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Women for Afghan Women staff and volunteers participated in Flushing's Lunar New Year parade on Saturday, February 8th. Afghanistan is part of Central South Asia and when possible WAW New York joins the city's many Asian organizations to develop awareness of Afghan Immigration.
With the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, more Afghan immigrants are coming to New York and residing in Queens communities. These new immigrants are in greater need of services than ever before and Women for Afghan Women is the primary Afghan resource in New York.
WAW would like to thank One Flushing for inviting our organization to participate in the parade and representing the many diverse communities of Queens.
Queens community members met at the Richmond Hill Library on January 16th, 2014 to listen to stories submitted to the Afghan Women's Writing Project (AWWP). AAWP enables Afghan women to openly write about their lives and experiences in Afghanistan. AAWP Founder Masha Hamilton began this project in 2009 after multiple trips through Afghanistan. AAWP provides women with access to a private Internet cafe in Kabul and a platform to share their stories to the entire world. Women attend writing workshops, work on computers, and receive editing assistance. Topics range from arranged marriages and abusive relationships to exploring femininity and embracing national freedom.
AAWP's site reads: "We’ve seen these women gather strength, courage, and self-confidence. They become empowered to make change within their homes, their communities, and eventually their country. They also gain computer literacy and skills of language and critical thinking, which increases their job-related skills. A number have used as part of their job or school applications work written for AWWP, shepherded through by our award-winning mentors and editors, and put up on a site updated constantly by our volunteer webmaster. They have become lawyers, journalists, parliament members."
Highlights of the evening included an essay read by Afghan Women's advocate and activist Marzia. Her piece titled "Enter Through One Door and Leave Through Another" explained the harsh treatment and taboos that Afghan women face during menstruation. A young man named Theodore lent his voice by reading a short piece written by an AWWP client inspired by Malala Yousefzai.
For more essays and information about the Afghan Women's Writing Project please visit www.awwproject.org
About a year ago I did a paper for one of my classes at Campbell University on domestic violence. During the course of my research I came upon the devastation suffered by women. Domestic Violence, both globally and domestically, has always been a social issue that I wanted to advocate for. I began looking into organizations that I could volunteer for but I did not know in what capacity I could be used. I only knew my heart wanted to help in whatever way that I could.
I found Women for Afghan Women and was inspired by its mission to seeing lives changed and made better. The dedication of this staff is like nothing I have ever seen - a small group of women with a quiet strength and amazing courage who give so much. After making my initial call and connecting with Vanessa and Jessica on many phone calls, I knew that I needed to visit the center in Queens and spend a day with them. Each day leading up to my visit, I would get on the website and learn as much as I could. Naheed and her team had already changed my life, and I was so eager to meet them. I booked my flight and headed to New York on September 24th.
From the moment that I arrived and was greeted warmly by Vanessa and Ivana, my day was filled with a schedule of events to acclimate me to the organization and gain a better understanding of the culture. I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Naheed and the staff individually to ask questions which I felt was important in helping me to better understand the needs of the center, and what I could do to help them.
Although the entire day was absolutely amazing, the best part was being able to sit in on the classes with the women and the children for whom the center serves. I spent about an hour in Salisha's class. She is one of the dedicated volunteers who teaches the ESL classes. There were about twenty women in the class who were so eager to learn. What became most evident to me is how much education is taken for granted by those of us who have the opportunities and do not utilize them. I celebrated with them when I saw their excitement, and yet my heart grieved for them at all that had been lost through their suffering. Their resiliency coupled with their courage has motivated and changed me forever. I want them to know I care about them and that they are beautiful, fearless and strong.
I want to thank Naheed, Vanessa, Jessica, and Ivana for having me for the day, and for affording me the wonderful opportunity to experience and immerse myself in what is done there. It was so hard to leave. As I returned back home to North Carolina, I reflected on the day's events. I am even more inspired and motivated to inspire others to help WAW move forward as it inspires these amazing women to do the same.
I look forward to my return and am so honored to have met each of you.
I grew up in Afghanistan during the 1990s, and experienced many hardships in Taliban-run Afghanistan including being banned from attending school for five years. These experiences have made me a natural advocate of women’s rights in Afghanistan and the world over. I was fortunate enough to come to the United States for my education. As a student of the history and politics of South Asia and the Middle East at Wellesley College, I came to understand that policies made at the higher levels were at the roots of the difficulties I endured during the decades of war in Afghanistan. As a result, I deeply believe in including the voice of those who will be most affected by high-level policies into the decision-making process.
Women for Afghan Women (WAW) is an organization which connects global advocacy for the rights of women to very concrete work in local communities. WAW provides social and legal services to women in crisis via their facilities in eight provinces of Afghanistan and one Community Center in New York. At the heart of their advocacy is the inclusion of Afghan women’s voices and experiences in those high-level policy processes that affect women’s lives directly on the ground. I recently became involved in WAW when I was invited to mentor one of their young clients and was thrilled to find a community of like-minded women.
Parnian Nazary and Naheed Bahram (L); Afghan American Community Leaders at White House, August 2, 2013 (R)
WAW's NY Program Director, Naheed Bahram, and I were among 35 US-based Afghans who gathered for the Afghan-American roundtable hosted by the Office of Public Engagement on August 2nd at the White House. The roundtable convened a range of leaders from the Afghan-American community and US government officials from various agencies for an open discussion concerning US policies toward Afghanistan as well as domestic policies that affect the Afghan-American community. Topics of discussion included the planned drawdown of US troops, support for upcoming presidential elections, Qatar process, the bilateral security agreement, the Affordable Care Act, refugee resettlement and immigration reform.
On the domestic issues of concern, Ms. Bahram spoke about the social and legal support provided to thousands of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers through WAW's Queens Community Center in New York. She expressed her concern about the anticipated arrival of large numbers of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers, particularly women, as the drawdown of US troops and completion of transition in 2014 approaches. WAW will need more resources and capacity to provide help and services to the anticipated influx of Afghans. She suggested that the US government increase its efforts to equip various immigration agencies to receive Afghan refugees in 2014, particularly in states with high concentration of Afghan refugees including New York, Virginia, and California.
The Afghan-American community has been concerned about the lack of their voice in the US-Afghan relations and expressed a deep desire to further interact with the US government. In this critical time of transition when the US is deciding the nature and extent of its engagement with Afghanistan, the Afghan-American community – most of whom are multilingual in Dari, Pashtu and English, with strong ties to both Afghanistan and the United States – should be valued as experts, ambassadors and a bridge between the two countries. The White House administrators assured that this was the first of several meetings of this sort, aimed at increasing partnerships between Afghan-Americans and the federal government.
