Saturday, December 5, 2009

Afghanistan...start of a journey

For those of you who didn't know, I just returned from a week-long trip to Kabul, Afghanistan. As I prepared for this trip, and as I interacted with people in Afghanistan, many people asked...why Afghanistan?! The journey really started about six months ago, at a time when I was feeling down and disappointed by a lack of purposefulness in my work in Kuwait. I'm a bit of a news junkie, and found myself spending way too many hours reading news stories on CNN. This was about the time that the Swat Valley was exploding in violence in Pakistan, and my heart just ached for the people trapped in the middle of endless violence. I felt God calling me to do something, to get outside myself and my relatively easy life in Kuwait. I knew that God had called me to Kuwait, but He also blessed me with a job that provides great time off and enough financial independence to afford a trip on my own dime somewhere. So I started sending off emails to contacts in nonprofits, begging for an opportunity to go somewhere and serve, even if it just meant handing out bags of rice. My focus was Pakistan, but after several no's (and a comment about me being too white to send into the Swat valley due to danger), the founder of a nonprofit (a man I knew from decades ago when my family was living overseas) suggested that maybe I would be interested in Afghanistan! I jumped at the opportunity. I had never really thought about going to Afghanistan, but for years I had been hearing my mom talk about her desire to go into that country. After a flurry of emails, it was decided that I could go during my break in September...but as the political uncertainty and the election violence heightened, September became impossible...then I was told I could go ahead and come during my break in November! I found out that there was a direct flight from Kuwait to Kabul that flew once a week, and the dates worked out perfectly. So I bought my ticket, started shopping for conservative clothes and headscarves (all shirts/sweaters had to be a few inches above my knees), and braved the Afghan Embassy in Kuwait to get my visa! The visa process was easy, but was also my first glimpse into the reality that I was an oddity...the visa people couldn't believe that I, a single American woman, was requesting a visa to Afghanistan! But they graciously processed it in 24 hours, and I was all set to leave! And so the adventure began...with lots of comments from co-workers about how I was probably going to get blown up. But knowing that God had opened this door, I just wasn't all that worried. There were certainly moments of fear, but overall I felt a profound peace and excitement about my decision.

So on Thanksgiving night, after a fabulous meal with some American friends, I packed up my suitcase and left for the airport. Up until a week before my departure, I wasn't even sure what I would be doing...but then word got out that a counselor was coming to Kabul and would be available for whatever people felt was needed! Suddenly, I found myself with a full slate of activities- leading a 7-hour training on how to be critical incident debriefers (teaching leaders and member care staff in different non-profits how to debrief their staff after a disaster such as a bombing, kidnapping, threat, etc), teaching a module on child protection/child abuse, meeting with expats in Kabul to provide one-on-one counseling, meeting with the expat high school youth, facilitating a meeting with member care staff to talk about how they can care for their people, and providing an art therapy workshop for Afghan children. My last week in Kuwait was a scramble to pull together resources and create a giant (54 slide!) powerpoint for the debriefing training. It was crazy, but it all came together.

Back to Thanksgiving night...I got to the airport, and found the line for Safi Airways...the Afghan airline that would take me straight into Kabul. When I got in line, I noticed that I was the only female in line. In front of me and behind me were about 40 Afghan men...all in the traditional clothing. I quickly became the center of attention, and then one of the men approached me. He gestured toward another airline's counter for a flight to Dubai, and told me I was in the wrong line. I told him I wanted to be in the Safi line. He said, "no, Dubai!" I said, "no, Kabul!" With an incredulous look, he went back to his group of men and told them all I was going to Kabul. They couldn't believe it. A few minutes later, a new group of men got in line. They stared at me, and again approached me to tell me I was in the wrong line. This happened about 4 or 5 times. By then I was just cracking up, but trying to keep a serious look on my face (it's never a good idea to be too smiley or friendly in that context). Finally, the manager at the counter noticed me in line. He immediately ran up to me, apologizing for the fact that I had to wait. He pulled me out of line and opened a new counter for me. After verifying that I was, indeed, traveling to Kabul, he anxiously began to scan the passenger manifest. He then told me that I was the only female on the flight! He urged me to upgrade to business class, but I refused to pay the extra money. The girl behind the counter just stared at me, and said "but they'll eat you alive in economy!" I just smiled, and they decided to put me in the bulkhead row (front row of economy), and to block off the entire row so I would be alone. Note: the Afghan people are incredibly kind and thoughtful...I wouldn't have been in any danger, except the uncomfortable staring. So with a smile and a thank you, I was on my way!

Ok, this post is long I'll save the next segment with stories from my time in Kabul for later tonight or tomorrow! Check back for more :-) In the meantime, here are a couple pics from Kabul!


Sheri said...

I've been following your posts on fb and vicariously enjoying your trip. Glad you made it "home" safe and sound. So exciting how God used you to encourage people.
In your next posts, can you also talk about wearing the headscarf and other things like this story about being in line at the airport. I find sometimes when people talk about their trip, their reports can end up too heavy on the cool things they saw, when what I love to hear about is how they perceived the situations around them. I can see lovely architecture photos on wikipedia, but a story like this one- now I'll remember this.
You're quite a woman! So glad to know you.

Hollenbeck Girl said...

it still feels surreal that you went to afghanistan...

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