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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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I honestly cannot remember if I ever posted this. To be sure, here it is:

Dear Volunteer (and for that matter anyone of thousands of westerners writing about Afghanistan),

Once I get you, the long term volunteer settled in, I purposely do not look over your shoulder.  Your classroom is yours. I merely check in to make sure you are doing ok, otherwise this experience is what you make of it. If I've already "vetted" you then you are good enough for me. The same is true about blog writing. It is your experience, as a volunteer, and you share it in your unique way. I do not in any way wish to censor a volunteer. That said, as a writer and as a westerner with my feet planted on the ground here in Afghanistan, and as a man who has made some mistakes and who loves these people as dearly as he loves life, there are some guidelines I'd like you to seriously consider before placing an entry in your blog, and think about before every public speaking event.

First, when you arrive, take your time. Don't rush into reporting everything you see or hear. Let things sink in, and read, and learn. Get to know what it is you are writing about and (unavoidably because it is the nature of any writing) what it is you are judging. There is much to judge upon arrival. Everything may seem different, even cruel or ugly. Wait. Look inside as much as you are looking outside.

You are now a member of a family. Some time during your months here you will feel a shift from being a tourist to being a witness. A witness reports very differently than a tourist. Think about two things: how will this blog, available to the world, affect the audience and how will it affect the people you are writing about? What is your goal with this entry or that? The audience by and large already thinks of Afghanistan as the Land of the Barbarians. Even the language supports this- Taliban, drug lords, war lords, tribal this and tribal that.  If at any time what you write down merely feeds this mythology, I suggest you consider another way to tell your story. Most everyone in Afghanistan, even the bad guys, for thirty years have been victims of outsiders and the games they have played with people's lives. Who really are the Barbarians? (Actually, Afghanistan's entire history is dotted with invasion, from Alexander to Khan to Babur to Tamerlane on through the ages. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Italy, U.S., England, Germany, Russia, China, India are all presently playing their hands here.)

Thinking about how your entry might affect AFCECO's family, consider if you were writing about your own sister or mother. What would you say? What would you never say? This is where the tourist in you needs to sit down (we are all tourists to one degree or another). Afghans are especially private people. If something personal about them, their family gets broadcast to the world, they become more like objects that we saw on one of our travels, another exotic thing on the side of the road. I have made this mistake, and when one girl found out from her sponsor I had written about something too personal, she was shocked and needed a lot of explanation. I'd lost a little trust. Worse would be if a sponsor mentions something she read in your blog to her child that is sensitive and not for the children’s ears, that an uncle, for example, is aiming to sell his daughter. A devastating ripple would race through the orphanage.

Imagine your work is being read by a sponsor, a fundamentalist Moslem, Hillary Clinton, a blood red blue collar Republican from Texas and a San Francisco gay activist. And most of all, imagine your work is also being read by the people you are writing about.

The world thinks Afghanistan is a freak show. When the NY TImes did a huge article that focused solely on the trend of some families to dress their daughters up as boys because they don't have a son was sensational. They couldn't resist, it was too good a story. But what was the point? One little line in the middle was useful and meaningful: that a woman because of a college education was able to put all her abusers to rest because she became a wage earner and had respect. The rest of the lengthy piece merely added to the freak show.

I do not see a freak show in the streets of Kabul, or Jalalabad, or Mazar or Herat. I see people very much like us. The only significant difference is they are trying to create sanity after being squashed by 30 years of war. There is not a wide gap between us and the drug lord, or the woman hiding under her burqa. None of these things are "cultural". They are indicative of scars and open wounds.

I leave you with this thought, and then the rest is in your hands:

Remember, less is more. Not every titillating story needs to be reported. The story, the real story, is what is in your own heart. Report that. Report the way one of your students gets all excited when there is an exam, as if it is the greatest gift, or the way you struggled trying to teach what the word "pride" means. Report a dream you had last night, or how you feel something changing, a strange shifting behind your eyes.

