Spirit Indestructible: WAW 2014 Gala
On May 29th, 2014, over 300 generous and compassionate women and men gathered at a gala event to commemorate Women for Afghan Women’s 13th anniversary. The event was entitled "Spirit Indestructible" and this year, WAW shone a spotlight on the power of Afghan youth in addressing human rights and building a more just society.
Through sponsorships, ticket sales, donations, and both silent and live auctions, the gala raised over $280,000. These funds will directly support WAW's lifesaving work for Afghan women's rights both in Afghanistan and New York. Just as importantly, the gala energized and inspired attendees and provided a reminder of how important it is to support women’s rights at this critical moment of transition in Afghanistan. GALA PHOTOS HERE
The program began with a blessing and prayer by Meena Nazamy, a 10-year old Afghan girl from Queens, NY.
Eleanor Smeal, who co-chaired the event with Gloria Steinem, officially welcomed all the guests and spoke about both the incredible potential of Afghanistan’s future, and the terrifying danger of the country losing its hard-fought gains. Ms. Smeal, president and founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation and twice president of the National Organization for Women, is a pioneering advocate for women’s rights -- the first American feminist to address human rights in Afghanistan in the mid to late 1990s. She denounced those who declare that Afghanistan is not ready or willing to rule itself democratically – she pointed to the recent elections, which were conducted smoothly and which garnered 60% of the Afghan population as voters. The 2012 presidential election in the United States, she continued, achieved only 58% turnout – and voters in the United States do not cast their ballots while their lives are at risk. Afghanistan, she concluded, is hungry for progress.
Guests watched a video showcasing WAW’s work transformative work with youth, and included the powerful messages and testimonies of several young clients. It included footage of WAW’s shelters, family guidance centers, children’s support centers, and the New York Community Center. Emcee and WAW co-founder, Sunita Viswanath, explained that the footage in the video was shot by Terry Merkle and Maris Segal, who traveled to Afghanistan last year on WAW's first ever donor delegation. The pro-bono editor of the video was acclaimed filmmaker Marilyn Agrelo.
Manizha Naderi, WAW’s Executive Director, addressed President Obama's recent announcement of the timeline of troop withdrawal as well as the presidential elections currently underway in Afghanistan. She spoke about challenges WAW will face as American and other foreign troops leave Afghanistan, but also emphasized and detailed the tremendous impact WAW was making in the present. “Afghanistan,” she said, “can continue on the path to democracy - or it could go back to the stone age. We can’t let that happen. Too much is at stake.”
Following Manizha’s speech, guests watched a video message by 18-year-old Somaya, a client living in one of WAW’s shelters. When she was 11, Somaya was saved by her geography teacher from a forced marriage to a 60-year-old man. She was living in another shelter in Herat for several years, and was glad to be safe, but hungered for an education. When a WAW staff person met Somaya on a visit to the Herat shelter, Somaya pleaded with her to go to school. WAW was able to transfer Somaya to our Halfway House in Kabul where she has lived for three years, and is excelling in school. In fact, Somaya recently did so well on her exams that she skipped two grades and is now in the 11th grade. Somaya thanked WAW for providing her with an education, and spoke passionately of her ambition to be an independent woman standing on her own feet.
Mohammed Naeem then took the floor. Mohammed, 21, is an incredibly passionate speaker who filled the whole room with energy. He related his life story: when he was four years old, he moved from Afghanistan to Queens, New York. At the age of twelve, his father was sent to prison and the Afghan community ostracized them. His mother was also a victim of years of domestic abuse. Mohammed, his siblings and his mother felt helpless and alone. "WAW provided the supportive and loving community we needed," he said. "They stood by our side. WAW helped restore the dignity we had lost and we moved forward as a family." He is especially indebted to WAW for supporting and empowering his mother. She learned English at the NY Community Center, got a job with WAW, and obtained an order of protection against her husband. Today, the entire family is thriving.
Renowned auctioneer Nicholas Dawes of the Antiques Roadshow, administered the Live Auction, volunteering at the second gala in a row. The live auction raised over $67,000 from auction items such as a guided trip to Kabul, a home-cooked Afghan meal, and VIP tickets to the Daily Show.
After dinner, Sunita Viswanath presented the Legacy Award to filmmaker, feminist and philanthropist Abigail Disney. In Disney’s acceptance speech, she thanked WAW and expressed the need for solidarity against the heinous violence against women which seems to be so pervasive in the world today. Manizha Naderi then presented the Malalai Kakar Human Rights Award to Shinkai Karokhall, a female member of Parliament. Karokhail spoke about the experience and challenges of being a politician, a fighter for justice, a woman and a mother in Afghanistan, and emphasized the need for international support for Afghan women.
The final speaker of the event was 18-year-old passionate and articulate Nilab Nusrat. Those who have attended WAW's previous two galas have heard Nilab's story. Nilab was a client in WAW's Children's Support Center while her mother was in prison. WAW brought Nilab from Afghanistan to speak at their tenth anniversary gala in 2011. Nilab, an extremely keen student, expressed concern that if she returned to Afghanistan, her mother might end her education and marry her off. Thanks to WAW's advocacy and support, Nilab received a full scholarship for the last three years at Putney School in Vermont. "Six years ago, I left prison and came to the Children's Support Center in Kabul. Today I am graduating from high school and am about to start as a freshman at Drew University." She urged the audience to remember the thousands of girls in Afghanistan who weren’t as lucky as she was.