The Magic bus rumbled into Baltimore on Tuesday January 10th. It was sunny, blue sky, warm. Two hours earlier the children and Nasrin and I had given a presentation to a middle school outside Philadelphia. For this we donned our Afghan clothes. Just the sight of the children could cheer you up, with their glitter and bold colors. After a well-received song and story telling session and receiving proud mascot T-shirts from the school, a meeting with a student from Iraq and a caring send-off, now we were slated to give a presentation to the staff and guests of International Youth Foundation. On the guest list was Pat Karzai, wife of Qayum Karzai, brother to Hamid.
Parking Magic Freedom (My name for the bus) in downtown Baltimore was not exactly a cinch. After dropping of the children and Nasrin at the offices of IYF I circled the one-way streets until one open-air lot seemed promising. As I pulled up to the ticket station an attendant walked toward the bus with an alarmed look on his face and shaking his head side to side. I lowered my window and held my words. I simply gave him a look. I knew the magnetic sign I had placed on the driver’s side door would do the talking for me: “Afghan Orphanage Children’s Tour of America” with a photo of the children outside Mehan. This sign had already produced some results at one of the many toll booths on the way south, whereupon the worker got out his pen and pad and wrote down the web site displayed at the bottom and stuck out his hand and looked me in the eyes. “God bless you,” he said. Now the sign had caught the parking attendant’s attention. He tried to ward me off. “No way man.”
“No way?” I asked, as plaintively as possible.
He sighed. “How long?
“Hour and a half, maybe two.”
The man smiled just a little, albeit nervously. “Ok, thirty dollars. Come on in.” I think he was putting his job on the line for me.
I joined the AFCECO troupe in the IYF offices and we were escorted to a buffet Afghan lunch provided by the Karzai restaurant famous in Baltimore. It was a nice respite from burgers and pizza, a little taste of home. The IYF staff filled the conference room and it was time to begin. I strummed the chords to “Blowin’ in the Wind” as Mohsan, Araj and Frishta sang. They have begun to capture the melancholy behind the words, and the anger as well. Maria shared her biography, then Hala her introduction to AFCECO story. Then a short video and Nasrin gave her speech about the AFCECO solution, how and why it works. I facilitated the Q & A and we finished with a rousing rendition of “Heart of Asia”, the anthem I’d written last year for the children. It was a solid presentation, balanced, and impactful. Pat took out her checkbook and what cash she had in her wallet.
Then it was back on the bus and south to McLean, VA, just across the river from Washington, where we would park for five days at a sponsor’s home, Cathy Payne and her husband Steve. It turns out Cathy and Steve are both retired Marines, now working in the private sector. They have three boys and also care for a 91 year old neighbor that was alone, whom they invited to live with them. Steve was one of the hostages taken in 1979 Iran crisis. Meeting someone so indelibly etched in world history was almost surreal. Their generosity was unconditional and limitless. “Our house is yours,” both said.
“That way I don’t have to serve you all the time,” Steve added with his wry humor we soon got used to expecting
Wednesday was a quiet morning. I held my English classes: Mohsan, Araj and Frishta are reading “Stuart Little” with me and the Leadership girls, Hala, Maria and Lida are reading “The Alchemist”. In choosing the Alchemist I wanted to parallel Santiago’s journey with our own, and of course his experiencing a strange and new culture (Arab) and his development of wisdom. I sense their English skills increasing as we proceed.
At around six in the evening it was time for a foray into Washington D.C.! I wanted the children’s and Nasrin’s very first experience to be the Lincoln Memorial at night. They are all familiar with Lincoln’s story, as well as the historical speech that was given on the steps to his memorial monument. Cathy made available an old mini van she owns, making our stay even more convenient. So I piled the crew up and wove my way down George Washington Parkway to Memorial Bridge. It was here almost three and a half years ago in the midst of running the Marine Corps Marathon I had resolved I would volunteer in Afghanistan. My mind reeled at the thought and the miles between this moment and that. We approached the Memorial, its columns lit up and glowing through the slight drizzle of rain that had commenced. I know the quagmire of roads here well and wove my way Kabul style (not particularly caring for one ways and lanes) to the East side of the monument. We parked and the kids jumped out of the car so excited by the lights, the immensity of the structure and mystery of what was hidden inside. The joy I felt watching Frishta run up the steps, then down toward us screaming “Look, look!” The ooo’s and ahhh’s, and in particular Hala, who remembered well the video of Martin Luther King’s speech, almost unable to contain her excitement at being there on those steps. How appropriate for this to occur the very weekend America celebrates MLK’s birthday.