With sincere thanks, and utmost respect,


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About half-way to the New School there is a man with one leg who stands with his crutches in the same spot on the same street every day. I see him only on my morning commute. He does not appear to be begging because it is a poor spot to be doing so. He looks at the people passing, the cars. I looked into his eyes once. He seems to be a gentle, kind man. Not angry or forlorn. He has a salt and pepper beard, very deep-set eyes. He wears typical village garb, a black and white shawl over his shoulder, a turban. Pashtun. I wonder of course how he lost his leg. Afghans are still suffering from the Soviet war, on top of the current duel war. (I redefine the current conflicts thusly: NATO vs. Insurgency and Taliban vs. Northern Alliance Jihadi Warlords.) Personnel land mines littler the landscape, including the kind dropped from the sky like Biblical frogs. But there are a multitude of possible limb threatening events in Kabul alone. The man could have simply been caught between two cars. Sometimes when I go off the soccer field into the weeds to retrieve a stray ball I think about where I place my feet, which makes me think about destiny.

I asked the older boys the question I’d asked the girls, what percent of their lives they owe to destiny and what percent to self-determination. They answered unequivocally in favor of destiny, all eight of them 90% or above. This is paradoxical. Albeit some of the girls said fifty/fifty, they were primarily on the side of self-determination. How much this has to do with their unique AFCECO upbringing in a country where men rule like slave owners and two women are required as legal witnesses to equal one man’s testimony, I leave to your imagination. I can say that the boys are not simply espousing a religious fatalism that we in the west have come to stigmatize Moslems with, given the focus on vest bombers raised to believe they are doing God’s will on their way to Paradise. At least for the boys in my class, I think this nod toward destiny comes more from a place of humility. You can just sense it in the room. We’ve talked about religion before. To varying degrees, though they identify themselves to be Moslem, they are not ideologues. I do not think they would look at the one-legged man and say it was his destiny to be crippled.

Never before as an educator or a counselor have I been so inclined and able to compare boys and girls to such a degree. Having them in separate classes I do my best to be the same teacher, the same person. I’m sure I am different in certain ways, though I can’t pinpoint them exactly. Generally the girls are freer, the boys more disciplined, the girls exhibit more rounded wisdom, the boys an aura of service and purposefulness. When I set limits on the girls, they practically laugh, at first. The boys take me entirely seriously. The girls bond, the boys stand together but separately. In some ways I may as well be comparing south to north, tropical climate culture to cold. When we talk about equality, we know what we mean, not that we are all the same. What we mean is equal opportunity, equal rights, equal support. One group of girls is reading The Miracle Worker, the other group is reading Animal Farm. In one, a strange woman (culture) is gradually liberating a child and by proxy her entire family and perhaps an old social system from darkness, while in the other a society through revolution lifts the darkness but slowly allows the darkness to descend once again. In one there is apotheosis for all, in the other only a vicious cycle. I believe that the one is a model for just how the empowerment of women could and would break some of these vicious cycles of human history, and the latter is sadly still a relevant model for how things have continued in our patriarchal world. Though Orwell’s fable was specifically directed toward a fascist realm in the early 1940s and Stalin’s Soviet Union, we need not look far from our own back yard to find all the familiar characters, Napoleon and his Squealer, the revisionists and propagandists and the various methods of obtaining and retaining power at the expense of original ideals. When I go to class, when I converse with the girls and then the boys, back and forth over and over again, I begin to see a light, a balance that can exist even though they are artificially seperated. The more months I spend with AFCECO, the more I believe that the path to progress for civilization depends not so much on faith, on philosophical innovations, on invention and ideals, but on something so entirely basic it passes through the discerning sieve of academia, the media and the lawmakers without nary a serious and definitive nod: an end to the dominance by men, equality for women, and an ennoblement of women as go-to people for the affairs of civilized society.

Ok, here's a highfalutin statement almost as bombastic as Tolstoy proclaiming the righteousness of celibacy after having 13 children: Freud needs to be put to rest. With almost seven billion people in the world and diminishing resources we (in particular men) as sentient beings, if that is indeed what we are, must transcend procreation and sexuality as the primary forces in the categories of survival, pleasure and self-worth. They will be there, they will always be there, but the liberation I experience in both boys and girls in my classes has to be considered as some sort of barometer. It is not as if they are suppressed and this separation results in their inability to work together. They are together on committees, in organizing events, in extracurriculars, and as I watch their mentors, college students who have graduated from this temporary cloistering, both young men and women working together, I see a mutual respect and collective spirit that is refreshing.

