For the next month, I will be using this blog to share my trip to Afghanistan with you. Over the past 10 years since Mostafa and I started the House of Flowers, the children have established an extended family all over the world, and we know that literally dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people have been invested in one way or another in their well-being.
It’s been 6 years since I was last in Afghanistan. Now I am sitting in a coffee shop in Delhi, relaxing. I dropped off my visa application at the Afghan Embassy yesterday, begging them to have it ready by Thursday morning, since I already have my ticket to fly to Kabul on Thursday afternoon. Please… And finally the young Afghan receptionist returned with a triumphant smile: “You come back at 10 on Thursday!” Whew. Now I can enjoy a few days in Delhi. Yesterday was Gandhi’s birthday celebration in India; I take it as a good omen.
It’s a good time to reflect and remember…
It was exactly 10 years and a couple months ago that I first landed in Afghanistan. In August 2002, the country was reviving itself after the American bombardments/Northern Alliance/Taliban/Civil War/Russians (30 years of strife, in reverse chronological order). The UN was swooping in and I became part of it, joining UNICEF to work in the Ministry of Education. I arrived in Kabul that August and can remember the airport scene vividly: we walked across the tarmac and entered a very dilapidated building, were crammed into a dingy white room with ropes designating two lanes for us to stand in. Soldiers in lumpy green wool uniforms seemed as confused as we were as they tried to help organize the lines to passport control. The room was tiny, and I remember being grateful for the dirty windows that gave the illusion of more space while also allowing us to look out at the stark, beautiful scenery. Slowly we squeezed through the two lines to reach the weary officials who were sitting in glassed-in booths, taking the passports we slid to them under a thin opening in the glass. I don’t think they were even using computers at that point to record the entries. The overall impression was one of exhaustion and severe deprivation, a place so preoccupied with survival that the trappings of bureaucracy had not had a chance to flourish.
Over the next four years that we came and went, the airport was progressively and gradually upgraded, so I am very intrigued to see how it is now. Those first moments of landing and then entering the airport of a country tell a story, with sensory impressions and feelings with the realization that this is the Gateway, the entrypoint for all who have come to this particular place each with their unique stories and motivations. And the feeling of coming to Afghanistan is the most powerful of all the places I have landed in. I can already feel it, even just sitting here and imagining it. The tingle in my gut that happens when I get out of the plane in Kabul and look over to see the rocky slopes in the near distance. My breath comes shallow and fast and I feel light and eager. I can’t explain this feeling, and it may seem counterintuitive to have such a sense of eagerness when arriving in a place with such pain and struggle. All I can say is that there is something very potent underneath (or beyond) the temporary suffering (and it is temporary, no matter how it may seem). I have tried to articulate the feeling, to explain to people what it is that draws me to Afghanistan, but I am still unable to.
So even if I were just going to fly to Kabul, land, and then take off again I would probably be excited. But to know that after 6 years I am going to see the children of the House of Flowers and the wonderfully dedicated staff there makes it a very special trip. Razia, the oldest girl in the House, was about 12 when I left. Now she’s 18! Little Shukria, with her sharp mind and strong personality, was about 6. Now she’s 12, and in the photos I barely recognize her. I’ve talked to the kids on the phone over the years, but the last time I talked with Waheed, who was about 8 when I helped him with his math years ago, his deep voice shocked me. And there will be many new children whom I have never met. I did just get an email that Razia, Nadia, Maryam and Waheed will be meeting me at the airport tomorrow! What a great welcoming committee.
On this trip, besides visiting the House and working with the teachers there to refresh the program and review the Montessori principles at work. I will also begin the first round of trainings intended to expand the House of Flowers model to other orphanages and centers that are run by the government and PARSA and other NGOs. I will hopefully be meeting with Mr. Hashemi, the head of the orphanages in Afghanistan, who was so interested in what he saw when he first visited the House of Flowers, and I hope to hear from him that they are really serious about adopting the Montessori-based approach in their centers as well. There is much potential and much interest in what we have done and the results that have been seen in the children who have essentially grown up in the House of Flowers.