Last Days

It has been a full moon over Afghanistan for the past two nights, glowing yet hazy with the everpresent dust. Also during the last two days, the leaves of the few trees in the area have changed to a bright yellow. They are like flames against the soft brownness of the landscape. These two changes seem to be purposefully marking the end of my time in Afghanistan. I am leaving today. Yesterday as we drove through town on our way to the House of Flowers, I felt a wave of poignancy at every beautifully tiled mosque, at the three pretty brown horses briskly pulling carts, and at

the young girls walking to school in small black and white bunches. Every shop drew my eye whether it was selling motor oil or old-style teapots; I wanted to take pictures of everything. I tried to peer down every alley that branched off the main road, the tiny roads that I find so attractive. with rough mud walls enclosing people’s homes. I felt like I was gazing hungrily, trying to inhale the spirit of Afghanistan, the true Afghanistan underneath the angst and anger. After my month here I still haven’t understood exactly what it is that entrances me so about this place. All I know is that I had to take several deep breaths to keep the tears in their place. I couldn’t even let myself think about leaving the House and everyone in it. I wanted to just treasure this day with them.
Since I last wrote the days have been holidays and unusual schedules. Over the three official first days of Eid I stayed at home one day, and then went to the House the next two days to hang out with Razia, Nadia and Shukria as well as the two babies and the reduced staff. (The other children had left to visit their relatives over the holidays.) Those days at the House with our small bunch were filled with eating snacks, lounging around, putting henna designs on our hands, and watching TV.

Razia doing a henna design on Nadia’s hand.

TV was a big part of the days. One day after lunch, (Nadia had made cauliflower and french-fries) we all sat together in the cozy corner room with a small TV where the men sleep. After we gave lots of compliments to Nadia for her cooking, we watched a replay of the late night show from the night before. The show was hosted by a very angular skinny man with a beard, and he had three guests on : a glamorous Afghan woman singer visiting from Germany, a chubby comedian, and a handsome tae kwon do star. The show was very slick, with comedians and a fancy stage set and a small band, and a background scene of the nighttime city lights of Kabul like it was Paris or New York or something.
The last TV shows I saw six years ago were dredged up from the ‘70’s, with rainbow disco lights and men with long sideburns wearing big-lapeled white polyester suits. In contrast, these shows that we watched this week are modern and sophisticated. They have 31 channels, and many of them are actually owned by the various warlords whose names you’ve probably heard of: Dustam, Hekmatyar, etc. Where it gets really weird is that you can watch a slick show like that and then step outside your house and buy bananas off a cart that is being pulled by a donkey. This country is fast becoming a country of contrasts, with so many competing influences. I think even just recently it used to be a lot more homogenous. I wonder what this will mean, if the country becomes fractured along different lines that it already is.
On Monday, the teachers came in for half a day, and since the children had not yet begun to return it was the perfect opportunity to do some intensive work with the teachers before I left. I had written about 20 pages of curriculum plans, ideas and Montessori material usage, so we went through all of that. In particular, I emphasized the Fundamental Human Needs. I felt this was critical b/c Afghanistan has such fundamentalist tendencies that I wanted to offer a new and painless (read: non-threatening) way to suspend their judgment of other cultures and religions . By understanding that all human beings everywhere are all meeting the same basic needs, just in different ways, it is easier to let go of the tendency to claim “we are right.” The teachers were receptive and very very intrigued by this approach, especially Qudsieh, and I think they can really take it and run with it, at great benefit for the students.

I was then extremely excited when suddenly someone appeared with all of my Montessori charts from my training! After 6 years, I had assumed they had been completely destroyed or lost. So their appearance from the basement was a priceless opportunity to show the teachers the charts, now with their enhanced understanding. I couldn’t explain all of these teaching materials in the limited time we had, but I hope they absorbed enough to get some ideas. My time with them this month has been so rich and rewarding, and I am really looking forward to hearing about their progress both in their own classes as well as in their work of sharing Montessori with the city orphanage. My only regret is that I can’t figure out a way to be able to fully dedicate my time to this work here, which is what I really want to do.

Tuesday, today, was when the whole staff came back to work. Everyone was fresh and rested after the holidays. The children trickled in slowly, since school was still on holiday (not officially, but the teachers hadn’t returned) so there were 5 of the boys with us. It was wonderful to hear the voices of the children and to all be together again as a staff. In fact, during lunch a woman named Zalekha, a cook and cleaning woman with us for years, just stopped by to visit. It was great to see her, and again I was so touched to see that she wanted to come back and visit her friends here. She was always extremely shy and quiet, very humble, illiterate, suffering from asthma, and even today all during lunch she barely spoke at all, yet here she was, just glad to be there among us, and we were glad to see her.
We all devoured the eggplant in sourcream sauce and french fries which the cook Rudaba had made, and then we all each had a pomegranate. The whole process of opening the fruit and extracting the tasty pomegranate morsels was a production in itself, as everyone had their own special method. We were all laughing and teasing each other. (Fahim gives some pomegranate to Fatima. Fatima eats some: “Mm, it’s sweet.” Fahim: “I’m sweet!”) and the boys were laughing at us, I’m sure.

Fahim with freshly extracted pomegranate.