Ms. Bahram and I, and all the Afghan-Americans who gathered, greatly appreciated this effort by the US government to convene and listen to Afghan-Americans at this critical time. It was a great effort by the White House to include the perspectives of those who will be most affected by high-level policies into the decision-making process. I was very proud that WAW leader Ms. Bahram was able to raise issues of concern in our local Afghan communities here in the US, particularly related to women’s rights.
--Parnian Nazary works for the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum (CPPF) at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). She promotes Afghan women’s rights through her involvement with various agencies working with women of Afghanistan. Most recently she joined Friends of WAW NY, a group of influential WAW supporters who are working together to support and strengthen the work of WAW.
Women for Afghan Women (WAW) participated in the fifty-seventh session of the Commission on the Status of Women at United Nations Headquarters. The Commission on the Status of Women works under the United Nations Economics and Social Council, the primary global policy-forming body missioned exclusively to gender equality and advancement of women. This annual summit at United Nations Headquarters in New York City is aimed at evaluating progress on gender equality, identifying challenges, setting global standards and formulating concrete policies to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment worldwide.
WAW co-founder and board member Sunita Viswanath moderated the March 7th event. WAW’s Executive Director Manizha Naderi was accompanied by Shinkai Karokhai, member of Afghanistan’s Parliament and women’s rights advocate, as well as a representative on the behalf of Ambassador Zahir Tanin of the Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations in New York. Lois Herman, Coordinator of the Women’s United Nations Report Network was also present and provided a presentation of Afghanistan Human Rights Issues of Women and Girls.
The panel discussed the current status of violence against women and girls Afghanistan. Two video testimonials were presented; both highlighting the harsh consequences of escaping forced marriages.
The question and answer portion of the event prompted responses about the Taliban and the withdrawal of United States military forces in 2014. Ms. Naderi explained that in order for a power vacuum to be prevented, the withdrawal of United States troops should be gradual. Afghan community members were widely present; stating that in order for change to occur in their country, attention must also be brought to the development of boys and men. Additionally, the Afghan women in attendance expressed they would like to see more females in Parliament and receive acknowledgement from Taliban leaders.
The culmination of the event was the announcement of the Global Campaign of Solidarity with Afghan Women. This campaign is an initiative to surround the Afghan community with support against the Taliban and advocate for women’s right as the presence of foreign military forces declines.
Events like these are a great opportunity to stay involved with Women for Afghan Women. While I would love to spend the day teaching English to the amazing clients that show up to WAW everyday, I feel fortunate to attend these special gatherings near my workplace in the city. My involvement might be limited to a long lunch break of lectures or an evening panel discussion but I feel fortunate to be a part of the WAW community. These special events allow supporters to get involved, stay informed, and feel connected to the initiatives of the organization.
Our new campaigns at WAW require more support than ever. Stay involved by attending talks with Executive Director Manizha Naderi and panel discussions featuring guests such as Heather Barr from Human Rights Watch. The spring gala is May 30th and it promises to be a powerful, inspiring evening with speeches by Fawzia Koofi and a WAW client.
As we marched through the nation’s capital, a family strolling through the National Mall asked me what we were walking for. Of course I knew. I had been inviting friends and family for weeks, convincing co-workers and classmates how vital it was to support the cause. But at that moment, it became so much larger than I could articulate. With a plethora of amazing supporters, discussing the plight of Afghan women around me and how we can help, the vastness of the Washington Monument before me, it became immensely emotional and overwhelming.
The tragedy of women’s rights in Afghanistan was always foreign to me. I hail from a lineage of exponentially powerful women. As stories of the injustices Afghan women face daily started flooding the media, my guilt began to sink in. How blessed and lucky I have been to lead a life of empowerment and equality. It would be almost sacrilegious for me to not contribute, even at the most minimal of ways, back to Afghanistan, and to my sisters in Afghanistan. With these harsh realities fueling my work, I founded the George Washington University's Afghan Student Association in 2009. We worked to promote Afghan culture in the greater metropolitan area through film screenings, book talks and panel discussions. We hold annual school supply drives and winter clothing drives to send to Afghanistan.
This was the first time we organized a Walkathon and it was such a rewarding experience. The support we received from the community was overwhelming. The camaraderie felt whilst marching along the streets of Washington, DC was evident in the friendships that were made beyond the walk; collaborations and ideas being spread from one innovative and proactive mind to another.
The mission of Women for Afghan Women inspired my board instantaneously. There was no question that we’d organize a Walk. Advocacy for women's rights in all aspects of life, with particular attention to political and social was a tenet of WAW that inspired me. The courageous women of WAW inspire me by their valor, perseverance and relentlessness, all attributes of the truest of Afghan women.
Full and equal participation of women in legislative reforms, and all aspects of civil society are mandatory for the prosperity of Afghanistan. Justice for the obscene violence against women is mandatory. A sincere understanding of the Islam who’s prophet preaches that "if you educate your daughters, I will stand between you and hell fire."
Armed with a robust foundation of human rights and international law, I hope to return to Afghanistan to combat with my pen, rather than the sword, which is all Afghanistan has known. I begin law school this fall to persist in this uphill battle for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
After a moment, I was able to explain to the family who asked me about our Walkathon. I, along with my sisters of the world, walked for our sisters in Afghanistan; in hopes that they will be able to one day walk as freely as us. I'm not sure if I have helped Afghanistan thus far, however, I can say that I am trying my hardest, and will do so eternally.
A Call for Solidarity With Afghan Women
On this International Women’s Day 2013, Women for Afghan Women (WAW), a 12-year-old women’s human rights organization that has provided shelter and services for thousands of women and girls in Afghanistan, calls upon you to stand in solidarity with Afghan women.
We are entering a crucial moment in the history of Afghanistan as American and foreign troops prepare to leave the country by 2014. As they depart, the progress that has occurred in many social areas, especially women’s rights, is in danger of being replaced by a return to the horrors of the Taliban period.
