Friday, March 21, 2014

A Journey East: Visiting Afghanistan

When you tell people you are going to Kabul for a visit, you get your fair share of strange looks, and more than a few questions--"why" and "is it safe" being chief among them. Well, I have now survived  nearly a week in Afghanistan's capital, and while I am no expert, I have had enough experiences to tell you that our media-driven understandings are very different from the realities I encountered.

As trips go, this one had a few hiccups getting there. A flight cancellation in Columbus meant a day's delay--not in arriving in Kabul, but in stopping in Dubai for a day to visit other friends. Two airlines (domestic and international) managed to shift responsibility long enough to require re-ticketing and associated "fees," and the loss of my original stopover. I'm thankful for trip insurance--that is, if it comes through!

Thus it was that I flew in one journey from Columbus to Washington, to Dubai, and then on to Kabul. The Kabul flight from Dubai was positioned as far from the terminal as any plane could be, making me wonder if it was coincidence or security concerns. We were delayed an hour due to problems loading luggage. But we finally took off and had an uneventful and beautiful flight over snow capped mountains into Kabul International Airport. My luggage did not fare so well, however, and after getting through the rather standard (for this part of the world) immigration formalities, I discovered that the slowness of luggage appearing on the carousel for pickup had to do with its not being here to unload in the first place. A very harried Emirates Airlines agent handed out forms as fast as he could to about 50-75 of us whose bags did not arrive. We had to fill out our address, luggage tag number, local phone, and a few other details, and then find the place to turn in the form. Fortunately, my hosts had provided all this information before I arrived so I could fill out other required paperwork (and the form was in English, so I could understand the questions). I successfully completed the form, dropped it off, and then walked the long walk to the area where guests are met--stopping a few times to wonder if I had walked too far. I hadn't. And I was glad for the walk after the hours in planes. I had been told to prepare for cold, but it was a pleasant, sunny, "early spring-like" day, and after the winter Ohio has had, it was inspiring!

One of my favorite pictures, this is a view of the new Afghan Parliament building, under construction, seen from inside
the thoroughly bombed and shelled ruins of the former Afghan Royal Palace. 
My hosts, David and Beverly, along with their children Elizabeth and James, were there, waving, and we soon were on our way to their home. David is the director of the Noor Eye Care Program, a national work under the auspices of the International Assistance Mission (IAM)--you can learn about their work here. Noor has been in Afghanistan for decades, and has eye hospitals and clinics around the country. Beverly, an M.D., serves as unofficial "expatriate doctor" for many who are here with IAM and other like-minded organizations with workers from outside Afghanistan. She also has a special work caring for mentally  ill men who have become a danger to their families, and for mentally ill children. I'm not just interested in seeing their work, I am personally connected, as Beverly grew up in Cedarville and we have invested in a partnership with the Brooks and IAM's work here in Kabul. This was my opportunity to see their work and hopefully encourage them by my presence.

Upon arrival, I delivered a few things I had in my carry ons that were for my hosts, from some medicine to a computer that was needed but not able to be shipped. More deliveries were waiting in my luggage, wherever it was (more on that later).  The family lived in their house for over 10 years--a rarity among expats, I discovered. Their children have never lived anywhere else, and while she doesn't show it off, Elizabeth is fluent in Dari (one of the major languages here). James is fluent in more practical stuff, like emptying the ashes out of the stoves used to heat the rooms.  Beverly prepared a welcoming supper of chicken in a coconut milk curry, which was wonderful, and we fell into lots of conversation as they worked hard to help me stay "up" until an appropriate bed time--that's my strategy for jet lag: don't allow it to win. I managed to stay up until 9:30, stoked my stove's fire, and slept a solid 5 hours before awakening. I had a 2 1/2  hour time of reading and emailing, then managed to fall asleep again right after the call to prayer first sounded at first light (a reminder of one of the realities of visiting or living in a Muslim culture).

James looks out a "wall" of the Royal Palace toward
the mountains. Don't know that you could do this in the USA
Friday was my first full day and it was a "full" day. After breakfast together, the family loaded me into their car and we were off for a morning of sightseeing. As we drove David and Beverly pointed out locations of Noor works, co-workers homes, places of interest or significance along the road, as we headed to our first stop, the former Afghan Royal Palace. This structure had been built in the 1920s and was once the home of the king. After his overthrow it became the home of whoever was in charge, or claimed to be in charge in Kabul.  During the fight against the Russian occupation it was the seat of power, but that made it a target for the mujaheddin who were fighting them. Then, successive warlords held and lost it, until the Taliban moved in. They stayed there until the US led invasion in late 2001. Now it sits as a bombed out ruin, which we got to walk through, for the price of a tree. That's right, the army's guards let us in and guided us around, asking that we pay the equivalent of what planting a tree there would cost--about $10. It was a bargain, although I'm sure that no US agency would let us wander through a building with gaping holes in walls and floors.

We then drove a steep, narrow, muddy, winding road to the "Towp," an old fort with cannons on a hill overlooking the Lion's Gate pass that separates Kabul into two sections. They used to fire the cannon every day at noon, but since 2001 they've had enough explosive sounds, so the unmounted cannons just sit there. From this vantage point you could see the city, look down into the Babur Gardens (the first Muhgal Emperor Babur is buried there--read about that Empire here), the mountains, and the pollution which centered over an area mainly populated by an ethnic minority.