After lunch we had a brief staff meeting in which I said my formal thank yous and goodbyes to them for all the extra work they did during my visit, and for all the ways they helped me on this trip. I told them how proud I am of them and their work, and emphasized to them that the House of Flowers is like a mini-Afghanistan, with people from all over Afghanistan together in one place. Through their example of working together, eating together, solving problems together, and being happy together, they are showing these children what is possible – that it is possible to live together peacefully and joyfully. I reminded them that they are a part of an entirely unique undertaking as the only Montessori-based school in the country, and that they have seen how it benefits children. Thus their responsibility also lies beyond their work in the House of Flowers, to share what they have seen, experienced and learned about children with their friends, their neighbors, their families. And so their work is not just for these 33 children, but for all of Afghanistan. The future of the country is uncertain, as always, but as long as these people are there doing this work, I will have hope.Even though I am leaving, our connection here is strong, and the staff will keep us well-informed about things. I will have further updates over coming weeks and will post to this blog. In addition, we’re working on keeping the facebook page updated (yes, I have caved in, but ONLY for the sake of the House of Flowers!! :)  ) and we will also be putting up a newly revamped website hopefully within a couple of weeks. We want the website to contain more than just the House of Flowers information -we want it to be a forum of hope where all of us can engage, contribute and interact, just as we would do if you came to visit the House of Flowers and joined us for tea. So stay tuned and keep in touch! Thank you to all of you for all of your energy and enthusiasm over this month here. It has been a true pleasure being able to share my time here with you.

The Holidays, the Babies, and the Arts in the House of Flowers

It is Thursday morning, and today I have brought my shawl out onto the grass to use as a blanket as I sit in the intense Afghan sun surrounded by a cool light breeze. I am eating an a very crisp red apple; it is locally grown, as opposed to the oranges from Lebanon or the bananas from Iran or the persimmons from Pakistan that I encountered in the fruit market yesterday. This apple is so sweet and sharp that it satisfies my craving for apples that always comes in October.

Afghan apples

Today is “arafat” day, the day before the Eid holiday begins. I don’t know anything about the holiday today, but I assume it has something to do with Mount Arafat. Anyway, what it means is that it’s the start of the holiday, so there’s no work, no office, and also that makes transportation very challenging, so I won’t be going to the House of Flowers today.

The approach of the Eid holiday felt just like holidays anywhere in the world: busy crowds of people buying cakes and cookies and fruit for celebrations with their families. People making arrangements for transportation to distant provinces to visit relatives. Stores are stocked with boxes and boxes of holiday cookies. I wanted to buy some to take back to my room, but they only came in 3 kg boxes and I just didn’t need 7 pounds of cookies. The teacher Qudsieh took Razia, Nadia, Shukria and Maryam shopping yesterday, and bought them and the littler girls bracelets, rings, hairclips and henna to make themselves all fancy for the holiday. They were so excited, and the little girls ran around the House jingling their new bangle bracelets.

The other sign of Eid has been the sudden appearance of small herds of sheep in the streets of Kabul. They are big sheep, with dark and scruffy wool and a big fat tail, and they often have red colored powder on their backs, I don’t know why. These small herds are here to be sold for the Eid sacrifice. This morning I saw two sheep being transported in the back of a station wagon, and right now I hear bleating somewhere nearby. Many families will buy a sheep and have it butchered for the holiday. It sounds a bit harsh, but really it’s not any different than everyone suddenly buying a turkey at Thanksgiving. The only difference is that we don’t see the turkey alive, in the back of a stationwagon, on its way to the butcher.

Eid can be very expensive for families, as a result, and someone told me the other day that if anyone has any money saved up, they spend it all at Eid! Offices and work projects grind to a protracted halt during this time as well, and this proves very irritating to Western project managers who see it as a lost week of productivity. But personally and secretly, I admire a society that places such a high priority on celebration and commemoration and time with family, and doesn’t let itself get so caught up in efficiency and production that they lose their sense of celebration. And also, to be honest, anytime that Afghans can celebrate, be joyful, and take a break is a time to honor, in my opinion.

The last few days at the House have been extremely busy. On Sunday and Monday we held Part 2 of the Montessori training for the Alluaddin Orphanage staff. The topic was the essential Montessori principles, such as freedom, responsibility, grace and courtesy, etc. The head of the orphanage came on the first day, which at first seemed great, but it turned out she was really not very receptive and instead preferred to list all the problems at Alluaddin. So we learned that she is not the one to turn our attention to. Instead, we focused on the teachers, and they were very engaged. Lots of lightbulbs went off during the training, as they seemed to begin to understand why, for example, if a child is concentrating we don’t interrupt him/her, and why it’s so important to give some freedom to allow for the strengthening of the child’s will, and why unnecessary help can be so detrimental. They observed Fatima’s and Qudsieh’s classes and the children were doing such nice work and the atmosphere was so pleasant that the adults actually didn’t even want to leave the class to come back to the office to finish the training! In the post-observation discussion we also watched videos again from The Montessori School, which gave them another view of the environment and the children at work. The participants were very eager and curious about how to do it, and I began to get a bit worried that they would go back and try to instantly change everything for their students, so I really had to emphasize that  students who are not used to freedom cannot just instantly be ‘set free’. I knew that if these teachers made sudden and overnight changes, it would be a disaster and they would assume it was a failure. So we talked a lot about the need to take it slowly and awarefully, and the HoF teachers will help them with that process in future weeks.