We took many photos and read some of the words on the wall, and we looked down the Mall past the Washington Monument and barely made out the Capitol building through the mist. We skipped back down the steps and piled back into the car and made our way to the Kennedy Center. Here, sitting front row of the balcony the children experienced the very theatre where Andeisha had received her Vital Voices award in March 2010. The lights dimmed and for the next two and a half hours we were treated to the extraordinary dance and music of Billy Elliot. I watched Mohsan, Frishta and Araj closely as they rested their chins on the railing, cheered for Billy and the dance numbers. Everyone particularly loved the tap dancing and the dramatic scene where Billy dances with the professional ballet dancer and suddenly flies up in the air. As we drove back over the Memorial Bridge late that evening it was Hala who announce, “Ian?” in her sing song way.
“Yes Hala jan?”
“Now I know I am in America!”
The next day was full. Sunny and warm. We visited the Capitol and learned more about American democracy. In the hall of statues donated by each state it was Maria who noticed only one was out of fifty was a woman. Later Hala, Lida and Maria were thrilled to see a statue of Susan B. Anthony, because they were required to memorize a speech of hers in Leadership class. Exiting the Capitol we walked under blue skies to the pool at the bottom of the hill for an interview with Voice of America, then we gave a presentation at Cathy’s work place, SAIC, a scientific research company. The presentation went very well, and many staff members expressed their great desire to help AFCECO. That evening Cathy and Steve hosted about twenty-five sponsors and interested parties at their home. Giving presentations at home gatherings is always a great success, as it fosters more intimate discourse in a relaxed, casual environment. Paul Stevers of CharityHelp International attended and gave an introduction to some of his new ideas. CHI is the NGO that handles all of AFCECO’s sponsorship program, and also enables people to make tax deductible contributions. Several people contributed to our fundraising and others pledged to sponsor a child. Among those attending were several Afghans. Able to confer in Dari with their own people, the children’s spirits soared.
Friday was a very big day. First we gave a presentation in D.C. for Ambassador Verveer and through its internal network the entire U.S. State Department. The Ambassador was so genuine, open and friendly towards our party. She even made me an honorary member of the Afghan Women’s Council. Then we visited the Afghan Embassy and had lunch with the Ambassador’s wife and staff. Then Ambassador Hakimi came down from his office to spend some time with us and greet the children one by one. As we made our way back to Cathy’s house I turned toward the children and reminded them of their new status as V.I.Ps.
That evening we met for dinner at an Afghan restaurant, compliments of Suleiman Hessami, an Afghan gentleman who sponsors many AFCECO children. Two other sponsors joined us, both Patricias. One, along with her husband Doug, had driven from Columbus OH to visit with Hala, the child they sponsor. It is always a great thrill for me to witness the meeting of sponsor and child. The magic of that connection in that moment is no less than the realization of the scope of the world. The other Patricia sponsors two children, one of them Nilab who I have taught and another a younger child from one of our Herat orphanages. At the end of the evening she announced her intension to sponsor a third.
Saturday moring was a recuperation time for the children while I brought Nasrin to be interviewed live on Voice of America television, (broadcast throughout Afghanistan). Upon our return Steve motioned for me to come out into his garage. He pulled a tarp aside and there was a mint condition Harley with sidecar. “What do you think, can I give them rides?”
Two by two they all got rides around the neighborhood in a one of a kind American iconic vehicle.
That afternoon we drove to Potomac Maryland to visit with members of the Nawruz Commission, a group of Iranian professionals intent on improving conditions in Afghanistan. For a few hours each of those attending, including the children were asked to give a description of their lives and hopes and dreams. It was a very unique opportunity for all involved to connect in a short time. By the time we left commitments were made to partner with CHI and AFCECO to develop programs that promote peace and prosperity in Afghanistan.
Saturday evening we visited a mosque in the area and went to dinner with an Afghan family. As with almost every Afghan we met in Washington they were so generous of spirit and yearning to connect with their homeland through these emissaries.
The crew of the Magic Freedom are happy and full. We have gelled as a family on board our chariot. I am proud of my students. They do not complain, they explain their needs clearly, they are poised, engaging, inquiring, open, trusting and thankful. They are writing in their journals almost daily, and taking videos and photos that will be etched in all our memories forever. As we waved good-bye to Cathy and Steve our hearts tugged, but the open American road beckoned, and we were compelled to answer its call.