21 September 2011

You Were Only Waiting for this Moment to Arrive

I am the anomoly in Afghanistan. I'm 32 and don't yet have children, which absolutely baffles basically every single person with whom I speak. But what they don't realize is that I do have people in my life right now who give me what I imagine is a hint of the satisfaction that comes with watching a daughter find her own way in the world. And right now a huge part of that satisfaction comes from watching Julia.

You already know her basic story...married at 16 into an arranged marriage that lasted less than a year but produced a beautiful daughter who is now five. Julia's life now revolves around her daughter and around making choices that will one day lead the two of them out of Afghanistan and to a place where there are more opportunities for women. Julia is the sole provider for her parents, sister and daughter and is the most genuine person I've probably ever met. What I love most about her is that she just "gets it"...and because she has that way about her, I seem to be willing to do just about anything to help her, which I imagine is both a strength and a weakness.

My first project when I arrived in Afghanistan was to assess Julia's English language skills and to brainstorm ways to improve her speaking, reading and writing. Right now she is our least experienced interpreter, and I had a feeling that because she is also the only woman, no one had ever really given her a chance. She has both the heart and the aptitude to be good at whatever she can imagine. Together we found the most widely recognized English language course in Kabul (which doubles as a TOEFL prepratory school) and started dreaming. The tuition is extremely high by Afhgan standards...about $850 for the one year course, which includes two hours of instruction five days a week. I had a feeling that there were more than a few people in my life who would be willing to sponsor this incredible woman as she pursued her education.

Twenty people, primarily my girlfriends all over the world, pledged $50 each to help buy Julia her first-ever laptop computer and to pay for a year of her tuition at the Kardan Institute of Higher Learning. She started English classes earlier this week...and already it's making a huge difference in her confidence alone. Today she explained to me that she needed to approach a conversation with one of the male interpreters with "full confidence." The thought of an Afghan woman approaching anything in this country with confidence is baffling...and to hear Julia say that was extraordinary.

One of the most incredible things about the developing world is that it takes so little (by American standards) to make such a significant impact. By now it should come as no surprise that I love finding ways to make a small difference in the world...and I truly believe that the best way to do that is to find ways to bridge the barriers between people and cultures. Julia now has about 20 new friends in the United States who are cheering her on, plus more than 40 fellow students at the English school who are her newest Afghan peers.

Time will tell how long the Air Force will allow me to stay in Afghanistan. Whether it's three more months or nine, I know now for absolute sure that one absolutely amazing young woman here will never forget me or my friends who reached out to help her. And that right there is why I am willing to do what I do in the United States Air Force. Sure, life in Afghanistan for an American woman can be scary bordering on terrifying, and I often spend my days scratching my head in absolute bewilderment...but in the end, the positive far outweighs the negative.

I met Julia. Our relationship has reminded me of why I've dedicated 10 years of my life to service. She gives me a perspective on the lives of women in developing countries that I could not otherwise experience. And working with her makes me prouder than ever to be an American woman who choses to wear a military uniform.

19 September 2011

Mothers be Good to Your Daughters

There are days that I will remember in Afghanistan...and then there are days I will never forget. Yesterday falls distinctly into the category of extraordinary days that will be forever be etched into my memory.

Progress here comes slowly, and responding to very slow progress has taken more patience than I could have ever imagined. But what I failed to take into account was just how magnificent progress feels when I've fought for every inch, side-by-side with the brave Afghan women who serve in their nation's military.

Every Sunday morning we have a women's meeting at the base where I work. The goal is to have this meeting at 9am each week, have many of the women in their uniforms, and to conduct military training together (since the Afghan National Army does not offer any training for women). Yesterday there were 23 women who attended the meeting, including three who wore their military uniforms for the first time in over a year. I invited two American women from another base here to talk about what the Afghan Ministry of Defense is doing to improve working conditions for women across the Afghan National Army.

The most inspiring was the story of Master Gunnery Sergeant Connie (pictured on the right), who has dedicated 25 years of her life to the United States Marine Corps, and is among the 5% of women who proudly serve as American Marines. She told the Afghan women the story of her first deployment to Hondoras...she was the only female on the deployment and her Commanding Officer first refused to take her out with the guys. He was directed to bring her along, only to tell her that although he was directed to take her to Hondoras, no one directed him to bring her back home. That happened in the U.S. military, not long ago in the grand scheme of things, and the Afghan women could clearly relate. It went without saying that things like that happen here every day.

We talked about the value of wearing a uniform and being proud of what we have chosen to do with our lives, regardless of the personal risks. We talked about how serving our countries is an honor that most women will never experience.

Yesterday I finally cracked the code on reaching Afghan military women...it's through their daughters. All of the women who work here are married, and every last one of them has at least one daughter. We talked about how it's our job to blaze the trail for the women who will come after us. I thought of amazing women like my grandmother, now 91, in whose lifetimes the lives and rights of American women were radically improved. She earned a Masters from Temple University in the 40s, watched her husband head to England to fight in World War II, raised four boys and my mother, send a son to war in Vietnam, taught at the School for the Deaf and Blind in Colorado Springs, and yet served as the perfect military spouse at a time when social customs in the U.S. military were highly revered. I often wonder if women here could ever have such incredible opportunities, given the culture and the complicated history.

Afghan women will do anything for their families, and they certainly have that in common with every Western woman I know. And in this case, I hope that mothers in Afghanistan will inspire their daughters to break through the barriers their culture has constructed. No, I don't think that will happen before the Coalition transitions out of Afghanistan in 2014, but days like yesterday make me believe that anything is possible.