Besides the training, much was happening in the House itself as well. A few children had gotten sick – an ear infection, a headache, getting hit on the head by a rock while walking to school, a sprained foot – so Fahim and the staff were busy taking kids to various doctors. The staff is very proficient at this, b/c with over 30 children there’s always something. At the same time, they are quite skilled themselves, having received a lot of first aid training from Mostafa in years past. So they take really good care of the children, and have a number of good connections with various doctors at various clinics in the city.

I also wanted to share more with you about  the new nursery at the House. I think I’ve mentioned Ehsan. He is the baby who was there when I arrived and was 2 weeks old at the time, so he’s now almost a month old. He was underweight, his little face gaunt, his dark eyes too big for his head, and his legs and arms too skinny, but

Ehsan while visiting the classroom. Age: about 1 month

he is slowly gaining some weight and strength. He’s more lively, and the children really love him. He had no name when he came, so the children of the House named him Ehsan, which means ‘honesty’ or ‘integrity.’ It’s an important choice, considering that his parentage is not intact and he is considered ‘illegitimate’.So another big event this week was the intake of another infant. This baby girl, named Hagar, (for the wife of Abraham and mother of either Ishmael or Isaac, I can’t remember)  came to the House on Tuesday. She had just been born on Friday. Her mother hid the pregnancy and still cannot decide whether to keep the baby or not, so she hasn’t yet approved adoption. That’s why Hagar was brought to the House of Flowers by the agency that was taking care of the mother, because there is literally nowhere for abandoned babies to go. The good news is that the agency had really watched the mother’s prenatal care and fed her well, so the baby is incredibly

Hagar on her first day at the House of Flowers. Age: 5 days

healthy and is big and chubby, with shiny pink cheeks and thick dark hair. She is peaceful and sweet and is already looking around, much more alert than Ehsan was. It makes it so glaringly obvious how important pre-natal healthcare is.

Having two babies in the House requires adjustments with schedules and staffing, and the babies’ presence in the classroom has to be carefully worked out so as not to disturb the children when they are studying or work, since they are immediately and irresistibly drawn to the tiny infants. But at the same time, there is so much love to go around that the family-ness of the House has become even stronger.  I did think it was funny the other day when little Ehsan was getting a bath and 15 year old Waheed came into the room – Ehsan’s caregiver got very flustered and covered Ehsan up, trying to shoo Waheed out of the room, apparently out of modesty!

Yesterday, the day before the holiday began, there was no school and everything was relaxed at the House. When I arrived, the older children were sitting on the floor doing miniatures. This is a classic art style here and in Iran, and the children learned it years ago from an artist named Gul Rahman whom Mostafa had arranged to come

Razia and Nadia collaborating on a miniature that was hand-drawn by Razia.

to the House to give art lessons in miniatures, drawing, and calligraphy. So yesterday, when I saw the skill that the children had attained in making hand-drawn miniatures, and as I sat with them (they taught me too) and felt the peacefulness that came with the designing and coloring, I realized that the art component has been a hugely integral piece of the picture of the House of Flowers.

Maryam finishing up her miniature.

Students no longer learn these things in school, so all the art that the children have ever done has only been within the House of Flowers. From a small age they have always been drawing pictures; many of them are extremely skilled at drawing, and they transfer their skill to drawing things like bones of the body, or types of flowers, etc. So, I am very grateful for that time they had with Gul Rahman. I would like to find out if he is still in the area to see if he might be available to come back and continue some advanced art lessons with the older ones, and give beginner lessons to the younger ones. I had not truly realized what an important role the arts have played in the children’s development, but now that I see it, I feel a deep obligation to make sure it continues and is strengthened.

Field Trip!

So, Saturday was the big day! The trip to the Kabul Museum.

On the bus.

The car from the PARSA office where I am staying took me to an intersection to wait for the bus coming from the House, and once it arrived I clambered up into the front seat and turned around to see 31 scrubbed and excited faces, little ones sitting on the laps of the older ones, everyone chattering and cheerful. Somehow that bus of 31 kids was not as loud as was a bus of just 15 of my students last year!

The drive to the museum was far, about half an hour, but I enjoyed it because it went through an old neighborhood where I used to work, where I did some teacher trainings with the Ministry of Education and near where Mostafa and I used to live in an area called Karte Se. It was a very busy area this time, full of fruit vendors with gorgeous mounds of apples, pomegranates, grapes and carrots. There were bakeries with windows full of cookies, and hardware stores selling rope and wire and tools, and a man with a cart selling gigantic fluffy pink, white, and blue teddy bears.I wish I had gotten to see one of those stern turbaned Afghan men buying a giant pink teddy bear for his daughter.The streets were full of people out shopping and working, walking and selling. I found it very appealing and lively.

Eventually we turned onto Daraluman Road, a very long, straight and famous road that used to be lined with beautiful trees before the wars. It veers off into the distant hills if you keep going, but before then,  the road heads straight to Daraluman Palace. This massive place on a slight hill at the end of the road was the home of  King Amanullah about 60-70 years ago. He was known as the modernizer of Afghanistan. His palace was obviously quite glorious and impressive. Even today, with half the roof missing and the bare scaffolding visible on the turrets it is solemn and imposing. It is hard to take your eyes off of it as you approach; it overwhelms the area, which I suppose is the point of a palace. We came very near to it, because the Museum was directly across the street. It has been beautifully restored after the destruction of the wars, and now it’s a clean, neat, light blue stucco building with white trim surrounded by bed after bed of roses.

