Read Part 1
Within 24 hours of returning from Daykundi, Yusufali, Sohail, Wasi, Shaida and I fly to Mazar-i-Sharif. It is where CAI has embarked on constructing 100 homes for homeless families, in addition to building a school to serve the underprivileged villages. Upon approaching Kabul airport we hear an all-familiar explosion; most of the security personnel don bullet-proof vests and rush towards the scene of the blast. Amid the panicked background, we hasten into the terminal and are relieved when the flight operates per schedule. We land in Mazar-i-Sharif in time to witness the fading saffron sunset over the rocky, dusty, but flat expanse. Safety is of utmost concern so we spend the night within the prison-like fortified walls of Arsalan Hotel, with strict orders not to step outside.
Our morning commences with a brief visit to the city’s namesake monument, the “Tomb of the Prince”, whose turquoise domes seamlessly blend into the sky, and whose intricately designed clay tiles echo the calming coos of the hundreds of white doves. Immediately thereafter, we proceed towards Azadi village to inspect the progress of the school’s construction, opening in October. Despite the penetrating heat, I closely follow Yusufali as he meticulously surveys the roofless construction site, ensuring that the school is built per CAI’s standards.
We fare through the afternoon meandering temporary settlements of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to the land CAI has acquired to construct homes. These homes are specifically dedicated to homeless families who escaped from the neighboring province of Sar-e Pol, where the Taliban savagely attacked their villages, shot the men, and raped the women. The families I am about to meet are essentially traumatized widows and orphans, who had to make the agonizing choice between mourning the loss of their beloved and fleeing to save their lives and their dignity.
Impressed with the locally-employed construction workers, who proudly demonstrate how they build their bricks on site, the CAI Team meet the families of the victims. I have the humbling honor to present a key to one of the widows who dabs her cheeks and softly whispers her gratitude. Shaida and I garner beaming smiles from the children as we hand out heaps of chocolates. Before we depart, the women gather to offer their collective appreciation and the children surround us and begin kissing our hands. As I contemplate the future of this generation, I muster strength from their sugar-high laughter and hold back tears throughout the evening’s journey back to Kabul.
For the next 5 days, Wasi graciously hosts Sohail and I, as we commute to the CAI Private English School (CPES), whose guarded premises is shared with Sakina Girls Home (SGH) – CAI’s residence for orphaned girls. The roads to CPES are lined with solar-powered street lights, and the absence of traffic lights contribute to chaotic honks, subdued only by the variety of military helicopters frequently hovering over the city.
I facilitate a series of professional development workshops at CPES for about 30 teachers, including the orphanage’s teachers. I couple these sessions with co-teaching experiences during their respective lessons and marvel as they remarkably display their enthusiasm to incorporate teaching concepts and methodologies from our discussions.
One morning, we are interrupted by a blaring siren at the school, signaling an emergency. Everybody scampers past the aromatic in-house bakery, racing up the majestic marble stairs, signaling the armed guard who has almost shut the bomb-proof gate. I manage to slide through, heart pounding, and hurriedly follow the distressed students to the roof of the building, fitted with bunkers. This is where security forces would arrive within 30 minutes and rescue us, had this been a real-life situation. Not a day goes by where elementary schools like CPES are safe from terrorist attacks. These bi-monthly drills serve as reminders of a gruesome reality we all pray will never materialize.
Sohail and I spend the following afternoons at SGH and ZBH (Zahra Boys Home) engaging the orphans with interactive games, animated stories and ‘selfie’ lessons. For the handful of older girls at SGH who are high school students, I moderate a discussion focusing on their aspirations and exploring career pathways and higher education opportunities. The boys, much younger and keen to practice their English, form igloos around us, all trying to be heard at the same time. The ZBH multipurpose room resounds with giggles and amusement thereby gifting me with an unexpected priceless moment that I will always cherish.
I gloomily wake up to my final dawn in Afghanistan, the dread of bidding farewell, visibly weighing upon me. The plan is to leave for the airport after my final session with the teachers. However, around noon, Dr. Assef receives a call from his distraught brother, informing him about a series of deadly suicide bomb blasts and gunmen who were attacking police precincts in Dasht-e-Barchi, about 20 minutes away. Dasht-e-Barchi is not a random target. The township is home to almost 2 million Hazara, including many of the teachers and their families. Amidst urgent attempts to contact family and friends, our goodbyes are anticlimactically brisk. Sohail and I load into Basheer’s car, and he whizzes through one security checkpoint after another, dodges blocked roads and resorts to mountain routes, ensuring we make it to the airport unharmed. Just as we had all silently anticipated, most airlines had canceled their flights into Kabul. We decide to return to CPES to access the internet and work on rebooking our tickets. As we near the school, Bashir receives a call alerting him about an earthquake whose tremors shook SGH, and that the staff and girls had no choice but to evacuate the building. What a perplexing situation when one is neither safe indoors nor outdoors!
Wasi generously offers to continue to host us and as he serves rejuvenating rhubarb-ade, a composed and level-headed Sohail patiently spends hours with the Emirates telephone agent, and is successful in obtaining seats on the next available flight departing Kabul, and subsequently on an onward connection to New York.
Another final Afghani sunrise, except this time the roads to CPES are cautiously deserted. I use the morning to comfortably bid farewell to the teachers and brace myself for the school bell which will send the students flooding down the stairs, where I am sadly waiting to say goodbye. Soon enough, I am emotionally overwhelmed with a flurry of handshakes, hugs, waves and khodahafez-es. Little Feroza waits until the very end and then beckons me to inch closer. She kisses me on the cheek and with a toothy grin announces her prayer for a safe journey to my family. She proceeds to kiss me yet again, praying aloud for the day when my travels would lead me back to Kabul. Another precious moment, vividly encapsulated in my memory.
Once more, Bashir drives us to the airport, where we bid him farewell and proceed through security and immigration to join dozens of stranded passengers waiting to board their flights. We are informed that our flight is delayed by 2 hours. Ever since the cancellation of our initial flight, I felt a slight pang of excitement that was now bursting by the hour. With the recent delay, I will be transiting through Dubai International Airport at the exact time as someone else I haven’t met in months. My intent is set upon our unplanned meeting. Right after landing in Dubai and entering the airport I am told that I cannot access the other terminal, which is a 40-minute bus ride away. Nevertheless, I locate the bus stop within the airport and I am not asked to present any documents. I feel triumphant and utterly overjoyed. I arrive at the terminal only to be immediately denied entry because I do not have a boarding pass for any flights departing from this terminal. I plead for an exception, emphasizing its necessity, and outline the series of cancellations and delays that led to this potential reunion. It worked! I am escorted into the terminal and instructed to report to security in precisely 1 hour. I jubilantly run to the waiting areas where I catch a heartwarming glimpse of this inspirational individual who is returning home to Tanzania, after serving widows and orphans in Iraq. With extreme tranquility, I gently call out, “Mother!”.
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