoken

I’ve found my path and will never return.

It is my hope that at the end of every Leadership Workshop we too have “awoken” in some small way. We’ve learned that words have the power to inform, educate, motivate, and inspire us to take action. We know that words also have the power to make us sheep, or worse, slaves. We have listened carefully to the words of George Orwell, to the dream of old Major that gave him the song, “Beasts of England”, a simple song that inspired all the animals to change their world. We listened to characters named Snowball and Napoleon at the same time that we learned about revolutionaries named Robespierre and Marat. We talked about revolution, and counter-revolution. We learned about something called the Rights of Man and how these words brought the end of tyranny. We also learned about something called propaganda, how it was used in the past and how it is used today, here in Afghanistan, how propaganda has become one of the most important weapons for all sides engaged in war, not only to fight a war but even more dangerously to lead people into war.

We learned how words can be changed from doing good to doing bad, how all of us are equal, while some can be more equal than others.

Then we learned about another kind of revolution, that of non-violence. We learned about Civil Disobedience and how the words of a man named Thoreau were read by a man named Gandhi and then by a man named Dr. Martin Luther King. We learned about a group of young students who put Civil Disobedience into action by getting on buses and taking “Freedom Rides” into the heart of segregation in the deep south of America. We saw in the beginning how alone the students were, abandoned even by the leaders of change, and we saw how their solidarity and the media gave them the momentum they needed to change the most powerful country in the world.

We didn’t stop there. We followed the words of Thoreau as they arrived in Egypt, how organizers of a peaceful revolution have pointed toward the Freedom Riders and Dr. King as guiding lights. We watched as these young people managed to remove a dictator named Mubarak. There was violence, but nothing compared to some of the other revolutions in this “Arab Spring”. We watch all of these revolutions now, and we see how so much of what we learned in this class plays out like a movie before our eyes.

And through it all we asked the question, “What about the women?” There was Marie Antoinette, and then there were the peasant women who stormed her palace. There was a woman named Charlotte who changed history by killing Marat. There were the women who took those Freedom Rides, and the women who have been martyred in revolutions from Iran to Libya. We were introduced to four women who each in her own way devoted her life to the inalienable rights of all people. First a slave named Sojourner Truth, then a woman born into privilege named Benazir Bhutto. We met a little woman named Suu Kye who was compelled to honor the death of her hero-father and turned a military coup upside down. Finally we listened to an American named Susan B. Anthony, how her words demanding the right to vote ring loud and clear even today, a hundred and forty years later.

We learned that not all revolutions must occur from the outside. We looked at the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. There in Article 7 we found a full endorsement of the International Declaration of Human Rights. We read all 30 Articles of that Declaration, and we could not believe our eyes and our ears. We discussed if it is possible to make such words come true in Afghanistan, to seat Judges and Members of Parliament who are scholars of Islamic Law that can point to these words and enforce them, who understand that the Islam of 1,400 years ago established that woman is equal to man, that she has the right to work, to independence, to choose a husband and own property. We discussed how these Islamic scholars would need to be joined by scholars of Civil Law who promote the ideas of secularism. But these new judges and MPs would have to battle contradictions within the very same Constitution, where it still says that two women are required to equal the testimony of one man.

At the beginning of this workshop I asked you what percent of your life you believe is destiny, and what percent is self determination, what percent of you is the Idealist, and what percent the Realist. Mostly you say you are realists, but none of you give destiny more than fifty percent. In fact most of you said that 70 to 90 percent of your life is self-determined. I watch you on the football field, I watch you in karate class, I watch you in the library, and I watch you in class. I believe you. The determination I see makes me proud to know you, and proud to have the chance to be your teacher.

As always, I am compelled to leave you with a story.

A long time ago I was in Scotland, a country north of England where my ancestors came from. I had just finished the last exam of my semester at Oxford. My professor had given me a 95%. That was the first time I ever scored such a high mark. I was very happy and proud, so I decided I would climb the highest mountain in Scotland, a mountain called Ben Nevis. I was only half way to the top of the mountain when a very old lady passed me on the trail. She had white hair and used a crooked walking stick. I could not keep up with her, though I tried very hard. An hour later I reached the top of Ben Nevis and the old lady was just getting ready to walk back down the mountain. I nodded to her, breathing heavily. She smiled. Then she pointed her stick at me, and this is what she said:

“No matter where you go in the world, there you are.”

That was all, and she disappeared down the trail and I never saw her again. I believe within these eleven words are many lessons, but most of all they tell us we can never run away from our weaknesses, nor are we ever without our strengths. The struggle to find your path is not unlike the struggle for freedom. It is a great risk to take, but the fact is you are already on your way. You are no longer the same students who first walked into this class, just as you are no longer the girls who first stepped into the parwarishga. The question of whether you are living your life or life is living you is not so important, once you find your path. Like in Meena’s poem there is a moment of great joy in finding this path, and without fear taking the next step, celebrating the realization that you will never return.


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