Never a snag, never a missed appointment or fundraiser. Not until the afternoon we had to be somewhere, had to return the bus to the company by 5pm. We were way ahead of schedule, perhaps able to pull into the final destination by 3:30, when Interstate 80 at the Pennsylvania/New Jersey line was shut down in both directions due to a hazardous waste collision. Deadlock! We moved one foot, stopped, waited. This went on for an hour and a half when I noticed we could cut through to the west bound lanes that were empty. I went west a few miles and got off the exit there. I had to rely on old fashioned maps. No GPS in this situation. We took a roller coaster ride through back roads, quick as I dared. The children shouted, “Space Mountain!” We came out on the Interstate just beyond the accident. Now there was no time to lose. Luckily the traffic all the way to Tappan was going 75 miles an hour. Calling the limo service to change times, calling the Camperworld staff to make certain they’d still be there, I drove 80 in the bus, like a banshee over the rolling hills leading to the Hudson River, and slipped into the Camperworld outlet ten minutes before closing. The limo van was there, and the bus passed inspection. Exactly a few tenths short of 10,000 miles. When I walked out of the office, free and clear of the keys to the bus, Frishta ran straight toward me. I opened my arms wide and she jumped into them. Then one after another all the other children. They sensed the great relief, the ending of an important chapter in all our lives, and they were happy for me. We all gave the bus a kiss goodbye. Finally, as we were last to get into the van, I gave Nasrin a big hug, two weary surrogate parents ready to move on to the next stage in life.
Our driver into the Big Apple was a true New Yorker, born and raised in the East Village. He chose to give our group the best possible approach to the city, over the George Washington Bridge. Under sunny, warm, and clear skies, as we sped across the bridge I told everyone to look right. A simultaneous “Ahhhhhh” filled the van. Now we really really were in America, the America they had expected to see all along. We unloaded our 14 pieces of luggage and 7 backpacks and cittern onto two large carts at the Roger Smith Hotel on Lexington and 47th. Jill Iscol, the woman who put together the book Hearts on Fire provided the respite for us. Andeisha was there to meet us, having flown in to attend some of the fundraising events planned that week. After our hearty reunion the first order of business was to go to the top of the Empire State Building. It was 70 degrees and clear that evening, not exactly typical March weather for Manhattan. I had pre paid for tickets so we swung past the first line, then I simply tagged onto a group tour that swung us in front of the remaining lines. We went straight up to the observation deck with nary a delay. The lights of greater New York spread out in its sea of humanity, twinkling in the black night. It could not have been better. The end of this great American tour of discovery is the city that saw the coming of immigrants from the world over, the city that still outshines all others in its bravado, its unabashed acceptance of people as they want to be.
The rest of our stay in the city was a kaleidoscope of experiences. Firstly, one whole day at Goldman Sachs, where two events meant to raise funds had been planned. I was no longer required to speak or even lead presentations. Organizers had Andeisha there, and the children could now stand on their own without my direction or prompting. I began to wind down, suddenly realizing I would soon be heading right back to Afghanistan, saying so-long to my homeland. We walked past the new tower growing in the spot where the Trade Center once stood. We rushed on the subway uptown and downtown. We went to see Evita on Broadway, and Frishta visited her friend Brian Williams at NBC News. There were more sponsors coming by to say their farewell to the children. My brother and his family arrived, the family that so endeared themselves to the children and Nasrin for the first two weeks of this journey. We walked through the Metropolitan Museum, and even got a good dose of debauchery associated with the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.
One last fundraiser to attend, one last presentation downtown, across the street from the NY Stock Exchange, and it was at this final event we reached our fundraising goal for the trip: $100,000.
The program was looking to be mostly made up of other speakers. The children were asked to perform toward the end, and they did an extraordinary job. Lida finished by sharing her biography, and when she came to the part about her uncle’s death, she stuttered and added a line she had never said before. “I lost two fathers.” Then she cried. I stood my ground. I knew she would come around. I whispered from behind, you want to recite the poem now? Lida pulled herself up, and again addressed the crowd.
“In leadership class, Ian taught us a poem. Each day in life is training, training for myself. Though failure is possible, living each moment equal to anyone, ready for everything, I am alive, I am this moment, my future is here and now.”
Lida thanked the audience, to great applause, and sat down.
I was asked to speak at that moment. I decided to forgo with introducing a video and simply told the tale of our adventure. I told stories of the children and some of their most wonderful moments. Hala skipping up the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, Maria addressing high school students about democracy, Eraj holding my hand as we walked through Chinatown, Mohsan feeling like a king in a Brazilian steakhouse, Lida dancing with me to the drum orchestra on the beach in Florida, and Frishta dancing to hip-hop on the bus. I don’t even remember which of these stories I told. I do remember relating how the children gave food and money to poor Americans standing on the side of the road holding up signs asking for help. I also remember saying this: the children take with them a remembrance of an America that is kind and generous as it is diverse, that America is not its government, but its people, and that the greatest thing about America is its capacity to change itself, to grow, to become better than just status quo, and that if we can do this, so can the people of Afghanistan, so can these children that one day will lead their devastated country out of the darkness and into the light.