Even as I try to be decisive I don’t know what I believe. I think both groups would just as soon prefer to have co-educational classrooms. There is a stigma attached to separation that carries with it the aura of inequality on one level or another, that girls are somehow “different” and therefore should be treated differently. I can only say that from my perspective, I simply don’t see things so clear cut as I used to.

When I watch the girls compete on the soccer field, I see the same determination, the same ability to work as a team, the same rejoicing in victory and the same desire to get up off the grass and start again. When I see the boys dancing together at a wedding, holding hands, huddling around one another to tell secret stories I do not see them as weak. These juxtapositions dominate our discourse, still, about gender. I’m talking about something else, I hope. I remember Mahbooba, the first month I lived in Mehan orphanage, waiting with me to get a plate of shola for dinner. I waved her on, “You go first,” I said. She looked at me with such scorn. Why? she asked. Do you think I am so weak that I must be fed before you? My very own chivalry had been blown to pieces. I look around Kabul and I see men without legs, and women begging for food. I see children, girls as much as boys scampering through traffic like so many little blood cells swimming through arteries, looking for oxygen. War and the endless cycle of patriarchal decision making has yet to prove to this teacher the two can pave the way for a promised land. I would like to see what the Annie Sullivan’s of the world might make of it, if given their chance.




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In Leadership Workshop this week we discussed two forces that direct our lives, destiny (in which I include genetics, God’s design, environmental factors, dumb luck, what-have-you) and self-determination. We talked about the concept of a Personal Calling, and how we feel “alive”, so to speak, when those two forces seem to be working in balance with one another. This is not to be equated with happiness or contentment, per se, but to be a part of the struggle that is life in all its multiplicity. I asked the girls what percent of their lives they think is governed by these two forces. Five of them said 50 / 50. Others ranged around 25% destiny and 75% self-determination. None of the fourteen students gave destiny the upper hand. This is fairly dramatic, given the society they come from where girls are still considered exactly half the value of boys and lives for most girls are determined well before they even have a dream of their own. We went on to discuss Realism and Idealism, Materialism and Dualism. Most of the girls are very pragmatic, leaning well toward Realism, but when it came to discussing if there is a division between thought and the material world, the stepping-stone toward the concept of the soul, they land on the side of Dualism. There are a number of reasons I begin this year’s workshop with philosophical discourse. In their minds has blossomed the notion they can and will be leaders of one sort or another in Afghan society, to think of adding stages to their lives between little girl and old woman, as Maria once discussed when reviewing Shakespeare. I cannot stress deeply enough the unique and vital commitment they and a whole swath of young Afghans from 14 to 34 years of age have made toward making a better future not for themselves so much, but for their people. I hope to nurture the strength of their own developing convictions, as well as to reinforce the understanding that the more they strengthen themselves, the more they can help. Another reason for all this philosophy is to get them thinking about how to judge events as well as individual actions, how not to be swept up into propagandistic black and white discourse too easily. Notions of revolution come quickly in this part of the world. From Zahir Shaw to Daud and the Saur revolution to the Soviet puppets, then the Jahadis to Taliban to the present decade drawing closer to more rebellion, it is hard to conceive there is anything else in the world besides revolution. Now with the uprising in Egypt, its relative non-violent overthrow of a dynasty, and various other more bloody revolutions going on in North Africa and the Middle East, it seems a good time to really investigate people power, its successes and failures, the factors that lead up to it and the potential fallout.

The class has begun reading Animal Farm. Major has given his famous speech and then passed away. The Animals have taken the farm. Napoleon is “handling” the milk stores, and so we have our foiler on the inside. Simultaneously we are viewing a documentary stage by stage, discussing it along the way as it walks us through the French Revolution. When Internet is up the girls will do progress reports on the happenings in Egypt and Libya and compare the two. The first quiz went fairly well. Ten students ranged from 85% to 100%, four failed. I have to give those four some extra support because their English skills are not even with the other ten. This is a difficult class, no doubt about it. It is not a language class, per se. I have them do some assignments in work groups to facilitate supporting one another rather than just competing. They have extremely full schedules, with football or karate three days a week, school in the mornings, and for some a medical class as well. Some teach literacy to staff, some do chores for AFCECO, and then there is running their hostel. (We don’t call the older girls’ and boys’ homes orphanages.) I monitor their temperaments, and they tell me how they feel most of the time. They are excited, energetic, ambitious, and otherwise up for the challenges set before them. Days have many hours here, they don’t get filled with filler, and somehow everything is connected to everything else, rather than a compartmentalized, fragmented and solitary experience. This has to do, I think, with the home-school atmosphere, the six or so adults who support them every day who are simply a part of their family, not officials or teachers, and of course they have one another every step of the way, in each environment.