Progress in Afghanistan has taken place despite many obstructions, especially a class of power mongers who elevate themselves on the backs of subjugated women and a government that permits them to violate women with impunity. They do not reflect the will of most Afghans. In 8 provinces of the country recently named the world’s most dangerous place for women, WAW’s staff of 430 local Afghans provide access to justice for women and girls suffering grave human rights violations, including being sold to men, gruesome bodily torture and serious threats of being murdered to restore the “honor” of the family they supposedly shamed. WAW also runs halfway houses that rehabilitate women and girls leaving prisons and shelters who cannot return home safely. WAW has provided shelter, legal representation, medical care, and education for over 7,000 women and girls including a few extreme cases you may have read about: Bibi Aisha, Mumtaz, Sahar Gul, and Gul Meena. They and other brutalized women would not be alive except for this work and the progress that has taken place over the past decade.
Freedom for women in Afghanistan is becoming possible because the vast majority of Afghans want women’s rights, governors invite us to open facilities in their provinces, and women flock to them when they open. Afghans throughout the country, men and women, are prepared to risk their lives to staff these life-saving resources.
We are expressing our grave concern, but we are not giving up hope. We call on each one of you, the citizens of America and the world, to do your part:
● Join WAW’s Global Campaign of Solidarity with Afghan Women,launched today!
● Petition governments and aid agencies to:
--Continue development funding, and earmark it for grassroots organizations (rather than the corrupt Afghan government or huge NGOs with enormous overheads.)
--Build on the progress Afghanistan has made in education, the key to a free society. Put all Afghan girls and boys into school.
--End the farce of trying to negotiate a settlement by giving the Taliban a role in the government. If the U.S. and its allies do this, they will be overriding the will of the Afghan people and selling Afghan citizens short.
● Educate yourselves by reading about progress in Afghanistan. Bring an informed speaker to your community to engage others and spread the word.
● Raise money for and donate to grassroots women’s NGOs in Afghanistan. They are the bulwark against the encroaching insurgency and a government ever willing to trade away women’s human rights.
We need your support to keep going in Afghanistan when the going gets tough, as diverse experts predict it will. If Afghanistan plunges into violence and chaos, our facilities will close. Our staff will become targets for having worked for a women’s rights organization funded by U.S. and European agencies. The hundreds of women and children in our shelters and other facilities, most of them with nowhere to go, will be in peril.
The subjugation of women is not a marginal problem. It has been the ruin of Afghanistan and other countries. It keeps a nation mired in poverty and ripe for tyranny. We already know these things but fail to act on them. Before us now is a major tragedy in the making.
We can and must act to prevent it. Join us!
Women for Afghan Women was proud to be a part of One Billion Rising in Kabul!
Eve Ensler is a world-famous playwright, philanthropist and women’s rights advocate. Eve has been a supporter of Women for Afghan Women from our earliest days. Eve's organization, V-Day, organized a monumental global event on Valentines Day, February 14, 2013: One Billion Rising (OBR). Men and women in 190 countries worldwide danced and marched in the streets as a powerful statement against rape and violence against women, and WAW was proud to participate.
While security concerns diminished the size of the Kabul demonstration, 200 brave women and men marched from the Darul Aman Palace to the Parliament building. Among the demonstrators were 20 clients and staff members from WAW's Halfway House and Transitional House, facilities for women transitioning from shelter and prison. WAW clients Sahar Gul and Mumtaz took part – both girls are eager to take part in any public efforts to demand an end to violence. In fact, they asked our staff when the next demonstration would be!
The demonstrators called on Afghan men and women to refuse to participate in the status quo until there is an end to rape and rape culture. Rape and violence were framed as a global crisis rather than a problem just of Afghan culture.
Women for Afghan Women expresses our unwavering solidarity with all those who participated in One Billion Rising, in Kabul and all around the world.
One Billion Rising’s Rally Cry:
One in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime.
One billion women violated is an atrocity.
One billion women dancing is a revolution.
In class this morning Saba yawns, trying to concentrate. She’s been studying English, but now she’s in despair: she cannot remember anything, she says, because she thinks about her children all the time. When will she see them again?
Saba lives in Queens. Her children and her husband live in Pakistan. Her four children are age 10 and under, and she hasn't seen them for nearly a year. On May 21, her husband will go to Islamabad to apply for a visa. If he is granted permission for a visa, the next hurdle immediately arises. When? Some people get it right away. Others have to wait, sometimes for months. Saba explains: Some people are lucky and some aren’t.
Every day Saba talks to her family by skype. The children say, Mommy, can you come with me to school, can you get me a drink of water before bed, can you help me put on my jacket? They don’t understand that skype is only a transmitted image. But Saba knows the difference between an image and a person. It pains her that she can’t touch or hold the children. She tells them she will see them soon and to be good. Their grandmother cooks for them, but sometimes her husband says there’s no food in the house. This—among many other things—worries Saba.
She touches the point of her pencil to the word we are reading and leans close to concentrate. When she reads out loud, I can tell she’s distracted because she can’t remember the meaning of some simple words. “This is not how I am,” she frets.
Nothing in my own life has been anywhere near as painful as this. I tell her that my own daughter is at college in North Carolina. Is that another country? she wonders. No, it’s in the United States. It’s only an hour away by plane. Saba replies, At least she is not so far and she is older. Mine are so young. When my daughter was little, I tell her, she went to stay with her father sometimes because we’re divorced. While she was with him, I thought about nothing but her. Just reliving my own memories is painful.
But Saba is open to a suggestion. Walk for exercise, I suggest. Twenty minutes right in your neighborhood. When you come home, you will feel better. Lighter. Refreshed. Do it for your own peace of mind. And she smiles at me.
Before we part, she suddenly says, If I can help you someday, please tell me. I will always help you.
I feel in my heart that she means it. Surprised, touched, and somehow very humble, I say, thank you. Thank you.
Women for Afghan Women's work is strengthened by the efforts of our 460 staff members across Afghanistan, many of whom are men. Sikander Halimi is the Psychologist at our Kabul Children's Support Center (CSC), our residence for children of incarcerated mothers. Sikander is the son of Shah Bibi Halimi, the wonderful woman who runs the Center. Mother and son have worked at the CSC from the day it opened in 2009.
Here we see Sikander enjoying the brand new playground at the Kabul Children's Support Center. Sikander's dream was to make a playground for the children here, and he was responsible for working closely with Playground Builders of Canada to actualize this dream.
When asked why he works for a women's organization, he replied, "Woman is nothing separate from man -- we are all born from a woman. There is a mother who birthed every man."
