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On the road in CaliforniaSanta Barbara was a stop arranged by another sponsor, Jennifer Shively. The pristine park and rows of neatly trimmed palms greeted us as we pulled the bus into this quintessential California Shangri-la. Jennifer and her good friend MaryJo met us with sandwiches and we spent the afternoon playing games in the park. The eight of us on the bus by this time began to feel the significance of this journey together, the closeness and the fact nothing like this has been done and most likely will be done again. As I instructed the six kids to make a people pyramid I felt our reconstructed family bonding in ways I could not have imagined. It is as if Nasrin has indeed become mom, helping them in ways I could never, the one they can confide in, the one they can communicate with best. I, the dad, am unpredictable and yet always there in a pinch. All seven of them have begun to worry about me a little, can he last, can he keep this thing going? I have made them to depend on me too much, a fault I must alleviate somehow.

MaryJo had not known of AFCECO or very much about this group, and had been wary of opening up her sanctuary to strangers especially since she had s few housemates to think of. But only a few minutes with the smiling, open, trusting, inquisitive children and she flung her doors open wide. She invited us to stay at her house in the mountains overlooking the ocean. This home is the most artistically designed I’d seen, a Spanish theme with pieces from all over the world. It felt like a sanctuary, nestled in the folds of the hills, with horses and landscaped gardens and the salty air. All around us adorning the walls, in the architecture was art and remembrance of MaryJo’s beloved sister who had passed away some years before. We learned about a different sort of love that can linger long after a person is gone. It was wonderful to see the light the children brought to MaryJo’s home, and to see them engaging at the fish pond, or the barn with the horses or surveying the gardens.

This was merely a rest stop on our way to San Francisco, but it quickly turned into a significant chapter. Many guests arrive the following late morning for a presentation that turned out to be one of our best. There was a famous chef in the audience that was kicking himself wishing he had time to prepare a big fundraiser. He said that he would invite some of the biggest celebrities that are huge fans of his cuisine and hold a $1,000 a plate event. Yet another thread for the future. Several sponsors showed up, and with each and every one we all told stories about his or her Afghan child. An important goal of this trip is to connect and solidify AFCECO’s relationship with its sponsors, and on this day we made great strides. It would be a dash to get to our next performance: north of Monterey by 6pm, so we actually had to say goodbye as soon as we were finished with our Santa Barbara show. Now we really are beginning to feel like a rock and roll tour!

Skirting one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, the Magic Freedom Bus wound its way north another four and a half hours. Following the commands of our precious GPS, loaned to us by my cousin back when we swung through North Carolina, we arrived exactly at 6 o’clock in the evening, just as the crowd was showing up for our little show. Here again we were met by several sponsors. Our organizer and host Roger Aikin who sponsors two girls from my Leadership Workshop (Sosan and Sediqa) walked up to the driver’s side window smiling and applauding. “Timing couldn’t have been better!”

The Interfaith Fellowship Hall of Aptos was full of people, as well as reporters from two different papers. More gifts for the children awaited them in specially prepared bags of goodies. Among the crowd was an elderly gentleman that had been in Afghanistan with the Peace Corps back in the sixties. He told of how beautiful the country was at that time, and how much he fell in love with the people. This group of people were especially interested in the future and what is actually happening on the ground in Afghanistan. Everywhere people seem to realize they have been kept in the dark, only getting the revolving reports of embedded war stories and corruption. We gave our presentation and were then whisked away to Roger’s home. The girls would stay with a neighbor, the boys with Roger and his wife Wendy, and Nasrin and I would stay with a close friend of theirs. We were served a hearty Italian dinner and then given a tour of Roger’s collections. He has been around the world and his home reflects it. Especially impressive to the children was his impressive collection of chess sets.

These days of reprieve from sleeping in the RV are so valuable in terms of really getting to know people from all persuasions, all ages and backgrounds. Thus far the children have experienced such a wide swath of Americans they are beginning to realize one of the great things about my country: its diversity.

The next morning Nasrin and I returned to find Frishta hopping upon a skateboard and the others tooling around on scooters and bicycles, the two boys having dashed down a winding mountain road. Though they were having the time of their life I was simultaneously relieved none had broken a skull or elbow and annoyed I had not been there to monitor their activities. The neighbor was used to American kids and didn’t realize the extent these children fear nothing and lie about their ability to use these dangerous contraptions. I barked at the kids, “No helmets, no using. And no skateboard!” I was an ogre, but I just can’t let another incident such as Maria back in the Florida pool have a chance at making sudden tragedy.