The bus pulled up in front of the Museum, and Fahim went inside to check on everything first. Once he returned, the kids piled out. They had instructions to pair up, one older with one younger, and they all walked in hand in hand. There were 6 of us adults: Fahim, Nik Mohammad, Amjed, the two teachers, and me.

The group got in for free, but I had to pay 100 Afs as a foreigner, and 200 Afs for camera privileges, which was fine since all museums always need money. By the time I had my tickets and caught up with them, their tour had already begun. They had a woman guiding them, which was a surprise to me, that there was a guide. I was very happy that there was someone to explain details and point out things about the artifacts. The older children had brought notebooks and they immediately began taking notes and drawing pictures.

The museum was very well done, things were nicely displayed and most things had signage and explanations. I think what I enjoyed most was seeing the kids really learn about other aspects of Afghan heritage. They were fascinated with the old clothing, and some very unique wooden sculptures from Nuristan that looked like cartoon characters. The boys were of course drawn to the guns (and that is NOT just an Afghan thing. I had the same experience with boys in Connecticut at a museum).  I was also very interested to see how they reacted to the Buddhism in Afghanistan exhibit, which was a special exhibit on display and was very timely since Mostafa had just finished his book on this subject. The exhibit was very very well done, of Western standards, with excellent lighting, colored backings, really beautifully displayed statues of Buddhas and decoration from Buddhist structures from the 2-4th centuries.  The guide also did a terrific job of telling about Buddha and Buddhism, about the principles of the religion such as the 8-fold path, and about Buddhist practices like stupas and circumambulation, and didn’t make comparisons to Islam. She spoke very respectfully and openly, and that was a very good sign. It was so important for the children to become aware of this aspect of the past, that Afghanistan was not always Islamic, and that these things come and go. I felt that the children spent more time looking quite closely at the statues and carvings than they did in other areas, perhaps because it was displayed better. I circulated and chatted with them about what they were looking at, what they saw, if they had read the signs. It was good too that they were freer in that section to walk around on their own and look. They were impressed by the age, by how old these artifacts were. I imagine also that because they weren’t Islamic artifacts, they seemed much more exotic.

After an hour or so the little children were getting tired, and we were carrying some of them as we made our way slowly back outside.

Everyone in the front hall of the Museum.

But first we took a bunch of group pictures in front of a GIANT black marble bowl that represented the melding of Buddhism and Islam. The bottom of the bowl was decorated with a lotus flower design, while the top part was inscribed with lines from the Koran. I liked the symbolism of taking group pictures there in the Museum, in that place of a crossroads between the past and the future.On the drive back to the House the kids began asking for ice cream, and Fahim, being a softie, started looking for a place that sold it. We pulled over at a fruit shop that had a soft serve machine, and the HoF men and the two older boys, Waheed and Basir, got out to make arrangements. They brought delicious-looking cups of soft-serve to the windows of the bus, just two at a time, since the shopowner’s  machine didn’t work very well. Gradually almost everyone had their ice cream, and Fahim was making one last headcount of how many were left. They needed 4 more. He went back out, they brought two, then one, only one more needed – and then at that very moment the electricity went out! So the machine stopped working, and poor Basir didn’t get his ice cream. Waheed offered him his, but of course Basir said no; he’s a gentle and easygoing guy.

We got back in time for a late lunch and playing in the yard afterwards. It was an extra nice day also because they were all together. With the split school schedule, it is rare that the entire group is together at the same time. That made it special, and we took a lot of whole group pictures. It’s also a special time because of the upcoming holiday and everyone’s getting excited, and plus the weather has been changing, getting much colder, and snow is more frequently seen on the mountaintops. I heard that snow is predicted for Wednesday! I am not quite prepared for that, but I will still love it if it comes, and the kids will certainly love it too.

A Cold Friday

It’s Friday evening here, and I have spent the whole day at the PARSA office, working on redoing the MEPO website. SOON, it will be up, this week for sure. It’s been fun to do it with new pictures and new information, etc, but I have missed spending a relaxed Friday at the House with the kids.

The downstairs classroom at work.

The older children have also been producing some beautiful work. Ramin made a large map of Africa gluing down lentils as the country borders, rice to fill in the countries, and labeling the country names using a thin stream of henna (brown dye). The older girls made models of things they were studying: the Eiffel Tower, a home in Peru, and kaaba in Mecca. It’s the kind of work that could be found in any Montessori classroom.

Today it feels like fall; the sky is a deep gray, it’s cold and the air smells like dusty fallen leaves. It rained a chilling rain. Despite the weather, there was the delicious Friday brunch held at PARSA which attracts local expats, and it was quite strange to be around so many of them suddenly. I did happen to meet the very kind people, David and Ronnie, who had given part-time jobs at their microfinance project office to Waheed and Basir, the older boys at the House of Flowers. What was so neat was how the man David described Waheed. He said, “You know, he comes and greets me more maturely than many who are years older than him. He just has this confidence about him. He seems so comfortable with himself, and even with me.” Waheed has been with the House since he was 6 or 7, and now he’s 15, so to hear such praise was a wonderful affirmation of how he had grown up. Here is that beautiful picture of him with Shekib that I mentioned earlier:

Waheed and Shekib.