Sikander Halimi with his mother Shah Bibi Halimi who directs the Kabul Children's Support Center
I had the pleasure to host a special Healing Saturday workshop for the Girls Leadership Group from Women for Afghan Women. We met at my office to learn about Positive Psychology, which focuses on improving well-being by building on what is already going well. All the girls engaged in the group activities and bravely spoke up to share their experiences.
We discovered how writing down the good things that happen each day can help remind us that there are positive aspects in our lives even if they are hard to notice. The girls also wrote letters of gratitude to someone in their lives that they have not yet thanked. There were some touching moments as the girls read their letters aloud and revealed who they were grateful to have in their lives.
Perhaps the most lively activity was when we savored chocolate. I explained how to enhance the experience of enjoying chocolate by engaging all the senses and anticipating the taste. We slowly opened the foil wrappers (which sounded like Rice Krispies popping!) and observed the sight, smell, and feel of the chocolate before nibbling a bite. It was certainly a new way to eat candy, and a participant noticed that one piece was satisfying and she didn't crave another one like usual.
I hope that the Positive Psychology workshop was an enjoyable community building event for the Girls' Leadership Group and that they found one or two ideas to be helpful. My colleagues and I at Madison Marriage & Family Therapy hold a Healing Saturday about once a month on different topics that are generally open to the public, and we would love to see participants from WAW again!
Rosa Lander, a 9 year old Brooklyn elementary school student, was terribly disturbed when she heard that a young Pakistani girl, Malala Yusufzai, was shot by Taliban gunmen just for saying that girls have a right to education. Almost any girl in the world would be upset by this horrible story, but Rosa decided to do something about it. Along with her friends, she organized a Readathon at Park Slope Public Library.
The Readathon forum achieved two goals: one, it emphasized literacy as a key ingredient for girls’ empowerment in the world; and two, it would also be a fundraiser for Developments in Literacy, an organization in Pakistan which advocates for the rights of girls to have an education.
WAW received an email requesting a young speaker to attend the Readathon and speak about the importance of education for girls. We decided to connect Rosa and her friends with the twelve Afghan girls who constitute WAW’s Girls Leadership Program (GLP) which meets every Saturday at our Queens Center. Our girls were planning to travel to Brooklyn to participate as a group in this wonderful event when Hurricane Sandy hit our city. The Readathon was scheduled for November 3rd, a few days after the hurricane when the city was still reeling from the devastation and public transportation was still not running smoothly.
Rather than cancel or postpone the Readathon, Rosa and her friends decided that they wanted to go forward even if it meant a smaller turnout. Remarkably, 75 girls gathered on the day and a grand total of $5,000 was raised!
WAW’s GLP members were not able to attend in person because of hurricane-related difficulties, but they too were determined to find a way to participate. Yalda Afif, the 20 year old woman who runs the GLP was extremely resourceful and gathered the girls at the WAW Center to participate in the Readathon by Skype. The girls made a poster for Malala and discussed the importance of education in a girl’s life, and what the reasons might be for forces that would deny this fundamental right.
GLP Member Arezo said, "I feel so lucky for the educational opportunities that I have here in the U.S. and all Afghan American girls should take advantage of the opportunities that they have here. I feel very sad for the girls who are treated badly in Afghanistan and other countries. Their choices and education should not be limited because of cultural reasons."
GLP Member Shabnam remembered a quote she liked, "Educate a boy, and you educate an individual. Educate a girl and you educate a community.”
GLP Member Sahar: "I believe that we are all blessed with our lives in here. I believe all of us, especially the Afghan Girls, have the capacity to become lawyers, doctors and engineers. We just need to work hard and give emotional support to our sisters in back home. I hope that one day they will have the same educational opportunities that we have in the United States of America."
Event Organizer Rosa Lander reflected, “We really learned a lot from being able to talk with students from the Girls Leadership Program. Girls everywhere want rights to read, to go to school, to grow up and be whatever they want, and just to live a normal life. Now that we know more, we can help more and do more. I'm so glad Yalda figured out how we could talk to the GLP students, so soon after the hurricane."
GLP member Nayab appreciated and thanked the Brooklyn Girls and felt happy for the program that was arranged for Malala Yusuzai. She wished Malala the best of luck in every aspect of life so that she can continue her struggle to support women’s rights.
WAW’s GLP members and Rosa Lander and her friends are eager to work together in their common mission – to advocate for girls’ right to education.
Raees Ahmadzai knows what it is like to struggle for a better future. As the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, former Afghan National Cricket Captain, and founder of an NGO that teaches cricket to children, it is hard to imagine that at one time he also lived with immense turmoil in his life. Growing up in a refugee camp without adequate clothes, food or money, he counts the blessings that life has dealt him. It with this sentiment that he visited the WAW Children's Support Center (CSC) in Kabul yesterday and was moved to tears by what he found. Armed with Afghan cricket shirts and tennis balls, he met the 78 boys and girls who live in the CSC in Kabul.
I met Raees in 2008 when we were filming the documentary, Out of the Ashes. It was the story of Raees and his cricket teammates as they took the most extraordinary journey from refugee camps to the world cup of cricket. Spending so much time with the team made me realize that life is so much about seizing opportunities. What I see at the CSC is boys and girls who are being given the first opportunity of their life; to be safe, warm, fed and educated. This may be the critical turning point for their futures.
After we left the CSC, he told me, "I am sure that these children will do something for Afghanistan. I can see the discipline and love they are given here, it makes me happy to see that this organization is taking such good care of them."
There are some facts about Afghanistan that no one can change. It has been in a state of conflict for the past 30 years leaving access to education and health care waning. Children are the only chance that this country has at making positive change for the future. The CSC in Kabul is a testament to what can be achieved when kids are given a safe loving environment where they have the chance to be kids.
Raees Ahmadzai plans on returning to the CSC soon, with the Afghan National team, to conduct a cricket coaching clinic for the boys and girls who are interested in learning how to play or improve their cricket skills.
I am very thankful that there are organizations like WAW that work to help the advancement of women's rights. I am particularly touched by the plight of women in Afghanistan because the circumstances for women in that region are so dire. Although reading the accounts of hardships and institutionalized abuse of women can be disturbing, I try to stay knowledgeable about the women that face these difficulties so they are not forgotten.
Knowing that many women in Afghanistan fight for survival on a daily basis, it sometimes seems impractical that they would remotely care about makeup. But women are women, and the desire to be beautiful is an innate phenomenon that unites us all, regardless of our place on the globe.