Visiting GoogleThis was yet another brief yet very full visit. Now once again we had to press on. This time for a noon lunch and then tour at Google corporate headquarters in Mountain View. We packed up, took our pictures and waved goodbye. The resilience of this crew, of the children with changing schedules and a grumpy dad, of Nasrin having to be on, on, on all the time with the children, managing AFCECO business, being communicative and magnetic with the hundreds of people we encounter and all their questions and needs, for all of them performing in so many presentations and having to live on such a strange American diet impressed me to no end. For me this kind of thing is not so terribly strange, it is indicative of the life I’ve led. For them everything about this journey flows against the rhythm of their life at home. Yet they do not complain, and they rub my tired shoulders and sing their songs and keep our little freedom flame alive and well.

Google is located in the shadow of Stanford University. We made a round of the grounds in the bus before settling on a spot reserved for us with orange cones. Around 32,000 employees, and dozens of state of the art buildings. Public art is everywhere, sculptures and places to relax. Two of the people on staff, Mary and Steve were there to meet us, both having chosen to sponsor AFCECO children after once visiting Mehan orphanage. We were given a full tour of the facility after a lunch that included the choice of food from around the world. Not too many people over the age of 35. I think the children were infinitely impressed that this could be a place where people work, where they seem to be so well taken care of. Nasrin and I spoke with our hosts about the need to pursue some diversification in funding for the orphanages. Quickly they came up with a variety of ideas. These are, quite obviously, idea people. Though they could only fit us in for a few hours, I know they are committed to helping us solve some of our problems in the long run.

Meeting fellow Afghans in 'Little Kabul'Before heading to our next host, we wanted to drive across the Bay to see what everyone had been calling “Little Kabul”. In our minds it was a place that resembled a street in Kabul, a half mile of shops, businesses and restaurants all run by Afghan Americans, in the same way you see ethnically homogenous streets in cities everywhere. We were terribly disappointed as we drove into the main road of Freemont. It looked like Everywhere USA, fast food and chain stores and gas stations. There was only one Afghan grocery, and two small restaurants. We decided to buy some nan, at least, then we sat down in the restaurant to order a little food. Then in walked an older couple, relatives of Afghans we had met in San Diego. They had tracked us down somehow, and the evening was saved. The woman was so happy she cried, and made conversation with the children for an hour and a half about all things Afghan.

Something important transpires between the children and the expatriates they meet. Afghan Americans initially are compelled to save the children, to draw them into the fruits of their adopted home, to give them cash, gifts, food. Many ask about adoption. The children accept these gestures graciously, but they give no indication they desire anything from America other than support for their orphanage, and that they have no intention or even dream of coming to America, but to stay in Afghanistan, to become strong, to help their people there. This touches the hearts of the American Afghans so deeply as to produce tears of joy, of guilt, of yearning and of admiration.

Soon we would arrive at yet another household, this time Indian Americans in South San Francisco. The city so many people have told us is most beautiful in the country awaited us, and we were eager to see it.

Human pyramid

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At the Loma Linda HospitalEvery house we have visited in California is full of flowers, especially orchids, and every heart we touch upon likewise fills our journey with more beauty. As we neared the house in Manhattan Beach where Frishta (Shogofa) had spent a summer with SOLACE for children two years earlier, she started jumping from window to window on the bus. It was she, not the GPS that guided me into Nancy Grimes’ drive.

The Grimes’ home was opened up to us as if it were ours. Once again there was an emotional uniting of child and sponsor. Easy going was the way, and as Nancy and her husband prepared the children for an outing in Los Angeles, she offered to take good care of the children while I and Nasrin rested at home, catching up on the work piling up. It would be a first, leaving the children alone with someone, but Nancy had been proven over and again her steadfastness and responsibility, her commitment to these children unbound. She had been showcased by NBC Nightly News a few years, and at that time had thought perhaps she would never see Shogofa again. Now she was leading her angel girl and five others to a bowling and pizza extravaganza, then a concert by one of the greatest guitarists in the world, Tommy Emmanuel. Hala was particularly happy because in her mind Los Angeles would be the greatest city in the world to visit. She was not disappointed, especially because she got to see the Hollywood sign on the hill, and for the things to come.