In the afternoon we went to a very encouraging meeting of likeminded people, and then had dinner together with the Brooks' local colleagues. They come from various countries, but have one shared passion, and that is serving the people of this nation. IAM has been here for 50 years, and they have tirelessly served, as their motto states, "in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ." They have been honored by the government and given great responsibility in various areas of service. They've paid a price, too. Four years ago ten members of an IAM sponsored team were ambushed and killed by militants, shocking the nation and people around the world. They take security seriously here, but they will not let concerns for safety or ease deter them from higher purposes. And this is not a place of either safety or ease.

But it is a place where people live, serve, and thrive. That night and afterward, workers with a passion and vision to see this nation helped urged me to let people know that there were great opportunities for service and a rewarding life here. I believe them.

Dirk and David
Noor Eye Hospital, Kabul
My luggage did not arrive on Friday, so overnight laundry and clothes hanging next to my fire were the next best answer. Beverly had a medical clinic day at the house as David and I left for some exploration. I visited the IAM offices, met Dirk, the director, and Shelagh, the personnel office manager, and Mr. Tamim, who was tasked with tracking down my suitcase. I made my first visit to the Noor Eye Hospital, and was amazed to see so many people, so much work going on, and so much to be excited about. I met Rahim, David's associate in leading Noor, and we went over details of the talk I was to do on Monday. We also visited ALEF, IAM's adult education program--another major opportunity for service being undertaken. Western and local workers in both places are passionate, committed, and humble, even as they work to make radical improvements in Afghan life in the most important ways imaginable. We went back to the office in the afternoon and were greeted suitcase! We traveled quickly back to the Brooks' home where I delivered a few dozen letters and other items I had for them. It was great fun to be the bearer of good news, and candy, too.

Noor Eye Clinic, Dushte Barchi neighborhood
Sunday was a day to see more of the work of Noor, as Beverly took me to see an Eye Clinic on the grounds of a government hospital in Dushte Barchi, a large community on the outskirts of Kabul that is home to the Hazara ethnic minority (featured in The Kite Runner, and described here). The Hazara have been oppressed for centuries by the majority Pashtuns and the Tajiks, and while they now have legal equality, it is not borne out in reality. This "clinic" was made out of three shipping containers, but inside it had functioning exam rooms, pharmacy, and surgery.

Beverly has to function as a doctor who is a woman in a Muslim culture, which means proper dress and limited movement. At times my presence gave her greater freedom than she would otherwise have. After our clinic visit, Beverly needed to visit a patient, so we made our way to the home of a young family where we had tea, I waited with the husband of the family, and Beverly went next door to care for her patient.

My Hazara hosts
In the conversation that followed (he spoke English), I heard what could be repeated over and over again--dreams of a future that seems impossible, realities of life that make such dreams a frustration, and lack of any real hope in life. He had secured a job to be a translator in another place, but as the oldest son of a widow, his responsibilities were clear. He had to turn down the job, get married to a cousin (commonly done here as a means of keeping family property in the family and because it is easy for a family to arrange), and start working to support them all. Uncertainties abound, whether it was the availability of electrical power any given day, or health (which is always precarious), or safety, or political turmoil--and the list goes on. Life ahead will not be easy, and it won't be what he had hoped for.

We visited the children's school at the lunch hour (yes, Sunday was a school day) and once again I was impressed with the those serving here. They have created a wonderful school environment that gives families the educational opportunities their children need and time with other kids under loving and skilled supervision and instruction. Teachers are needed there for next year, though--I'm hoping to recruit a few for them. Interested?

On Monday, we went back to the main hospital, where I had been asked to speak to the medical staff on the subject of developing personal ethics as professional skills. In conversation with David and Rahim, they discussed the hard reality of trained professionals whose lack of ethics harm both patients and employers. We used the six core values of IAM as the basis for my talk; which start with value #1--"Dependence Upon God." I spoke of the need to approach character development as we approach the development of the rest of a person--we don't just do what comes "naturally." I also touched on the great dilemma we face when we know what is right but are drawn to that which is wrong. David and Rahim were pleased with the turnout and results, and believe this will provide a basis for future talks and training with the staff.

Afterward, Beverly took me to the markets of Kabul for some souvenir shopping and the experience of the markets. Third world markets may feature unique items in each country, but the overall feel of the experience is one that seems the same no matter where I go.

In the market
Finally, it was time to leave. My final morning involved some last stops, visits, and then lunch together before Dave took me to the airport. Leaving Kabul was much more "secured' that arriving, as we were stopped before the airport, at the drop off for the airport, and three times as I walked to the the terminal to have my bags x-rayed and to be patted down and screened. Even as the door to the plane, my carry ons were opened, I was patted down again, and only then allowed to enter. You aren't allowed to forget where you are, even as you leave.

Am I glad I went? Absolutely. Would I go back? Yes. Was it safe? As safe as you can be in a place where conflict has been part of life for decades. All precautions that could be taken were in place. More than that, there is meaningful, life-changing, work to be done, and such work is not always the safe option. As one writer put it, we must "give up our small ambitions" if great things are to be done.

David, Beverly, James, and Elizabeth at the Towp