By donating a portion of the proceeds from the sale of my new lip gloss line, Almond Cosmetics, to WAW, I make a difference by not only demonstrating a commitment to increasing human rights for Afghan women and girls, but by raising awareness among American women to the plight of their Asian counterparts.
Women for Afghan Women’s Children’s Support Center (CSC), located in Kabul, was founded in 2009 to support under-served children, most of whom were previously living under harsh conditions within Afghan prisons.* The Kabul branch is one of three funded and operated by WAW (the other two centers are located in Mazar and Kunduz), and is presently the only operation of its kind in Afghanistan. As of this writing there over 70 kids living at the Kabul center, ranging from five to 16 years old, with more on the way. Each child is cared for, gets plenty to eat every day, and is simultaneously enrolled in a local school while participating in the center’s daily programs, including English, math, and computer studies.
For anyone interested in WAW’s important work, I highly encourage your support for, and possibly even a visit to, the Children’s Support Center. Below are the top 4 reasons you’ll love what you find here:
1. The children – Having the opportunity to interact with the children is an amazing experience; whether I am teaching an English lesson, playing games, or simply hanging out with them at the center’s newly built playground. On the first day I arrived I was warmly greeted by each and every kid in the program. They love to talk with me, practice their English, and show me their drawings. During our English lessons, each question I ask immediately sends every hand up in the air. They all vie for my attention. Words simply cannot describe their excitement! They are all curious, eager to learn, and grateful that I have come here to be with them. But it is I who am most grateful: I am glad to have made the trip to Kabul to learn about the program and interact with these amazing kids.
2. The incredible staff – Prison is a difficult and terrible place for a young child to grow up in, so the children often arrive at the CSC with severe behavioral problems, needing immediate professional attention. The center is well prepared for this, and their highly qualified staff – teachers, administrators, caretakers, and even a psychologist – help the children transition to a more caring and loving environment. They often see a huge behavioral improvement within two months to a year. Soon the children feel that they are part of a new extended family which is one of the goals of the program. Everyone here immediately welcomed me as part of the family and has made me feel right at home.
3. Leadership skills at a young age – In addition to the wonderful staff, the older kids themselves serve as mentors and role models for the younger and newer children at the center, helping them adjust and adapt from their prior circumstances. During my lessons, for example, I ask some of the kids with a stronger grasp of English to switch seats and help the newer kids, and they do so in a heartbeat, instantly tutoring the others. I continue to be amazed at how excited the kids are, not only to learn, but also to teach and help their fellow classmates at every opportunity! (I think the only thing they haven’t been successful at is their attempts to teach me some Dari…)
4. Providing a real future – On my first day at the center I spoke with Leila, who at 16, is one of the older kids at the center. She told me she dreams of studying at an American university, and why not? Anything’s possible, especially with the wonderful support that WAW has to offer. The children here now have something to look forward to. They get a real education. They have real support. They have real friends. Best of all, they have a real future.
This is only my third day at the CSC and I already know I’ll miss everyone here when I leave! I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in the CSC’s programs, and I know from first-hand experience how beneficial WAW’s work has been and continues to be in Afghanistan. If you’re interested in contributing, I and everyone at WAW would be more than grateful for your support.
*The children, having no family or place to live, must go to prison with their mothers, many of whom are convicted of non-violent crimes, including zina (infidelity). Although four male eye witnesses are required by law in zina cases, often the wife is sentenced to prison on the accusation alone.
I'm turning 30, but I still have a childlike love for birthdays. I've never quite gotten over the sense that everything should be slightly more special, that life should take on a gentler and sweeter hue for the birthday girl or boy. As I've gotten older, the practice of this has changed: now, instead of bringing cupcakes to my classmates, I just take the day off work and sleep in. But this year, seeing that three in the tens column makes me overwhelmingly grateful for all I've been given and for all I've been able to achieve. I wanted to use my milestone birthday to give back in gratitude. No gift could mean more than that, so I'm also challenging my friends and family to help me make more of an impact.
Because of all the lifesaving and life-changing work they do, Women for Afghan Women was the obvious choice for me. I've been moved by and drawn to WAW's mission since I volunteered to help coordinate WAW's e-newsletter a few years ago. I got to spend a lot of time with the stories of the women and girls of WAW in that work, and of course many of the stories are tragic, heartbreaking, unimaginable. But I had the privilege of seeing something else, too: the incredible, relentless forward motion of WAW, the women and girls it serves, and the women and men who keep all of its shelters and programs running. Even sometimes in the face of overwhelming 'no', the people of WAW work tirelessly so that women and girls can hear–and say–'yes' to themselves and to improvement in their communities. In Afghanistan and Queens, WAW is helping women gain skills, knowledge, and resources to build (and rebuild) their lives.
At WAW, I've seen the incredible help that right-minded neighbors can provide for one another, even in oppressive circumstances. I'm honored to have been a part of their work, and I'm honored to celebrate my birthday with them!
I had to share this letter my husband Stephan Shaw sent his family while we were in Kabul. It's quite something.
Stephan was in Kabul working on a database he built for WAW for the purpose of documenting, tracking and evaluating our casework. The province managers and database officers from all 8 provinces traveled to Kabul to work with Stephan on the database.
From an adoring wife,
I haven't written in a while because I've been working ridiculous hours. Last night I was up until 3 AM and then off to the WAW office at 8 AM. Today I trained 14 people and set up the their computers for them.
All of their computers were infected with the nastiest viruses I've ever seen. They destroyed 4 thumb drives and and several computers. Jeff, an American, is here helping with the laptops everyone is bringing me. We were basically doing triage all day. Many of the computers didn't make it.
Databases are really boring, but this one that I built is interesting. It's not because it tracks forced marriage, rape, and child prostitution among other things, but because six years ago Manizha Naderi came to me and asked if I could build a database for her new center in Kabul. She gave me one week to do it, and had no time to train on it before leaving. She had assured me they would test it and email me so that developing it would be an ongoing project. I never heard from them. I only learned occasionally that it was being used by more and more centers around the country and that other organizations wanted a version of it.
Six years later I've come to Afghanistan to work on it, and people ("Database Officers" they're called - people whose full time employment is to enter data into this thing I made!) came from all around the country, from places so different from Kabul. Each officer told me how beautiful their part of the country is. So they all came with copies of the original database, only this time full of data, so full actually, they could no longer email the files and had to board planes instead. Each one of these people had a database full of photos of battered but smiling women and girls, data tables full of divorces, kidnappings, child brides, and abused wives. I imagine they were over the baggage weight limit with some of these copies. And each person was so eager to really learn how to use this little program I had made. Nobody really knew anything about it, except how to enter raw data into it. Some of them thought it was broken and unserviceable but entered stories and facts anyway as they've been paid to do that. Huma, one of the brightest stars here, shrieked when I started training her, "Oh my! And I thought the problem was the database! The problem was all along myself!"