I worried, and the worry was unnecessary. But I have become so close to these six charges I cannot separate myself from them easily. Nasrin and I did manage to get some work done, and I managed to sleep some. It turned out a good experience in developing the children’s confidence.

Maria, Lida and Hala with Laila ForouharThe next day was fundraising day, but first the children had a treat: our Iranian friends from Maryland had arranged for us to meet with pop icon Laila Forouhar, who is widely worshipped in the Persian speaking communities around the world. We drove the bus down to Orange County and met Laila and her entourage at a favored Persian restaurant, the Caspian. We enjoyed a big luncheon and then sat together out on the tea room. The children were ecstatic. At one point Laila sang a song for them, one that they all knew. Her voice was penetratingly clear and beautiful. Laila had large sunglasses on in much the fashion that famous people do, even though we were inside. It was of course Frishta that unabashedly asked her to please take them off. Laila laughed and obliged. She had actually been sick the day before and didn’t want her tired eyes to show. Another in a fascinating array of famous people the children have touched during their travels. Laila gave a lot of time to them, and CDs and signed photos. Saying goodbye her husband told me to make sure if I come again to arrange a fundraising event. He said that Laila would sing and we could raise a significant sum.

Presentation at Nancy'sWe arrived home at Nancy’s just in time. She had invited a number of people to her home where we set up our video and prepared our program. In these presentations we always size up the audience first: what kinds of information do these people find most interesting? What is their background, their age, their level of involvement with AFCECO? Then we determine length of program, sometimes thirty minutes but usually we go over an hour. The children have become perceptive of these things and I ask them which video we should show, which song we should sing, and which poems to recite. We trade off between Lida and Maria in biographies, and Nasrin and I trade off who takes the lead in addressing the main points of the presentation. Then we usually end with questions and finally another song. It is safe to say now the presentation is good. It is really good. Unlike past years where I took most of the stage, often I hardly appear at all. The format is effective and nobody leaves the room, and as we have seen, many people are inspired to give and to sponsor because of it. On this occasion we added $13,500 toward our goal, the biggest day thus far.

Our organizer for the rest of the Los Angeles swing was an Afghan American named Miriam Atash Nawabi, who had been involved as a supporter of AFCECO for some years. Our first foray was to get a behind the scene tour of a major Hollywood studio. Miriam’s friend Saima who herself had appeared in films and whose husband had been a producer for such major films as The Black Swan met us at Sony/Columbia studios and gave us the real red carpet treatment. We learned that Oscar was only named for an unknown uncle of the man charged with designing the statue. The children got a good dose of southern California ease.

The studio tour

Miriam put us up in a nice RV park on Laguna Beach. Navigating traffic in LA with our 33 foot Magic Freedom Bus was a great challenge, particularly entering a highway on the left, having to cross five lanes and exit to the right within a mile. I managed some close calls, but never a scratch. Sometimes I had to hit the brakes and everything and everyone on the bus shifted. We lost many items from the kitchen sink this way.

The following day was extremely full, beginning with a mosque and visiting with the young students in their school. This was followed by a luncheon where we met a large group of Afghan Americans and their children. Generally speaking these are people whose parents escaped Afghanistan in the late seventies or mid eighties. The people we met were all young when they left Afghanistan, maybe four or five yet they still remember their homeland, and long for it. One of them hosts a talk show on Afghan Ariana Television, a satellite network that broadcasts live around the world to Afghans everywhere. She, another Miriam, proposed to clear her schedule spur of the moment and get our group on air. It would take some scrambling but she was determined.

After lunch and a walking tour of old Laguna we were scheduled to visit a hospital and get a tour by some doctors there. When I realized the drive would be an hour, I faltered and thought to squirm my way out of it. Another two hours of driving the bus, a lot of gas, exhausted as I and the children were, I tried to talk myself into bowing out. But better voices held on in my mind: this is not about you. Thank goodness we made the drive.