I wondered about our experiment, how Sahar, Manizha and Pashtana would do returning to the orphanage, school and the very different life here where they are not the center of the universe. I worried a little, would they become morose, jaded, defeated, or conversely over confident, superior, or would they simply be confused and frozen in time? Nothing of the kind. They are thriving, enthusiastic, and even more determined than ever. Even though Pashtana and Sahar know they are not competing for a spot to go to America, they are 100% engaged with Leadership Workshop and both aced their first quiz. Manizha, though thrust into a kind of nether land not knowing her immediate future, faced it all bravely. Now she is doing vital work for AFCECO, and filling those shoes like a full member of staff. She is also going to attend Kardan Institute, beginning in May. She will study law. On top of everything she spends time with me almost every day reading a book together. All three are competing fearlessly and with great determination in football. What has come is maturity, but more than anything a level of confidence based more on personal experience than on faith.

I have not begun my language classes yet, but I believe we will be fully up and running at the “Pink House” by May 1st. I miss all my students terribly and cannot wait to begin. I will be teaching exclusively in the new center. No more the mobile education bus, like a house calling doctor travelling with his computer, his cittern, his books and markers and extension cord. Every year is new, and a part of me is nostalgic as I venture forth just as I was nostalgic for living inside Mehan, for the open floor, no seats or desks, only the brand new three foot white board, just the teacher, the marker and the student. Now I am nostalgic for visiting each orphanage and setting up class, for seeing all the staff twice or three times a week, seeing how each orphanage garden grows. But with the new school I can be more thorough, more efficient, and my classes more effective. Here, there really is no time wasted.

I think of time a lot. This more than anything may be the key issue as to why the West frequently bungles its efforts in the East. The things we want to do quickly might do well to be approached gradually, patiently, persistently and the things that need and can be done immediately we foul up with delays, obstacles, scrambled priorities or plain disinterest. If we look at certain successful efforts in Afghanistan, we see that investment in people was immediately implemented, in basements, in courtyards, secretly or under cover of some other activity. Why wait? Let’s get a teacher in a room with students, no matter if they are all cross-legged on the floor with a scrap piece of paper and a blunt pencil. Eventually will come the chair, the table, the computer, the projector, the building, the grounds, the bus. By the time those other things are in place there will be teachersto utilize them. Right now we have at least five of the orphans teaching literacy to the widows who help keep the orphanages afloat. The shared value, the reciprocity is extraordinary. This could never happen if AFCECO waited around to build a school first. And as we have seen from recent news events, for a variety of reasons building schools does not necessarily translate into education being carried through. This is not some unique concept in history, we only need look at the American story, specifically the rights of certain minorities to gain access to education. I’m an amateur about history, but I can’t imagine building a hundred schools for slaves in the south in 1866 would have guaranteed their full enrollment.

Slaves were legally denied the foundation of European education--the knowledge to read and write. Nonetheless, thousands of slaves acquired those skills, usually through voluntary or unintentional help from their young masters and mistresses as they were learning their lessons. (Urban slaves like Frederick Douglass sometimes bribed their white playmates or coworkers to teach them.) Literate slaves then tried to pass on their knowledge to others.

This is not to say building schools is a pointless or frivolous objective. I merely wish to illuminate a different concept of time frames and priorities and expectations, what can be done prudently and steadfastly, what can be done immediately and getting on with both simultaneously. Perhaps this is why I begin by discussing the dance between destiny and self-determination. Certainly there must be the sacrificial attempt to break walls down, rather than wait for them to erode. Hence we come to great acts of protest, defiance and even revolution. Looking closely at any of a wide variety of such acts through history seems worthwhile. I wonder sometimes if revolution is more the result of destiny than self-determination, or perhaps though it is spawned from one, it is then consumed by the other.

Soon I myself will be utterly consumed with teaching five or six classes a day six days a week and you won’t have to muddle through my opinions. I will have only to report about the children and the gifts they bring to every interaction.