Tomorrow we will be going to the Kabul Museum – everyone! I had suggested that maybe just the older ones could go and the younger ones to the zoo on another day. But the little ones were so disappointed, even 4 year old Ramin, that the staff couldn’t bear it and Fahim said we should take everyone along! So, tomorrow 33 children from age 4 to 18, and 5 adults, will pile into some sort of vehicle and go learn about the history of Afghanistan at the famous Kabul Museum! I think it’s also terrific that it’s free for the kids, if we bring an official organization letter. (They have a nice website if you’re interested: http://www.nationalmuseum.af/)

Next week is a big holiday, it’s Eid-e-Ghorban. I think that’s the one commemorating Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac until God stops him. It will be 3-5 days of holiday, but no one is yet sure when it starts, b/c they have to wait for the official religious word on the timing. Anyway, it means our second week of Montessori training will be a bit discombobulated, but we will do our best. I leave just a few days after that, so the third week of training is quite uncertain. But Fahim, Fatima and Qudsieh are completely committed to carrying it through, and I know they will.  Now that I have figured out how to upload pictures, here is one of Fahim giving a lecture on the Montessori planes of development. If you look closely at the board you can see where he’s written 0-6, 6-12, and 12-18.

Fahim explaining the planes of development to another orphanage staff.

I don’t want to think about leaving Afghanistan though. The thought leaves me cold. Right now I have trouble imagining being anywhere else.

Important Update About Donations, and the HoF Teachers Share Montessori

This is a really important posting today. I have some critical information to share with you, especially since I have been unable to update the MEPO / House of Flowers website from here. I have sent an email out regarding this, but the posting is for those not on our email list who might be following the blog. And if you have not yet seen the House of Flowers/MEPO website, please take a look; just remember that the information/address about how to help is not accurate, and is instead updated below. (The budget information is still mostly accurate though, so you can read about the expenses, etc.) The link is: www.mepoonline.org You can read about the history of the House and our Montessori work, as well as see pictures from the past 10 years. There is also information at Jules Laymans’ website www.montessoriaroundtheworld.org

As an update, in April, when the organization PARSA assumed the House from MEPO, we asked our donors who wanted to keep supporting the House to send their donations to Seattle, to PARSA via another organization.

But now that avenue is no longer an option. Donations should no longer go to Seattle.

So please, if you or anyone you know would like to help the House (and I hope you will),  donations need to be sent to MEPO’s ‘headquarters’ in Ohio. This is very important. I HOPE we can get the website updated soon with more information, but in the meantime if you have any questions, please feel free to email me or MEPO (mepo.hope@gmail.com).

The address to send donations to (and checks should be made out to ‘MEPO’):

MEPO (c/o The Schardts)

8641 Porter Central Rd.

Sunbury, OH 43074

We need everyone’s help in this; I feel it as an obligation for all of us to support the lives of these children and the work of this indomitable staff. They have cut the budget to the barest minimum; I honestly don’t know how they do it. So we are dedicated to fully supporting them. I will be sharing more about this and also through email. But the main point is to send donations directly to MEPO in Ohio. We will then work directly with HEWAD, our Afghan partner organization of many years.

Mostafa and I will send out an email soon with more details and information, but in the meantime, the work continues here in Kabul. Today is Tuesday, and things are going very well. This week we set up a concise program to share the House of Flowers model and the Montessori approach behind it with some of the staff from the city orphanage, called Alluaddin. This is like a dream come true for me, to be able to instill a bit of Montessori into this institution where the children (and adults) need it desperately. Of course it will never be a perfect, ideal Montessori environment with all the materials and fully trained teachers, but the principles of Montessori can make an enormous difference in the lives and development of children, as we have seen at the House of Flowers.

So I have organized one lesson on Montessori’s developmental model, describing the planes of development, and one lesson on the essential principles of the Montessori approach and environment. I have now given this mini-training a couple times here and it has blown people away. I can’t keep up with requests; people are so hungry to do things differently here. They know that the way it’s going is not working.

This week the teachers at the House are doing this sharing of these principles for the Alluaddin staff, and also we are structuring time for those people to spend time observing at the House of Flowers, since observation is such a critical part of Montessori, and you really have to experience it. It’s been fantastic. Our staff is so eager to share what they know, they’re doing a beautiful job of it, and it makes things so much better when it’s not me doing the telling. The ‘trainees’ are amazed at what they see when they observe our children sitting in groups, working on their own in a calm and quiet way, using materials and not just copying from a chalkboard, helping each other. It’s quite revolutionary here. The whole thing will be a long and gentle process, as any process of change is, but it is so energizing and wonderful. The teachers of the House of Flowers are bubbling over with enthusiasm. Fahim, Fatima and Qudsieh, and Dr. Inayatullah, are thoroughly enjoying it, and I’m sure they are also deepening their own understanding as a result. On the first scheduled day of training, they arrived at the House over an hour early! Their dedication inspires me.  As we debriefed from the day’s training, Fahim said he really wished he could get full training in Montessori. What an incredible thought, to have the first fully trained and certified Montessori teacher in all of Afghanistan! Maybe a sponsor will emerge who would be willing to offer that opportunity to Fahim, and/or the other teachers.

