Leaving my brother’s home in New Hampshire was bitter sweet. All the children had found it to be as much their home, but the excitement of embarking on the Magic Freedom Bus for the first leg of our journey was overwhelming. I popped a CD into the stereo and Ahmad Zahir filled the bus with our favorite melodies from Afghanistan. A few turns and we were on the highway going west toward Albany, NY. The open road, six children from an Afghan orphanage, their chaperone from Farah province and their teacher from Vermont had begun an adventure of a lifetime, something I doubt has been done quite this way ever before.
We did not have to say goodbye to my brother and his wife yet, as they were also on their way to Albany. The plan was to have a sort of bon voyage at an ice cream shop / folk music cafe where Stephen and his folk trio would perform, with special guests direct from the heart of Asia. I had notified Nishtha, a university student at SUNY and she was overjoyed to meet more children (she had organized events at SUNY for AFCECO the year before). Katherine, who had hosted one of our children the year before would also attend.
Nasrin kept the music flowing, and the children acclimated to travel on what essentially felt like a boat on water, the way the bus floated in the wind. I eventually got my bearings and became one with our chariot. Everyone wondered if all we would see the entire way across America is endless deciduous forests. I assured them this too would change. I was happy looking in the rear view mirror to see the children making themselves at home, bouncing on the bed in back, heating up chi on the stove, writing in their journals at the table. None of us really knew what was in store for us. I’d been piecing together an itinerary from scores of e mails from generous and eager sponsors wanting to participate and organize events. It was, for me, in many ways a time of discovery as well. When I was seven, my mother and father put their five children in a station wagon and drove us across the country and back. It was an essential stepping stone in my life.
The concert went marvelously. Nishtha was a hit with the older girls. She is Indian American and so they traded tales of Hindi singers, and discussed aspirations such as Nishtha’s track to medical school. She is a role model that I was pleased to see engaging with my students. My brother’s trio “All She Wrote” sang songs from the sixties, the era of folk troubadours that spoke to the room full of baby boomers. Katherine and I caught up on lost time, and then I played chess with Mohsan. There was a fire in the corner, and soon it was time for the special guests to take the stage. After an opening number I brought all the children up with me. We sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” and there were not too many dry eyes in the cafe. Then the children sang “Ai Parwarishga” in Dari, followed by our anthem “The Heart of Asia”. In the ensuing hour three people obtained information on how to sponsor a child, and we collected a hundred and forty dollars in donations from people’s pockets. The first of our fundraising efforts.
The next morning we had to say goodbye to Stephen and Kathie. The only thing assuaging the tug of emotion was the knowledge we would see them for one of our final days in New York City at the end of the journey. I drove the bus onto the New York State Thruway and turned toward the south. America, here we come.
Many things happen on the bus. Storytelling, for one thing. And singing. And every now and then questions about the world outside our windows. The Hudson River, toll booths, strange looking cars, and once a red tailed hawk that flew directly across our windshield as we stopped at a light. We arrived at our first stop, just outside of Philadelphia, as the sun dropped down below the horizon. Dr. Rich Manning, a friend of AFCECO and senior surgeon at CURE hospital in Kabul met us outside the drive to his parent’s and his childhood home. He guided me as I backed into his narrow drive. The bus performed beautifully.
Inside we met with at least twelve members of Rick’s family. They greeted us warmly in the foyer of a very old and Victorian style home. Lasagna and meatballs and salad had been prepared, and we right away sat down around the long family table for a hearty meal. It was as if we had been invited into the family. This was something the children understood, as the orphanage itself by nature is a place where the concept of family expands. After dinner we all sat in front of the television and watched my new home video about the New Learning Center. It was with great joy I watched as twenty people, my students included, huddled in front of the small box, smiling and nodding heads. There was a baby grand piano, to which Araj gravitated to immediately. He had been given guitar lessons by my brother, but had latched onto a small electric piano even more. My brother had whispered to me, “He is a natural pianist. Send him that direction.” There was also a tiny dog that sat in Mohsan’s folded arms, content to have the constant attention.
Dr. Rich knows some Dari, and he really knows Kabul and Afghanistan well. I latched onto him like a brother, as there are not many westerners I’ve met who seem to understand the Afghanistan I know. He was so generous, as was his family, and took such great care of everyone, like a surgeon I suppose, the kind of surgeon I’d want working on me or my loved ones.
We gave a presentation to a small private school in the morning. It was Lida’s first time sharing her life story. Though her pronunciation needed some more work, she bravely told her tale from heart without paper. The pride in this teacher’s heart just keeps growing. That afternoon we took a train into Philadelphia and spent the afternoon with our first sponsor, Solange. Her boy is Hedayat, one of my older students. We all enjoyed telling tales so that Solange might better know the child she cares so much about from so far away. She is from Costa Rica, and her boy friend is Afghan. Both are doctors. We went to lunch and then Solange walked us to Liberty Hall. There the children learned about the forging of American democracy. Our tour guide was and exceptional speaker. I had to wink at my Leadership girls when the guide spoke of two reasons for the success of the revolution: the incompetence of King George and the writing of Tomas Paine. For three years I’ve been telling the children that words are more powerful than bombs. The affirmation was warmly received. Our guide later described how difficult was the process of forming a constitution, how some men would speak for three days. The battle over state rights vs. central government was almost untenable, but what saved the day was a man named Ben Franklin, carried in on a chair he was so old and lame. To him the sun was rising. Our guide stressed the radical nature of Jefferson’s words, “All men are created equal”, and how this was a contract that again and again through decades would be the platform from which a country where only rich white men could vote would amend itself. “We have never had a true democracy,” she said. “But it is the dream that keeps us going, and perhaps more perfect will be our union.”
I look at the photo of the children posing in front of the Liberty Bell, and I thank Solange so much for the perfect first lesson of our journey.