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15 April

The second session of Leadership Workshop begins tomorrow. We are moving our classes into a new facility near to the orphanages in Khoshal Khan Meena. The house is beautiful, its grounds full of grape arbors, fruit trees and roses and sabza (grass). Here we will have all my language courses, fine art, ballet, music, computer and drama. We will host all our presentations, movie nights and conferences there. As you walk in you see a large library / resource room where students will work when they are not in class. The school is ready to be filled with students. Desks, conference tables, shelves, everything is in place. Jamshid and I brought the first two items to adorn the library. He brought a five-foot poster of Charlie Chaplin’s famous letter to his daughter, translated into Persian, and I brought my spinning globe.

Leadership Workshop will have all the same girls as last year with a few changes. Maria is back, and we will be minus Manizha (she’s off to college to study law, as well as working in the office for AFCECO) and plus Zainab. The 14 students are: Yasamin, Shagofa, Zainab, Sosan, Hala, Sediqa, Neda, Lida, Mursal, Maria, Sitiza, Farida, Pashtana, and Sahar. I was a little worried when I first engaged with them upon my return. It was a kind of jolt for them to hear and speak English after three months hiatus. I am pleased to say they are recovering most of what they learned. Neda came to me wanting to confess something, and I deciphered through her code she was unsure about her ability to take the course. I believe she wanted to know I want her in class. I gave her a knuckle nookie on the top of her head, then spun her around, shook her gently and then asked her if she felt better. Neda was among my very first students exactly two years ago. She has always been a part of every activity I’ve offered. She asks me more questions than all the others combined. This I have come to adore about her. After dealing with Neda’s lack of confidence the girl I sponsor (along with my father and sister) Farida asked if I’d remembered to bring a photo she wanted of last year’s class on graduation day. There they are holding their certificates. I watched as Farida shared the photo with the other girls. They huddled around it and seemed to be transfixed by the visible proof of where they had been while contemplating where they are now.

We have struggled for some weeks to come up with a name, something flexible enough to still be meaningful as the program evolves. We landed upon calling it the New School, owing its appellation to the renowned program in New York City with its mission statement that in many ways mirrors our own. Everything about our approach to raising and educating orphan children of Afghanistan is new. We ascribe to the notion that to lift this country out of its thirty-year morass of war, poverty, extreme fundamentalist doctrines and enflamed tribal differences will require a new generation of Afghans who are empowered through a worldly education to make real and lasting change in their world. The fact that our students are orphans, underprivileged, and even victims speaks to the innovation of not only “saving” children, but transforming a national tragedy into a national strength. The fact that these children represent all of Afghanistan from every racial and linguistic corner speaks to the role diversity plays in the philosophy of “new”. The New School lays a foundation to dramatically augment the unsubstantial public program, and in ensuing years evolve into a fully accredited primary and secondary school program. It does not seek to be exclusive, but rather inclusive, to interact with the greater Afghan society from Kabul to Herat to Jalalabad, from remote Nuristani villages to farms in Farah Province. Finally, the New School is dedicated to enrollment equal part girls to boys, with the understanding that the future of Afghanistan inherently depends upon the liberation of its girls and women from the chains of oppression and illiteracy.

My unofficial name for the school is The Pink House. This may or may not stand the test of time, as we are only leased from one year to the next. But I like the honesty of it. Can’t be a more honest color. It is what it is, right there out in the open. There is a nice restaurant in Savannah, Georgia by that name, but that’s the only place I’ve seen it before. We are all thoroughly thankful to USAID and their partner the Asia Foundation for making this possible.

I’ve decided to begin this year’s Leadership Workshop with a curriculum focused on the power of the word. There once was a strong tradition in education here to combine didactic learning with the practical, experiential and philosophical. This is what I intend to do. Our first subject will be "Propaganda", and our first reading will be Karzai’s acceptance speech at his second inauguration. We will discuss how Taliban uses propaganda, NATO, bin Laden, and various individual leaders in the region, from Petraeus to Ahkmadinejad and everyone in between. We will look at propaganda of World War II, and the power also of images. We are going to read Orwell’s Animal Farm. I believe I first read it when I was 18, and it led to a journey into a great cannon of books illustrating the paradoxical nature of human endeavors to better ourselves. As I did last year, every third class I will invite a guest lecturer to spend an hour or two on a subject of their choice. These mostly should be Afghans who are leaders in their greater community.