Stephan training Huma Safi, WAW Program Manager
So, for 7 days I've been overhauling this thing to better hold all this pain, and all this amazing work. I've been assembling all these disparate files that traveled halfway around the world and soaked up all this human misery and hope. There are thousands and thousands of entries like this one, picked at random (the database is recorded in English, though that is changing as tomorrow we're translating it into Dari!):
client says . my name is Mangykhal my father name is Noordain we live in sarpol province Qarakhwal district . my father engaged me with an unknown man
against my wil for money . after my wedding my husband did violence with me he always said to me why your father took more money from me. and also he did stark work on me every day. and he hit me every day finally I decided to live with my mother I came to my mother homec and when I came to my mother home I was pregnant. I born a girl in my mother home. one day my husband came to my mothers home he took my girl from me I lived with my mother about tow
years. in this period he didn't pay my alimony. then my husband got marriage with other girl without conscious of me . finally I am referred to court . court invite my husband . then my husband came to court he fought with me in court and he escaped from court then I referred to WAW office to solve my problem
So, I'm amazed at this story. This little program went off on its own and spread to 8 provinces around Afghanistan and is picking up so many stories, even just one of which is more than most people could bear in a lifetime.
Twelve hours today were spent, one-on-one with each database officer, importing their old data into a sleeker new shell. I made this one light so that the main information can be transmitted over the internet (they take photos of every client which they save in the DB - this makes it too large to send along Afghanistan's weak internet, and must go instead by vehicle or post.) However, light and slim as it is, I don't expect to see it again for many years. This one will fill up fast, I'm sure. It tracks many more problem types and allows them to define new ones as they go, and as American troops pull out, I'm sure newer more horrible ways to torture women and girls will be discovered. My database will be tracking it.
So, this is the story of my trip. I've barely gone outside, haven't stretched my legs and spoken very little all things considered, but I feel like I've traveled more in these two weeks than ever before.
I must be HONEST. I was worried.
How would I be received? Was I able to fit in? Could I possibly have anything to share that is of consequence to the women meeting at WAW.
Then it hit me... Indrani, this is not about YOU. This is about THEM.
Give your open heart, your warm smile and let it come from your toes up to your mouth.
Show how much you LOVE your work.
Let your LOVE shine brighter than anything else can.
Put your EGO on the curb, better yet leave it on the bus!
So, that is what I did.
I took my two trains, my one bus, the Q64, and realized that it was the same route I had taken 37 years ago while attending Queens College.
The names were so familiar, Kissena Blvd, Jewel Ave, Parsons Blvd.
I could almost see the scared young woman I was back then, going to college and trying to get an education and barely having enough money for the bus.
Now here I am in 2012, an older, mature woman, without fear and with so much admiration for my younger self.
And THIS is what I want you readers to know about the women who gather at Women for Afghan Women.
They are BRAVE.
They are STRONG.
They are COMPASSIONATE.
They are like you and me and all other women who love their children and families.
They have dreams and missions and passions.
I was so blessed to have been invited.
The first session was a little soft and slow as we tried to figure out each other.
We were tender and careful and respectful.
We were on our way to creating sisterhood.
I was one of the chosen few who could sit and chat and laugh and share food with these amazing ladies.
They are navigating a new country... just like I did.
They are learning to "speak" American English... just like I did.
They are learning how to be solidly American, yet hold on to the roots from their own country... just like I did... and so many before.
They are living in the LAND of the FREE and the HOME of the BRAVE.
YES, they are free and brave... just like you and me and her and him and them!!!
OH SAY can you SEE... the beauty of their souls and spirits and hearts.
I saw that beauty and I want MORE!!!
“I feel good and proud!”
These are the words of Khatol as she celebrates her newly minted American citizenship over the sumptuous lunch feast she prepared and served at WAW NY for her friends and teachers. “I studied everyday for two months with Kseniya,” she notes. “And the test was not too hard!”
Khatol, in her pale green sequined tunic and matching head scarf, presides graciously over the fragrant food: a spicy-hot chicken biryani, a bean dish and a pasta dish for vegetarians and a sweet custard with fruit for dessert. Condiments include fresh, sliced ginger. On her day of triumph Khatol makes sure everyone is served and has everything they want. Other women pitch in, but it’s Khatol’s perfectly orchestrated show.
Khatol is so busy, I can barely get her to sit down to talk. In fact, she reminds me of my grandmother, who’d serve Passover meals and never sit down for even a moment as she made sure everyone had more food than they could possibly eat. “Ma! Sit! Sit down!” everyone would chorus, but she’d pay no attention.
Finally, after doing the dishes and vacuuming the rug, she sits. “Tell me how it feels to be a U.S. citizen,” I say.
“Good. I am proud. And I am happy so much because now my mother and father can come here. I applied for them. In’shallah! And I am happy to celebrate with friends and my teachers.”
Does she have advice to share with other women who are studying for the citizenship test?
She confesses she was confused a lot when she was studying, but now that she’s an old hand, she wants everyone to know they should go ahead and do it. “I tell everybody, take the test. It’s very easy. It’s just like a job interview. Six questions and the application. I had to write a sentence. It was no problem.”
I ask her if she will now be a teacher and help others to study successfully for their exam. She laughs and says, “In’shallah!”
The WAW Halfway House in Kabul was opened less than a year ago. It is a three-story building with several bedrooms on each floor. The rooms are lean and breezy, and have twin or bunk beds. The ground floor has offices and a large room for meals and meetings- an Afghan style living room with large cushions along all four walls.
All of WAW’s programs have grown organically as the work deepened and new needs emerged. The Halfway House was started when we realized that some of the clients in our shelters need a different kind of shelter. Women who had suffered more extreme abuse and violence need a shelter which is less crowded than our shelters, and where they can have a private room. Women whose cases are resolved but have nowhere to go need a shelter where they are able to come and go as they please, and therefore attend schools or courses in town, or take jobs.