We met a couple at the Loma Linda Hospital, both Afghans, who inspired us all greatly with their hearts, their professionalism, and their passion to help people. Dr. Abdullah Sherzai and his wife Ayesha engaged with the children so kindly and playfully and yet seriously too, pulling the children into the realm of pediatrics. The children, especially Eraj and Hala that wish to one day practice medicine, were transfixed. After the tour we were treated to a kabob restaurant where conversation at the table bristled with excitement. We talked about the problems in Afghanistan, and most enlightening was the discussion of “meaning”, how much the failures in the country have stemmed from a lack of meaning attached to projects, missions and other attempts to make peace. The building of a state of the art hospital, for example, is meaningless to the general population that can neither access it nor pay for it, whereas the dispersing of a hundred midwives to a hundred regions would carry with it the greatest of meaning, given Afghanistan is worst in the world for maternal death during childbirth. This emphasis on meaning has far reaching implications, and I dare say our leaders must examine the meaning of meaning.

Our farewell with the doctors was very difficult. We all attached to them so deeply so fast. They promised to help with connecting AFCECO to medical practitioners in getting help to the orphanages. We invited them onto our bus and asked Ayesha if she would sing a song, her husband having sung her praises as having as beautiful a voice as her uncle, the great Ahmad Zahir. (Yes, once again a relative of my favorite singer.) It was an intimate moment, all of us crowded around the front of the bus, darkness descending upon the southern California valley. Ayesha sang a touching and beautiful song in Dari, and we all felt even closer. Then they demanded I sing Az tu dooram, a song about a lonely heart full of love for a woman who stays far away from him, untouchable. I thought this time to sing something different, and gave my rendition of “What a piece of work is man”, the Hamlet speech as composed for the musical Hair. Somber it was, but true to much of the conversation that evening. It was an emotional farewell for everyone there.

The next day we met with the former mayor of Laguna Beach, Mike Whipple who led our party on an outing with a friend of his that owned a cruising motorboat. We left the harbor and once again kept a lookout for whales. This time our close encounter was with sea lions lounging on a buoy. Once again the weather was delightful, and none of us got seasick. Frishta wanted dearly to sit up at the bow, and so I asked permission from our captain. Nervously he nodded his okay. Then of course all the children scampered along the gunwales to join us. Nasrin too joined us, and we had a wonderful time taking pictures, our faces to the salty wind, the sun warming our bodies. After the cruise Mike gave a tour of the local maritime museum, where Hala was the only one to try the dissection class, pulling apart a squid and identifying organs and such. It was, she would later tell the doctor, her first operation.

The day only just begun, Mike led us to an art store where a local Afghan American was hosting the meeting between Laguna high school students and our envoys from AFCECO. We could not anticipate the degree to which organizers has planned this event. We entered the shop to applause and a wide assortment of public officials and news reporters. Each of the children was given a bag of gifts and cards by their counterparts from the American students. All kinds of introductions and speeches were given and finally an Afghan feast was served. I felt compelled to retrieve my cittern and sing a few songs for the hosts, so enthusiastic were they for the children and their journey. We sang “The Heart of Asia” and this led to a series of speeches. Again I was compelled to offer more of our fare, so I shared some Rumi poems I carry with me in my heart. The way of love is not a subtle argument. The door there is devastation. Birds make great sky circles of their freedom. How do they learn it? They fall, and falling they are given wings. This pleased the proprietor of the shop. He asked me to specifically explain that poem, and what it means to me. I related what had happened to me, that I had experienced a great “letting go”, or fall, the kind against which the greatest resistance comes when only one final step away from walking through that door. People have often told me that I am brave, inspiring, etc. Once again at this gathering more accolades, even to the point of one Afghan woman calling me more Muslim than Muslims. To the people there in Laguna and to readers here I must humbly refute these compliments. I acknowledge having had just one mere quality, and that was the tenacity or gumption or stupidity or naïveté or innocence or idealism strong enough to take that final step toward a true and higher love, from which there was no return.

We enjoyed another night at our camp, the children once again spending hours in a heated pool. The next morning we arrived at the television studio for what would be the best interview I have ever experienced. One and a half hours Miriam questioned us all on her set. She gave me a forum to speak to Afghans everywhere a very important point: that I am not a Christian, nor an Ideologue, nor on some corrupting mission to supplant the children’s own culture with an Americanization, transforming them into little video game playing, bikini wearing, pizza eating capitalists without a care for their own God. I explained that I am only a teacher, and for me teaching means to infect children with the joy of learning, and to bring them to an awareness of themselves in the world, what are their own strengths and what ways they can contribute to the human condition positively.