Today I showed he and the teachers some pictures and videos of primary and elementary Montessori classrooms at The Montessori School in Connecticut where I was for the last 4 years. They were absolutely stunned – and then completely inspired. So tomorrow will be a big day of reorganizing and improving their Montessori practices.  We went shopping to get more containers, etc, to organize things in the classroom. That was neat – you’ll never guess what store we went to. It’s called “99 Afghanis”. ‘Afghanis’, or Afs, are the name of the currency here, and it’s about 50 Afs to the US dollar. So the “99 Afs” store is the Afghan version of The Dollar Store! (Across the street was the competition: the 95 Afs store.) They had all the same kind of stuff as The Dollar Store has in the US, and we got sand hourglasses, little buckets, trays, mini-cleaning kits, all kinds of things. The store had a fancy check-out with the scanner and everything. They had a bin where after you buy something you get a ticket to fill out and put in a raffle bin, and they will give away a washing machine. (We’re hoping Fahim wins.)  When the cashier looked up and saw me beside Fatima and Fahim, he gave me a warm, broad smile and said, “Good afternoon, welcome!! How are you?” The other good thing about the 99Afs store is that the prices are fixed. Otherwise, as soon as shopkeepers see me, they increase their prices. Kind of annoying, so I usually don’t go shopping with anyone.

When we returned to the House, the older girls were making a paper version of little Ramin. They had traced his body on a large piece of paper (he’s 4) and were cutting it out when we got back. I have no idea what they’ll do with it; I’ll find out tomorrow. Last night the girls made cardboard, painted models of the Eiffel Tower, Kaaba and an African hut as a follow-up to their continent studies. While we were out shopping they made presentations to the audience of younger children.  The younger ones went back to playing with their plastic animals, and Sahar said her rhinoceros was clapping.

In-Between Times at the House, HEWAD, and Hope

I spent the last two nights at the House of Flowers with the children. It is always a treat to stay there, because to be a part of those boundaries and transitions between day and night is very special. Guests never get to see that part, where the little ones are hunting for their toothbrushes before bed, and you can hear the older ones staying up and chatting with each other across the beds while the smaller children fall asleep fast. I love going into their bedrooms and seeing them so peacefully sleeping.

I stayed in a bedroom that is up on the third floor, on the roof of the House. In the morning I opened my door and I could hear everything happening at the start of the day. I love listening to the voices from downstairs, a nonstop lively bubbly sound. What’s so nice is that all the voices are cheerful, chatty, conversational, laughing. Someone calls someone else to help. Someone laughs. Someone else is singing a little song. The spontaneous singing of a child is a very sweet sound, and I am so glad to hear it because it is a sign of feeling relaxed and happy.

The house staff has the whole morning routine down to a science. And it’s not easy with 2 shifts of school for both boys and girls (all schools run a 3-hour morning and afternon shift b/c of the shortage of schools and teachers), requiring different mealtimes and escorts to and from school. But the staff makes it look easy:

5:30 – older girls get up for prayers and get ready for school. Boys have prayers too, but maybe they go back to bed.

6:00 – older girls and smallest children have breakfast

6:30 – older girls and smallest children walk to school,escorted by Amjed

7:30 – older boys and middle girls get up and start their day, breakfast, getting dressed, etc.

8:00 – teachers arrive and begin working with older boys and middle girls

11:00 – boys get dressed for school and have lunch

11:30 – boys leave for school, escorted by Amjed

12:00 – older girls and smallest children return from school with Amjed

12:30 – older girls and smallest children have lunch

1:30 – 3:30 – older girls and smallest children work with teachers 4:00 – boys and middle girls return from school with Amjed

7:00 – everyone has dinner

8:30 – everyone goes to bed

So you can imagine that the House is quite a buzz of activity. Somehow it all works: everyone always gets fed well and on time, their clothes are clean, they are bathed and groomed, they do their homework and they play. And they sing in the morning! For 35 children, this is not trivial, especially in a place like Afghanistan. The children have to be pretty independent; there is not always an adult telling them what to do. The children remind each other to brush their teeth, or wash their hands, etc. But the adults are always nearby if they are needed, to arbitrate a dispute, or to tell a little one that his shirt is dirty and he should change it or that they need to go clean their nose. These children are certainly not spoiled. But they are fully loved and safe and taken care of.

One fun thing from my two days there was that I taught the older girls yoga early on Friday morning. Right on time at 7:30 there was a knock at my door and Maryam arrived, then Razia, Shukria, Nadia and Firouzeh. They were giggly and eager. I told them a very little bit about yoga, that it’s thousands of years old from India and that ‘yoga’ means to connect the body, mind and heart, and that breathing is very important. So first we practiced breathing deeply and slowly a few times. Then we all took off our scarves and began some asanas. They quickly got into it and discovered its challenges. It was quite beautiful to see them in the graceful poses. We did about 20 minutes or so, and then we ended with shavasana, lying on the floor and completely relaxing. I did a little guided relaxation with them as they lay there, to relax their whole body. I could see them relax, their feet flopped to the side and their breathing deepened. It’s a magical experience, and sure enough when I had them sit up slowly, their eyes were wide with a look that said,’ What was that, where was I?’ I have found that kids love the shavasana part best of all and they always request it.