WAW Development Manager Vanessa Dubyn and I spent the day at the Halfway House. We were welcomed by the fantastic staff working at the Halfway House – Anisa, Shukria and Meena. Meena is a young woman who prioritizes education – she has her MA in International Relations from a university in Pakistan, and aspires to get her MPhil in International Relations. I asked her when, and the reply was, “as soon as possible.” Meena was our translator today as Vanessa and I met with clients privately and bore witness to their stories. Not only did she do an excellent job of translating, but Meena also handled every client and testimony with the utmost sensitivity.
From left to right: Executive Director Manizha Naderi, Meena (caseworker), Shukria (Kabul Province Manager) and Anisa (Manager of the Kabul Halfway House and Transitional House).
Vanessa and I were drained completely by the end of the day, listening to these stories. A day is just long enough to hear stories of brutality and feel powerless and despondent, It is not nearly long enough for the protective skin to grow and inoculate us from overpowering emotions. It took everything we have to listen with our strategic and problem-solving ears instead of breaking down. What right do we have to break down when the woman who has actually lived through the ordeal is telling her story calmly?
Here’s just one of the stories we heard today: Fatima was married six years ago, at 13, to a married man. He was good to her at first, but after a year became increasingly abusive. He was also abusive to his mother. He was a drug addicted, and was both physically and verbally abusive. The violence and abuse was interrupted by periods of calm, but nevertheless always resumed.Fatima’s in-laws were kind, and tried in vain to stop their son from abusing her. One day, in a fit of anger, he fired a hunting pistol at Fatima. She was hit in the back and the bullet went right through her body, exiting from her stomach and spilling out her intestines. We have photographs of Fatima in this state. Fatima’s mother-in-law put her organs back into her body, wrapped a cloth around her tightly, and enlisted the help of neighbors to get her to the nearest hospital.
The hospital in their province was not able to do the required surgery, and Fatima was referred to the Human Rights Commission who flew her to Kabul for her surgery and medical care. They also referred her to WAW. Fatima’s brother, previously a Taliban sympathizer, came with Fatima to Kabul and stood by her side
throughout. He also witnessed the amazing work of the Human Rights Commission and our WAW staff. He has been transformed into an open-minded and progressive thinking man. He said, “Before this, I did not think women could do any work. Now I have seen how much work is being done by women, and for women. No woman should suffer what my sister has suffered. My sister is everything to me”
Fatima has improved emotionally and physically in the seven months she has been with WAW in Kabul. She is active in our Halfway House, taking advantage of our literacy, tailoring and jewelry making classes. She also loves to cook, and made the excellent string bean dish we enjoyed for lunch. We asked Fatima about her hopes for her future. She said she never wants to marry, but instead wants to do what we do in WAW – work to help women who have been abused. "I want to be like Meena," she said, as she hugged Meena. I was amazed to learn that Fatima is already helping other women--a WAW client with cancer is in Pakistan for surgery, and Fatima is caring for her little girl.
Fatima has a gentleness and kindness combined with an unnerving resilience and strength. A combination which makes her the most special kind of survivor – one whose spirit is in tact in spite of all she has gone through. One who still has hope not just for herself but for others.
Sunita with the clients staying in the Halfway House.
Our Kabul Halfway House is the newest of 22 facilities WAW operates in 8 provinces across Afghanistan. Every single facility, be it a shelter, a Family Guidance Center or a Children's Support center, is a refuge for women and men whose human rights have been violated. We assemble teams of lawyers, social workers, educators, and courageous lay people to to work for the best possible outcome for each one of our clients, and we base our unflinching advocacy on the stories and testimonies that we are privileged to bear witness to every day. I only hope and pray that in the days, weeks, months and years after 2014 when the foreign forces pull out of Kabul, that this critical work being done by WAW and so many organization like ours, is allowed to continue. I shudder to think of the alternative.
Sahar Gul is a 13 year old girl who was married at 11, and whose in-laws tortured her in horrific ways. Sahar has physical and emotional scars from the abuse she suffered, but has the chance of a future thanks to the work of our organization, Women for Afghan Women. Our staff attorneys fought her legal case against her in-laws and they were convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. The in-laws appealed this decision but the judge rejected their appeal.
A 93 year old man in Texas, Mr. Robert D. Brown, read about Sahar Gul in the New York Times. Sahar lost her parents at a young age, as did Mr. Brown. He felt a strong connection to Sahar, and reached out to the New York Times to ask how he could help her. The Times referred Mr. Brown to us since she was in our care.
In recent weeks Mr. Brown has made three separate donations for Sahar Gul’s health and dental care expenses. “I would like Sahar to be taken to the dentist immediately. I am a firm believer in regular dental care,” he told me on a recent phone call. As a result, Sahar was taken for the first dental check-up of her life, and we learned that she has no cavities.
When he heard that I was traveling to Kabul, Mr. Brown said he'd like to send a gift for Sahar, and asked what she might like. I told him that some warm clothes might be a good idea since winter is fast approaching.
This morning, I went to the Kabul Halfway House where Sahar is staying, and had the great pleasure of giving Sahar the many gifts that Mr. Brown sent her. First we had to explain that an elderly gentleman in America had read about Sahar in the newspaper, and had decided to help her. We told Sahar that Mr. Brown has sent money for her, and also some gifts: a globe; a winter coat, gloves, sweater and scarf; a purse filled with make-up and other goodies; and most exciting of all, an Ipod loaded up with music that American teens listen to, complete with Ipod dock and earphones.
Sahar is usually a shy girl, but beamed with each additional gift! The coat and sweater fit her perfectly, and she looked closely at Mr. Brown’s photograph which he had loaded onto the ipod. When I gave her the globe, it was clear that Sahar had no idea that we live on a spherical planet spinning in space. We pointed out Afghanistan, New York and Texas, but she will need some geography lessons before the concept sinks in. The literacy teacher at the Halfway House will use the globe in some basic geography lessons for all the women staying there.
Thanks to Mr. Brown’s donations, we will be able to send Sahar for medical care in India. She has many medical issues as a result of the torture and starvation she endured, and needs the attention of specialist care which is not available in Afghanistan.
That a 93 year old American man could read about a 13 year old girl in Afghanistan and be so moved by her story is beautiful. That he took the next step to find out how to reach her, what her needs are, and how he can help her is inspirational. But to come to Kabul bearing gifts that he had personally picked out for her in a Texas shopping mall – a coat, an ipod, a globe – and to watch her open the gifts with her delicate hands, felt something like a miracle. I am utterly humbled by the power of human connection.