Nasrin had the floor for a significant portion of the interview, explaining the goals and objectives of our trip and of AFCECO in general, and how people can help. The children answered many questions too. In particular, what they see in America that would be of value in their country. It was Eraj that expressed the need for equality between boys and girls. Mohsan commented on the need for laws that keep society clean and orderly. Frishta expressed the need for more playgrounds and parks. The interview ended with open phone lines, wherein Afghans called from all over the world to express their joy and their support.

One final fling in Los Angeles was to stop at another sponsor’s home, this time in Redondo Beach. Jeanne is a school teacher and was so kind and flexible as to let our very worn out party land on her living room floor and just watch movies for two days. It was a much needed respite before heading up the coast. We did manage to play on the beach for an afternoon lunch. The children and I made our first sand castle, and the Frisbee found great use in the ocean breeze.

The city of lost angels was a remarkable experience, but I have to say it was the children that created the most memorable moment. Pulling down an exit ramp we encountered a woman standing in the grass holding up a cardboard sign asking not for money, but for food. Without hesitation the children opened the window of their Magic Freedom Bus and handed the woman a huge casserole of chicken and pasta.

With Nancy at the beach

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Frishta and Maria with new "friend" at the San Diego ZooAs we chased the setting sun and the great deserts of the southwest fell into our wake the manicured trees and exotic gardens of Palm Desert, California enveloped us. Since the highway had become too boring to bear, I decided to take a shortcut across the mountains of the San Jacinto wilderness toward San Diego. We crept up the winding cutback Pines to Palms highway and the view just grew and grew. This was a great introduction to southern California. We dropped into Casa, a retirement community in North San Diego a little late for dinner. My uncle Artie and aunt Jean met us, full of anticipation. Artie had arranged for us to park at Casa and have meals with the residents, dividing the children in twos and threes among them. There was a heated pool to swim in, and a big presentation planned for Valentine’s Day. Basing our operation there the children would gain a lot of experience with Americans who, in Afghan terms, are the people that deserve the greatest respect. There are octogenarians, even folks in the nineties who were in their lives singers, superintendents, WWII veterans, rocket scientists, and a multitude of other histories.

It was a peculiar experience for the children, coming from their culture where old people are integrally involved with their extended families, while here seniors live apart from family. They took great interest and care in meeting with the residents, and were deeply appreciated.

At the Islamic CenterOur first day in San Diego we arranged to meet with a small but tight nit Afghan American community at an Islamic Center and Mosque. Abdul Samady had arranged the meeting, which included prayers and the children and Nasrin speaking in Dari about their experience with AFCECO. The outpouring of love and generosity was extraordinary. It became our largest single fundraising event thus far. Given my experience traveling with children last year, I anticipated a down time in February when these children would become terribly homesick. This meeting with countrymen and women, their own culture could not have come at a better time. The people were tremendously kind toward me as well, and I felt the pangs of my adopted home calling me back.

But we have some miles to go, first.

I brought the troupe to the San Diego Zoo. Though weather threatened to pour on us, the clouds broke as we entered the gates. It was a pleasure to simply roam around the gardens, feeling the calm of the waterfalls and periodically getting a glimpse of the animals in their natural habitat. Most memorable for me was pointing out the snow leopard, indicating that this animal could very well have come from the Hindu Kush. I suppose most interesting was the “skyfari”, but it was also good to work off some of that pizza walking a few miles around the park.

On Monday the 13th we boarded the three-mast America for a four-hour sail outside San Diego harbor, looking for grey whales. This was as unique an experience as they come, and as we tossed among the ocean swells the motion didn’t affect the children at all, except to make them a little sleepy. When our colorful first mate yelled, “Thar she blows!” Mohsan and Eraj leapt from their entangled nap off of the hatch cover and to the gunwales to see two large flukes turn up in the air before a dive. Once again the rain held off until our outing came to an end.

It is worth mentioning here that all along the way there have been On board the clipperimpromptu encounters with strangers that we will remember. The woman at the truck stop that burst into tears after Hala and Nasrin explained who we were and what we were doing, the woman on the sailing vessel that requested information and a brochure after hearing the girls talk about their experiences, the man at the toll booth and the security guard at the retirement complex that seemed to awaken from a kind of malaise and get excited about learning more. This has been a whirlwind tour of America, leaving seeds along the way everywhere we have traveled. Seeds of truth, innocence, and hope. The America we discover from doorstep to doorstep is not the same America that is characterized and broadcast to the world. As the children represent hope, so too do all the sponsors and teachers and parents and immigrants and strangers we have touched.