Amanullah Nasrat, the head of HEWAD, has been here a few days to work out management details. He and Mostafa worked together way back in the days of the Taliban, in 2000 and 2001. HEWAD is his organization that has been our partner, running the House of Flowers so well for these 10 years. He has been an impressively trustworthy, dedicated partner and participant with the House of Flowers, often making heavy personal sacrifices to make sure the House would survive, as well as finding the fantastic staff that have made it work. He and Mostafa have been great partners over the years. I had not seen him for 6 years, so we had a nice time catching up. I told him I was very curious about Shahr-e-Nau, the part of town where Mostafa and I used to circulate. He offered to take me, along with Dr. Inayat, so one afternoon we drove there, just a few minutes away from the House of Flowers. I got to see many of the places where Mostafa and I used to go: the Herat Restaurant, the Assad Bakery which had delicious cookies, the park, the nearby mosque with beatiful blue tile mosaic. The little restaurant where we used to go for ice cream had been replaced by a fancy shop with more mirrored windows, and the streets were more crowded and blocked off. Nasrat and I walked down Flower Street, the famous street for handicrafts and rugs, where all the foreigners used to buy things. As we walked and shopped, I slowly realized that there was not a single foreigner in sight. It used to be that there were always foreigners shopping down there. But it seems it was only me! I wasn’t a bit bothered by it; it was just something interesting. Nasrat said theforeigners are all scared, but I didn’t have a single bad experience or feeling there, and in fact people on the street were more polite than they are in places like Nepal or India where people stare or have less of a sense of respect for privacy.

And so, Kabul continues to work its charms. I feel like I have gone back in time, like I am in a different age, despite the fancy buildings and cell phones. Here there are still carts pulled by horses or donkeys – or by men, their hands wrapped in cloth to protect against the chafing of the wooden handles of carts piled high with bags of rice or cans of oil. Other, luckier, men stand by carts laden with bananas or giant pomegranates. And then there are the men who walk with long strides, their heads wrapped in enormous, spotless white turbans with a length of cloth hanging down loose over the shoulder. Often, the streets become filled with girls in their black uniforms and white scarves; they pour out of school and overflow onto the streets since the sidewalk can’t hold them all. There are men waiting for them outside of the schools – not to do them any harm, but to sell them candy and ice cream and other small treats that kids love. The girls cluster around them to buy a snack for the walk home. The girls love their local school. Razia said it was recently painted pink with brown trim, she has 41 girls in her class, she was on the basketball team (!), and they have a computer lab. And that’s a government school! Certainly there are still schools that are in terrible shape, still meeting in tents donated by UNICEF, or sitting on the ground as our kids used to do, taking a small mat from home to sit on. But her school is really a sign of progress.

As Dr. Inayat (from HEWAD) says, it’s not that nothing has changed here, it’s that there was so much to be done that it will take a very long time to strengthen the new things like the government and education system. He is very hopeful about the future, and it’s so refreshing to hear such talk. I will keep adding pictures to the Dropbox link (from the last posting), so keep checking in on that if you want to see some new ones. Tomorrow we begin our first training of staff at the city orphanage. Next posting, I’ll let you know how it goes. It’s a really big step here, wish us luck!

Kabul, Fruit, Transformations, Address of the House of Flowers, and a Link to Pictures

Greetings from dusty Kabul! The sun is almost setting, and because of the dust, the sunsets are always pretty, a soft pink rising over the hazy brown hills.

This is another long posting – however, at the end is a link to some pictures! But before then,  I would like to share with you a bit about life in Kabul. And notice I am saying Kabul, not Afghanistan, b/c I can’t speak for the rest of the country. But I would like to try to give you a feel for being here, and to give your mind something else to imagine besides just the negatives that you see or hear on the news. I was told that the news outlets are actually uninterested in broadcasting stories of positivity, of hope, of progress, so please know that to a large degree, what you are being told about Afghanistan is being manipulated. Why that may be is another conversation, but I think we probably know.

But to counter that:

  • In the time I have been here (almost a week), I have seen only about 10 women wearing burkas. And that is not b/c women aren’t out. I have seen plenty of women out and about, even by themselves. This is dramatically less than before.
  • Private schools are everywhere; there is a tangible intensity to catch up in education. It seems everyone is taking a course in something: English, computers, psychosocial training, gem-cutting, etc. They’re working on improving the quality.
  • I saw a nicely dressed young woman walking with her husband in town;. He was carrying their small son and they were laughing together.
  • A billboard is dedicated to: “To the rebuilding spirit of Afghans!”
  • Grapes are in season, the most delicious grapes in the world. I saw them being sold in bags that I would have to use both arms to hold.  7 kg (15 pounds) of grapes in a bag, which costs $2!
  • I also saw a station wagon filled to the ceiling and on the roof with bags of bright yellow apples. Fruit season is upon us! The pomegranates are as big as softballs.Tomorrow Fahim is getting melon, b/c he remembered how much we enjoy it.
  • There have been no bombs or street demonstrations.
  • Rows and rows of apartment buildings are newly built all over the place, so that finally there seems to be more housing for people.
  • I went shopping at a store called Finest and bought some instant coffee, crackers, a candy bar and some cherry juice.
  • People are busy, out on the streets working: selling fruit from carts, fixing cars, making bread, directing traffic, walking to school with their friends, driving a taxi. Life is vibrant and energetic.
  • There is 24 hour electricity!
  • The major roads are 4 lanes wide, and smooth asphalt. Side roads are being worked on. Traffic moves fairly smoothly, much better than before. The traffic police still direct the traffic using little red and white ping-pong-type paddles that say STOP on them. This morning, a policeman waved at the driver of my car and motioned as if to have some tea with him, and then he called out a cheery, “Good morning, madam!” to me.

