So, I tell Maroof, I'm taking my son to Pakistan - home to an estimated 3 million Afghan refugees. We plan to visit Afghan schools, talk to Afghan children, build a few bridges. We've brought along an enormous suitcase filled with school supplies -- paper, notebooks, markers, pens, etc. -- that Jacob's class has collected.
We've brought two checks that the parents in the class donated as a supplement to the bookmark profits: one that we'll deliver to the UNICEF field office in Peshawar, the other that we'll give to the Ariana School, an organization run by a local Afghan non-governmental organization with which we've been exchanging e-mails.
'I have told the students that a nice boy from America will visit you, 'began one of the e-mails sent by Fatana Gailani, the school's director. 'They exult and I do not know how to express their being so happy. Even the children who never have smiled so far, I saw the cheery smile in their lips. In fact our children need to be supported and sympathized [with], as they are the seeds of peace...'
Tuesday, November 13, 2001
Ariana School, Peshawar
Fatana Gailani, head of both the Afghanistan Women Council and the Ariana School, meets us in the courtyard of her medical clinic, which is packed tight like a box of crayons, with brilliantly robed Afghan women and their sick children. Her arrival sends a frisson of quiet reverence through the crowd.
Gailani, dressed in a modest black veil and traditional tunic and loose pants, has the regal carriage and sophisticated mannerisms of an aristocrat - which, back in the days before war ravaged her country, she was. Only her sad brown eyes are at odds with the mien.
When she spots Jacob, however, her eyes brighten. 'Welcome, young man,' she says. 'We are so grateful for your presence.'Then, noticing some of the women covering their faces with their burqas, sensing others doing the same behind her, she whips her head around and shouts, 'Take those things off right now!'
But Islam dictates...', begins one woman, whom Gailani immediately cuts off. 'Islam dictates no such thing!'she yells. 'You've been brainwashed by the Taliban, brainwashed by your husbands!' Then readjusting her veil, regaining her composure like a parent who's just lost it with her toddler in the supermarket but now must address the cashier, she turns back to us and says, 'Okay, then, we go the the school?'
The Ariana School lies at the far end of an airy courtyard, and as Jacob and I step through the door into it we're showered with pink flower petals, silver glitter, and an entire student body's worth of applause. We make our way to the podium set up for our visit, Jacob squeezing my hand and giggling at the overwhelming show of friendship.
First we thank the school for their warm welcome, then we hand over the mound of school supplies and the check from Jacob's class, which will help cover the students' tuitions ($1 a month for primary school, $2 a month for secondary school).
Next we get to the heart of our visit: an exchange of questions with the children. In the week before our trip, Jacob's class came up with a list of 31 questions they wanted to ask the Ariana students. The questions ranged from 'What do you think about America?' to 'Do you know how to tell time?' from 'What can we, as children, do to bring about peace?' to 'How do you celebrate birthdays?' All equally important stuff to know when you're 6.
But it soon becomes apparent that the students have little patience for answering our questions. They want to talk. They want us to listen. And they want us to listen right now, whether or not what they have to say has any bearing on the questions posted behind us in enlarged, tidy, first-grade-teacher handwriting.
Lutmilla, age 14, who fled with her family from Afghanistan when she was 9, takes the microphone and tells us she gets depressed seeing her fellow displaced Afghans. Arzoo, 15, asks us if we know why the United States attacked his country. Nahid, 16, says he's angry that Osama bin Laden has caused the further destruction of his country. And little Neelofur, who says she's 9 but, like many Afghan children plagued by malnutrition, looks much younger, laments, 'Sometimes I think peace is a bird that flies over every other country except Afghanistan.'
'Is it justified for your country to kill innocent people?' asks Fatima, 14. 'Shooting a rocket is easy. Rebuillding a society is hard.' Then another Fatima, 17, who at the urging of her parents fled Afghanistan on her own so that she, as a girl, could have the opportunity to study, grasps the microphone. She begins to speak but is suddenly consumed by tears. "I am very sad my country is being attacked," she says, sobbing. "My family is in Kabul, and I'm very frightened for their safety. My mother is rheumatic -- she can't make it through the mountains to come here. I have so much apprehension. What is going to happen to my family, to my country, to all of us?"
At this point, the students behind Fatima start to cry as well. Jacob, now concerned, whispers in my ear. 'They look really sad.' 'They are,'I say, taking his hand. 'The world is a very sad and crazy place right now. And children are feeling it the worst.'
But then Fatima, sensing Jacob's unease, composes herself, wipes her tears, and looks directly at him. 'I am happy,'she says, finally smiling, 'that in this tense situation, you and your mother came to talk to us.' She replaces the microphone in its stand and slowly walks back to her place.
Jacob decides that now would be a goodtime to show the school his magic trick. Which he does. And it is. 'I'm working so hard,'says Gailani, over lunch a few hours later, 'but nobody's listening.' Her organization, the Afghanistan Women Council, she tells me, receives no aid from the United Nations, no aid from any large Western aid organization, and during emergencies she has to turn away between 200 and 300 families a day who come begging at her doors for medical succor and education. 'People have spent a lot of money on Afghanistan,'She says, 'but they have spent the least on education. And education'- she pauses, looking me straight in the eye -- 'is the sole means of keeping children from becoming terrorists.'
After lunch, Gailani takes us to visit a first-grade class. They're excited to meet Jacob, and they teach him how to say words like fun (mazaq), peace (sulah arami), school (muktab), and thank you (tashakkur). They explain, when Jacob asks, that they don't celebrate their birthdays. For one, they have no money to do so; for another, they often know only the season of their birth, not the date. They sing songs for us, recite poems they've written about their desire for peace. 'Oh,God,' begins a poem by Zubair, age 6, "anger has engulfed the whole world / And this destruction has prevailed upon my house. / Everything is devastated.'
We're then introduced to Aziza Sarwar, a 12-year-old girl who fled Kabul in early October when an errant American bomb estroyed her home and killed her mother and brother. She wears her grief openly. 'I am very sad because my heart is bleeding,'she tells us, staring down at her feet.
When Jacob asks her gingerly what she thinks about Americans, Aziza pauses for a minuite. Then she replies, 'How can I think? My mother has died in an attack, and I don't know what to think.' But, she says, chiming the one note of bittersweet irony of her new status as refugee, she's happy to be allowed to go to school once again, even if it's with children half her age. And she's looking forward to becoming a doctor so she can help her people.
When school lets out, Aziza invites us to come home with her for tea. She tells us she has a younder brother and sister she thinks Jacob would really like to play with. She's right. As Aziza, her father, my translator, and I talk of war and peace in the one-room mud hut that the Sarwars now call home, as the sun sets over the dusty plain where the children of the Akhtarabad camp toss a red balloon back and forth, we can hear Jacob, his new Afghan friends, and the kind of youthful laughter that knows no boundaries of culture, heartache, history, or time."
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