Reunions, and Teachers Day

I’ve been here in Kabul for 2 days now, having arrived on Thursday night, and now it’s Saturday evening. This is my first access to internet since then, and so I have to start this by thanking all of you who wrote a response to my first posting. Your strong encouragement and support were tangible and very meaningful to me. Thank you so much. I will warn you, this is a long posting, because the past 2 days have felt like 2 months and there’s so much to tell.

So, here I am in Afghanistan! I wish I could adequately communicate what it has felt like to be here even in just these 2 days. Arriving at the airport and seeing those hills was as I expected it to be, breathtaking and tingling, even moreso in the fading light of dusk. Passport control was smooth and orderly, and before I knew it I was out, walking the long trek to the waiting area at a restaurant outside, b/c due to security, no one can come in the airport. It was nearly dark when I got there, and suddenly, Fahim’s smile was emerging in the darkness and soon the others circled around: Razia, Nadia, Waheed, Ramin and Shahin Shah. There they were. I cannot tell you what that moment was like, to see those faces that were now nearly level with mine, to hug them after so long, and to feel a rush of emotion that seemed to encompass the profundity of the flow of life. An onslaught of memories in a moment, realizations of the present and the past at the same time.  That moment will always be with me. We sat inside and had juice together and I stared at them, listened to them, saw how calm and mature they were, their smiles shy and yet glowing.

I was driven to the compound where I am staying; it’s at PARSA, on the Red Crescent property. (Due to security risks, I cannot stay at the House of Flowers, much as I would prefer to.) I am in a small cottage-like building. The area is outside of the city a bit, but it’s very safe, largely b/c the house next door is the stray dog rescue facility and there are about 100 dogs there. Imposing. I keep my distance.

I slept solidly that night, with a sense of relaxation. The next morning I threw open the curtains to see where I was, and again the scenery took my breath away. Brilliant blue sky behind dusty hills with folds that look as if they’ve been draped with a sand-colored shawl and decorated with mud homes. It’s so austere that it’s soothing.

After a 20 minute drive through the city (I’ll tell you more about Kabul in another post.), Dr.Inayat and Fahim met me at the door, and I left my sandals by the door and walked in. Immediately that special feel of the House of Flowers was upon me, a sense of peace, safety and fun. When I walked into the classroom where the children were on the floor playing, all stood to greet me as they always do in Afghanistan: “Asalaam alekoum!”  As I began saying hello, Razia pointed to an older girl, apparently new, and said, “This is Maryam.” I shook hands with her, and then suddenly I realized this was the Maryam, our Maryam! I jumped with a start, unable to believe that this tall girl was little roly poly Maryam, and everyone laughed at my reaction. Unbelievable.

And so the day with the children began. They sat me comfortably on a cushion and brought tea, and we all began talking. Or at least I did the best I could, apologizing for my rough and forgotten Dari. There were so many children who were new for me that I was worried about learning all their names or getting to know them, so I told them that later, I would spend time with each one individually to talk.

They caught me up on things. I learned about the continuation of their committee system, such as the Health Cmte, Discipline Cmte, Monitoring and Evaluation Cmte, the Resolution Cmte (problem-solving). It’s a great way to get everyone active in the running of the House. In addition, there are Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner groups that rotate monthly and are responsible for helping with meal prep and clean-up. The Bank of the House of Flowers is still running, and they also make and sell beautiful simple wooden bead necklaces in their small shop. They told me who was in what grade, and who had skipped grades.

The rest of the day was spent hanging out. I had my one-on-one time with 21 of the children, 12 more to go! We opened gifts, they played outside, Razia gave me a beautiful henna design on my hand, and then it was time for me to leave. The day had been full of fun and reunions, and as I had a chance to be with them, I saw that their cooperative, loving spirit was still very much present. I was struck by how many older, bigger children there were. Many are teenagers, 14, 15, even 18 years old, whereas when I left the oldest had been 12. So the age range is much wider now, since there is little Ramin who is 4 or 5, up to Razia at 18. But they all get along so well, and the teens are phenomenal leaders. It was a shock to hear from Razia that she will graduate from high school in just 2 months, and is preparing to go to college at Kabul University! She is stunning in her maturity and care for others. She is everyone’s big sister.

The next day, Saturday, was very special. Thursday had been Teachers Day, but they postponed their celebration so I could be there, which was so thoughtful of them. Over the years, they organized very nice celebrations for things like Women’s Day, etc for all of us, o I knew this would be wonderful. And by the end of the day, after witnessing the children’s warmth, generosity, independence and creativity, I was more convinced than ever of the power of the Montessori-based approach we started with and which the staff has continued so well.

When I got there on Saturday morning, I saw Fatima, our very dedicated teacher for the past 10 years, and Qudsieh, a ‘new’ teacher (only 6 years!). It was another joyful reunion. But we were quickly shuffled off upstairs because the children were setting up the downstairs classroom for the day’s celebration. As I caught up with the teachers, the older children were running back and forth, whispering and plotting. In the meantime,  I enjoyed watching two little boys (Abdul Rahman and Shafiq) who were in the corner playing pretend with some stuffed animals, carrying on imaginary conversations all by themselves, and it was beautiful to see that no one interrupted them or bothered them. They were completely in their own world.

Finally it was time, and the group came to escort us to the seats of honor where we could see the table decorated with flowers, long colorful paper chains draped from the ceiling, and balloons hanging everywhere, with Happy Teacher’s Day! written on them. The girls were dressed in their finest clothes, bright colors and fancy scarves, and even Shakaib, the two year old boy, was there, sitting just as politely was everyone else as he was passed lovingly from one doting child to another, each one kissing him on the cheek and giving him little hugs.

A flow of presenters began, first with a prayer and a bit from the Koran, then one by one there were poems, songs, duets, essays, all written to the glory of the teacher : a teacher is Light, teacher is like our mother, teacher leads us in life, the teacher is the source of our knowledge. They also acted out two short dramas, self-composed of course, which were entertaining and impressive. One was about a girl whose father wouldn’t let her go to school, until one day he fell sick and had to go to the doctor. The doctor wrote a prescription, but then discovered that no one in the family could read. He got angry, and then finally the father saw the light and agreed to send his daughter to school. (wild applause!)

At the end they formally presented Fatima, Qudsieh and me with gifts, clapping and congratulating us with each gift. To realize that the students had planned and run the whole affair made it all the more special. Fahim then announced that in honor of the day we would have a tea treat: cookies and Nik Mohammad’s special milk and cardamom tea. Such a fancy celebration! So much excitement and joy! They brought out the radio and played Afghan music and some of the children danced while everyone else clapped and roared with laughter. The day was so intensely joyous that it felt as if the rest of the world didn’t even exist. We were in our own little bubble. All the important things in life were happening right here.

Tomorrow I will tell you about the intense interest in trainings about how the House of Flowers works and Montessori,  I’ll give you more details about life in Kabul, and i’m working on posting pictures too…

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Tomorrow, Kabul

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.