So you can see that life goes on. Not to say that it’s Switzerland, but it’s more normal than most people realize.

Over the past few days, I have been spending as much time as possible at the House, working more closely with the teachers. Yesterday before I left, Fatima was working with some students on the Long Bead Frame [a Montessori material] and they were adding their double digit numbers, writing their answers with color-coding, and it was just fantastic to see the materials being used well. Fatima has gained so much experience; she was really doing a terrific job of guiding. I have also observed the older kids’ classes. They are quite impressive in their knowledge, and  also in their composure and studiousness. It’s a very appealing environment of focus and effort. They presented some mini-researches they had done, on topics ranging from frogs, to the intestines, to electromagnets (Shahin Shah is quite the tinkerer and builds things out of scrap pieces of electronic stuff.) The teachers are interested in more resources for the older children, so if any of you know of any ideas of good simple websiteswith classroom activities especially in science and math, please let me know. Also, I have learned that the post office is functional! Someone actually sent a telecope and it arrived intact! (I hope the moon is full this weekend when I will try to show them how to use it to look at the moon.)

So if anyone has anything they would like to send via registered mail, here is the address:

HEWAD/House of Flowers

House No. 118    1st Street (left side)

Parozhaee Taymany

Kabul 0093

AFGHANISTAN 1628

I conducted a brief session with the whole staff, guards and everyone, reviewing the planes of development and the model that Maria Montessori developed (or introducing it to the new staff) so that everyone was on the same page philosophically and the House would have a coherent approach.  It was a fantastic session, b/c everyone was able to immediately relate, and told instances where they had observed the children exhibiting the particular behavior that we were discussing, such as little Ramin’s repetitive stacking of objects, or 4 year old Maryam’s attention to small details, or 2 year old Shekib’s  desire to sweep and help clean, or 15 year old Waheed’s effort to work and make his own money. It really helped the staff coalesce around why we do what we do, and why it has resulted in balanced children. I was very happy with the session and the staff’s  reaction and engagement. They really get it.

It has been fascinating to hear from them the stories of transformation, and not just of the children. Fatima and Fahim and Qudsieh told me that Amjed, the new guard, caused some problems when he first came to work there. First, he had never worked with women before, so he would not even greet Fatima and Qudsieh and the other women. Second, he would fight with the older boys, and wouldn’t have anything to do with the small children. But the staff were patient with him. The women began to tease him, saying things like, “Oh, I wonder why Amjed says salaam to Fahim and not to me?” and Fahim worked with him on how to deal with the children peacefully and gently. On hearing this about Amjed’s history,I was really shocked, b/c what I had seen of Amjed was someone who would come and hang out with the children in their free time, playing with them, talking to them, and they obviously trust and like him. So apparently the House of Flowers is transformative not just for the children, but for adults too.

In contrast, I was asked to visit another city orphanage by the director of orphanages, the one who wants to expand the model of the House of Flowers. It is a giant orphanage for boys, yet somehow it felt small and closed and dark. I observed a couple of classes of the older boys where they have an on-site school, and it was terrible. Twelfth grade boys were sitting at benches appearing impassive, yet with a scarcely contained sense of tension, while the teacher sat or stood off to the side and read to them from the textbook. I saw three classes, and this was happening in each one. The director didn’t show up despite our appointment so I didn’t have a chance to talk to him about it, but he certainly knows, and that’s why he wants to change it. The good thing about the trip there was that on the way we stopped on the side of the road and I bought one of those giant, 15 pound bags of grapes. I took them back to the House and we had them for a snack.  That whole bag was just enough for all 32 kids and the staff. The grapes were tiny, the size of marbles, but almost painfully sweet, tender and crisp. There is nothing like them in the world.

Razia brought home a form to register to take her college entrance exam! I can’t believe she’s going to college. She showed it to Fahim, and as he looked at it and explained how to fill out some parts, he nodded and said, “We’ll work on it tonite, after dinner when things have settled down.” It sounded just like something a father would say.

I have been trying to upload pictures to this blog for you, but it’s not working. So instead, if you go to this Dropbox link, you should be able to see a few.  There is one picture in particular I hope you notice. It is a boy in a green T-shirt sitting by a very small boy. You can’t miss it.  It is a picture of Shekib, age 1 1/2, and Waheed, who is 15 but in 12th grade b/c of skipping two grades. Waheed also takes computer courses and has a part-time job where they have already promised him a job once he graduates. I remember doing math with him using dried beans to count and add. When he joined the House he was about 7 or 8, and very rough, aggressive. Now you can see what kind of a person he has grown up to be.https://www.dropbox.com/sh/bvmw5cc616wr2ku/yAcEzZXcCl

Over the next couple of days at the House. I will be working on more advanced Montessori topics with the teachers. On Friday (the day off) I will be with the children and we will have time to look at pictures on the computer, talk, maybe watch a movie, and play, etc. And we’re organizing a trip to the Kabul Museum on Saturday for the older children. Later we’ll organize a trip to the zoo for the younger ones. There’s so much to do, I wish I had more time.