This spring I will have 71 language students, boys and girls, plus drama for a group of younger children. There are three volunteers scheduled to teach for a few months this quarter. They will work with the younger children of Sitara I and Sitara II as well as the youngest girls at Mehan. We have a Fine Arts instructor already moving ahead with his classes. Ballet is already happening too. Soon we will install the computers and get all our programs up and running. This project also includes the orphanages in Jalalabad and Herat, outfitting them with gyms and computer labs.

It is Juma, a storm outside, the river full, the streets empty and once again there’s a song playing in my room. It is that piano dancing with a cello, rising and falling together, like the outside strands of a double helix that never touch. This song, Spiegel im Spiegel (mirror in the mirror) naturally conjures up a sentimental reflection upon life, particularly the sun going down, but I get more strength from it then sadness. The composer, Arvo Pärt is Estonian, who lived under Soviet rule and fled with his family in 1980. Another orphan.

The reason I get strength from this music is because I believe that the time of deepest loss, of hardest realization, of biggest transition is the most exciting time of all. Failure is a time when change can actually occur. This is what I believe Coelho meant in his philosophical novelThe Alchemist by a personal calling. It is not a goal but a process by which our fate (what we are borne to) and our will are working in concert with one another to create something new, much like Pärt’s meditative tune. I speak of these things often because I believe there is today a great erasure of failure from our nomenclature. Just listen to any of various testimonies before Congress by experts and witnesses and perpetrators on a slew of subjects from Enron to Wall Street to oil platforms to hurricane relief to Afghanstan. You would imagine, listening to every last shred of testimony there was a complete absence of failure. Even when talking about actual failure it gets re-cast as something else. By proxy, with a great phobia of admitting failure comes the distrust of imagination, and a tendency to dig deeper holes more impossible to climb out of. As the big “election” starts winding up its gears for 2012, there will be a lot of accusations of failure, but no admission and I fear little imagination as to the course to take in Afghanistan. This makes me doubly lucky to have fallen in with these Afghans who, as the line goes in the film Shawshank Redemption, are "...getting on with the business of living."


The New School
The New School
First class
AFCECO born children Marwa and Damoon at

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What do we mean when we say the word orphan?

UNICEF estimates that worldwide there are 210,000,000 orphans. What is more sobering is that according to government and private listings, 90% of children deemed as orphans actually have one or both parents living. It is impossible to confirm or deny these numbers, just as it would be perilous to account for the number of people killed in war. At the very least, these numbers suggest that the problem of being an orphan goes far beyond our traditional Oliver pickpocketting his way through the streets of 19th Century London. Though we can debate the meaning of the word, create new classifications or dispute causes and responsibilities, we can say with a fair amount of certainty that after China, India, the U.S. and Indonesia the fifth most populace nation in the world has no name, is without boundaries, and sings no anthem. Its citizenry, though, is easily recognized. We see them everywhere, mostly in city streets when we are stuck in traffic or waiting for a light to turn green. They approach our driver’s side window with an outstretched hand, palm facing the sky, a ludicrous assemblage of rags for clothes. He might offer to wipe your windshield, or blow a wisp of healing incense into your car, or she may have a baby in her arms, its eyes plucked out. If they could vote, if they had purchasing power, if they had arms they would have a seat at every table. Instead for the most part they are pitied and then forgotten, put into holding tanks, or outright ignored. But don’t underestimate them; they are indeed very powerful, more powerful than military and wealth. They are the abandoned, vulnerable and homeless children of the world, and if we are not careful, without warning they will take our future away.

Not all orphans are unfortunate. Thousands are raised in progressive orphanages in much the same way as a family would. In fact taken as a whole a sizeable amount of orphans are better raised than children of a healthy nuclear family. There are those children who were luckily abandoned, plucked from the trajectory of a stunted life and given new horizons. Going by the broader understanding of orphans as I've defined above, look at some of the famous orphans in history and our understanding is further hued: Alexander Hamilton, Ingrid Bergman, Bessie Smith, Aristotle, J.S. Bach, Leo Tolstoy, Herbert Hoover, Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs, Louis Armstrong, Marylin Monroe, John Lennon, Ella Fitzgerald, William Wordsworth and John Keats were all in our broadened sense of the word, orphans. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama grew up in the orphan’s shadow. Moses himself was an orphan.