Dear WAW Supporters,
A group of us traveled together from New York and arrived in Kabul today.
With me were Manizha and her little one year old daughter Bahaar, our
new Development Manager Vanessa and Vanessa’s husband and WAW's new
volunteer Jeff, and my husband Stephan, WAW volunteer for the seven
years he has known me.
The drive to Manizha's beautiful home from the airport was an
emotional one. We listened to the Beatles, Taj Mahal, Cat Stevens and Rod
Stewart on Kabul Rock radio station. We took pictures from the car
window of the arid mountains, the dusty streets, and talked about the
between uniform-clad school girls and burqa-clad women.
There are more glitzy marriage halls than I remember from my last
visit in 2009. We drove past the vast complex of Kabul University and
saw dozens of college students, young men and women, heads held high.
I even saw dumpsters filled with garbage -- garbage collection service
has vastly improved in Kabul. Everywhere are signs of building,
construction, development. Our gracious host Tawfiq, Manizha's
husband, said, "This is the best moment in Kabul's history." The
progress that has been made over the past eleven years was apparent
everywhere I looked.
This evening we enjoyed a beautiful welcome reception at the main WAW
office. The Kabul staff gathered to welcome us, and we were
served delicious bulani (fried bread stuffed with potatoes and leeks).
I was asked to tell the staff about the founding of WAW. I did so,
but also said that all of them-- the women and especially the men
who come to work every day to fight for women's rights-- are my
personal heroes. The reason I have hope.
Mumtaz and Sahar Gul, two young girls who have been brutalized and
whose stories have been publicized in the Western media, came to the
reception. Mumtaz has scars from acid burns all over her face and
body. I was told the scars are getting worse and Mumtaz will soon go
to India for further medical treatment. Sahar Gul is a slight and
pretty girl. Her scars are not visible, but I know that she has them
all over her body, not to mention the emotional scars from being
imprisoned in a cellar by her in-laws and starved and tortured. Both
girls are being loved and cared for in WAW's transitional house; they
are taking literacy classes for the first time in their lives; and I
could see that they have become best friends. They sat together the
whole evening, whispering and giggling together; they giggles uncontrollably
when Mumtaz told me that her dream above all dreams is to meet Akshay Kumar!
They could have been teenage girls anywhere.
I hugged the girls and told them that even though I live in New York,
I think about them all the time and ask how they are. I told them
that there are many people in New York who worry about them, and wish
them well. I don't know what they made of this.
Our program manager Huma Safi has been helping me make connections
within the Hindu and Sikh
community here. Two Sikh men, Manmohan Singh and Ravinder Singh, came
to the reception to meet me. We talked for a while and will continue
our conversation when I visit their Gurudwara and also Kabul’s Hindu temple.
After a decade working for Afghan women's rights, I find myself
deepening my connection to this
country, meeting Afghans who share my faith and national origin.
After the reception we returned home and were relaxing in Manizha and
Tawfiq's spacious and comfortable living room and playing with their
kids. Someone asked Stephan about his recent table saw accident,
when he almost lost three fingers. Then Tawfiq told us that he had
been taken hostage by Mujahideen for five months when he was 17 years
old. He was tortured in captivity, and when his father finally found
a way to get him released, it took Tawfiq an entire year to recover
from the shock and injuries. It was months before he could walk
straight. Mumtaz and Sahar Gul, even though they have suffered
unimaginably in their short lives, are luckier than girls who did not
find an organization like WAW and friends like each other. Stephan's
table saw ordeal pales in comparison to Tawfiq's imprisonment and
torture. The life lesson which reveals itself to me daily, without
fail: today is all we have for sure, and it is up to us to live large,
doing everything we want to do for ourselves, those we love, and our
Stephan will be busy every day we are here working on our technology
systems, particularly our database. I will be working on several blog
posts, compiling information for our website and annual report, and
taking as many pictures as I can. We'll keep busy, stay safe, and be home soon!
FIRST BLOG POST! This post by Susan Beth Schneider launches WAW's blog, We are WAW. Susan is blogging about her volunteer work in WAW's community center in Fresh Meadows, Queens.
I have always been interested in women’s issues, but until now it’s been American women’s issues. Since I’ve been volunteering at WAW’s little house in Fresh Meadows, I’ve sensed that I have more in common with these women from Afghanistan and Pakistan and Morocco than I might have thought—but to be completely honest, I bring with me certain assumptions that I was barely aware of. This rainy, muggy Tuesday seems to be a day for smashing stereotypes. I’m working with a woman named Shabnam. When we introduce ourselves, Shabnam’s unmade-up face, in the wrapping of her head scarf, is wreathed in smiles. “How many children do you have?” I ask—it’s a great way to break the ice. And I know that many of the women have many children.
“One,” says Shabnam.
“One?” I repeat.
“One daughter,” she says firmly.
“Well, So do I,” I tell her. “One is enough for me!”
We laugh in wholehearted agreement. Now here is a woman I can easily relate to (and she to me). Assumption #1: gone!
I ask her next how she met her husband, Abdul. Now this is a story that veers quite a ways from my experience. Shabnam met Abdul on a visit to her sister in Peshawar, Pakistan. The plan was that Abdul would sponsor Shabnam to come to New York. “Were you scared to meet him for the first time?” I ask her. Her smile breaks out again. “I like him very much,” she says. “He is a very nice man. And very handsome!”
And she still feels this way after years of marriage! Assumption #2: “arranged” marriages are frightful. Well, maybe not always…
Shabnam asks me to look at her citizenship application—the infamous N-400, from immigration, that collects potential citizens’ basic information—and that makes everyone a bit of a nervous wreck. In the section where the applicant must list trips they’ve made out of the United States, I notice that she went to Saudi Arabia a few years ago. “Tell me,”I said, “what did you do?”
“I went to Mecca,” she told me. She’d been on the famous pilgrimage along with millions of other devout Muslims. In the past I’d been awed, even overwhelmed, by the photos showing huge numbers of people—one of the largest gatherings of human beings on earth. Who were these people? What was this unusual event? I’d wondered. Shabnam told me that in Mecca, she took the ritualized walk around the ka’ba (a large cube-shaped building in the mosque) seven times. She prayed a great deal—but she also did plenty of shopping. “The same stores as there are in the Queens mall,” she assured me matter-of-factly. Talking with Shabnam brought it all down to earth. To my original question, who were these people?, I now knew the answer. People like Shabnam and her husband—and not so unusual at all.