Once we begin to debate the condition of orphandom, we soon find ourselves wrestling among philosophers and ethereal and often volatile notions of human existence. Who raises a child? Who is responsible for a child’s welfare? Do we own our children? Does it take a village to raise a child? Can two people of the same gender raise a child? Should everyone have the right to have children? Should poverty stricken people be discouraged from having six, nine, twelve children? Should prisoners be allowed to have and keep children? People with defective chromosomes, diseases? What human rights do children have? Does a child have the right not to be born into misery? Is every life sacred? If so, then who provides for the orphan? If we are not careful, no matter what our beliefs we may find ourselves slipping down the slope of social engineering or even fascism, but equally we can find ourselves placing children at the mercy of negligence and cruelty. This is why for the most part we wish the problem of orphans away, it touches upon too many divergent beliefs, and fingers are pointed in every direction.

So instead of choosing sides and making pronouncements and accusations, instead or narrowing the field in an attempt to understand it, I take a step back. Now I find myself wondering if orphans even exist, or rather if perhaps we are all, by virtue of being born, embarking upon the orphan’s journey. What is an American, after all? From the outcast pilgrims to enslaved West Africans to famine burdened Irish to persecuted Jews to poverty stricken Mexicans to war weary Afghans to political refugees from China and every other displaced citizenry in the world, who in America can claim not to be in a manner of speaking orphaned? Even Native Americans are orphans in their own land, sequestered on reservations or outcasts among the conquering culture.

From here the field broadens even more. There are 43.3 million refugees in the world. Are they not in some fashion orphans? What about victims of racism, those who live with prejudice, minorities, handicapped, gays, elderly, or those who isolate themselves from others, living at the end of their cul de sac or behind the walls of their compound, their gated community, their church or island bungalow or forest retreat. And now you see the path is cleared for the rest of us, sinners and wayfarers, divorced and rejected, excommunicated and fired, those facing death and those searching for their own meaning in life. Who is immunized from the plight of the orphan? Who is not driven by the desire always to know what cannot be known, to reclaim what can never be found?

I have lived with orphans. Real ones in Afghanistan, the ancient crossroads or “heart” of Asia, home to bloodlines from Macedonia to Shanghai, from Moscow to New Delhi. I lived in a Kabul orphanage with seventy girls whose ages ranged between 5 and 16, a veritable melting pot, Pashtun and Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek, Nuristani and Kuchi and Kabuli. Their stories are wide and varied. They are often full of heartache but also a prevailing determination. I cooked with them, cleaned laundry with them, watched television with them. I taught them English, drama, photography, but also how to spit watermelon seeds, how to have a proper water fight on a blazing hot summer day. There were boys, too, in another orphanage just down the road. For two years I was a part of their family. Now I am back again and sometimes I wonder if I will ever leave. As my relationship with them deepens, so too does my awareness of their strength of character. What it takes to be who they are I can never know, but something alchemic is occurring. If you have ever known an orphan you might know what I mean. Ask the child about home and it seems never to be a place she has been, nor even where she is, but rather where she is going, a constantly changing definition. It may not even be an actual place; it could be an idea. Home for the orphan is, though he may not articulate it, the world. The result of spending a lengthy amount of time with an orphan results in a transference that occurs without our even knowing it, but sure enough you yourself begin to feel like an orphan, and the orphan, skipping away to the next horizon has somehow found the will to go on.

In this frame of mind I think about all the orphans I have known. From Snake Alley in Manila to a Zen garden in Kyoto to a subway in San Francisco, from a cabin on an island in Alaska to a lonesome stretch of highway in Oregon to a tar factory in New England, and from the top of a pyramid in Egypt to an underground strip joint in St. Petersburg to a Parwarishga full of children who are victims of war in Afghanistan I have encountered orphans of every fiber, every culture, every age. Some I have known for only one evening, others I knew for many years, before they disappeared, before they moved into some other future, before they left for home. Their stories are not all so easy to tell, there is pain, a lot of it, and there is embarrassment and shame. There are orphans who lost their way; some became even dangerous. Others were angels who seemed to be half in this world, half in the next. All of them reflect upon me, and I carry them at the end of a stick like an ever-growing bindle full of sorrow and love as I wander toward my own twilight years, every step one step closer to accepting that perhaps I too am one of them.

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