On Valentine’s Day my uncle Artie orchestrated a fundraising presentation for his peers at the retirement complex. Around eighty or so seniors filled the hall and enjoyed the children in their Afghan costumes, their stories and songs and the great news about AFCECO’s mission. In the end I could not resist making public my honor, joy and love for these emissaries from Afghanistan as I handed each a box of chocolate and two roses. With my AFCECO family I am in love, deeply, and so in love with the world because of it.

With retirement village residents

Eraj and Mohsin   With seal companion  

 

On board America

Ian finally doing some work! :-)

Rocked asleep by the waves

Rocked asleep by the waves

 

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Children’s Tour of America #7 – Texas

Published on February 17, 2012 by in Blog, USA Tour 2012

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Eraj on horseback“Everything in Texas is big,” I exclaimed from the driver’s seat as we crossed the border from Louisiana. I used the best John Wayne voice I could muster. “The cars are big, the roads, the meat is big, and even the moon is bigger in Texas.”

Mohsan and ErajThis would be the children’s first real experience of serious driving, but I scheduled a way to ease them into it. 5 in the morning we left New Orleans so they could sleep the first leg. Next stop was San Antonio, a sponsor of two children lives there. Jade is a young professional with a child and one on the way and her husband is also a small business owner. This would be the first host family under forty! Unfortunately, the kids and I were plenty exhausted from being up to midnight the night before, a farewell party and then drive that just depleted our energy. I’m afraid Jade and John got the less than animated group for Super Bowl Sunday.

Jade and John brought us to a Brazilian steak house for dinner, where the waiters treated us like royalty, coming to the table with a wide variety of meats every time we flipped a table card to green from red. I won’t soon forget Mohsan’s face looking wide eyed and mouth almost agape, turning me and saying, “Ian, I am king!”

Presentation in Texas

As with all the places we have stopped along the road, people exclaim how we should stay a week, a month, three months, how there are a network of people who we could touch upon. But this is a journey of another sort, seed sowing across the great expanse of America, connecting with sponsors and giving the children an experience that goes beyond enhancing into the transformative, the sort of growth in character and worldliness that will one day reveal itself in leadership.

Jade had recorded the Super Bowl half time and the only thing that amazed our delegation from Afghanistan was the age of the siren, Madonna. We went to bed early because it would be another big push the next day: New Mexico and Carlsbad Caverns.

It was difficult to prepare everyone for the caverns. They had very low expectations. A cave? But from the moment we descended into the natural entrance, down down down into the eerie, beautiful cathedral Earth had constructed over millions of years, to the elevator ride back to the surface 750 feet above, we all were mesmerized. Nasrin was particularly moved, declaring this to be her favorite experience thus far. “This puts Disney World in perspective,” was the sentiment.

Walking back to the bus we had to negotiate a strong wind that almost toppled us. Invigorated, we descended back into Texas for another big push across toward Phoenix. A stretch of the highway passes through another National Park where the speed limit drops from 65 to 55. I neglected to see this transition and an officer pulled out from behind a rock and flashed his lights. I pulled over and the children all scrunched close behind my driver’s seat, amazed. The officer came to Nasrin’s window and I immediately handed him a flyer describing who we are and what we are doing. He smiled, explained the situation and took my id back to his car. A warning was issued and again we were spiraling down the mountain pass.

It was a long haul to Willcox, Arixona, the next RV park on our way to Phoenix. The children handled it tremendously well, playing games and reading books and gossiping and writing in their journals. They have taken to disappearing into the back room, pulling the curtain and all six of them on the bed engaging in battles of brawn and wit and sometimes sleeping that way. Nasrin keeps me awake at the wheel, another full time job. The reward for being so patient and enduring was on the horizon

Campfire traditionsSandi Treffers, who had not been a sponsor but had simply learned about AFCECO through the Internet had requested a two day stopover in Phoenix. It quickly turned into three days. She had arranged for us to stay in a most spectacular resort, three pools, four rooms, outdoor restaurant, and sunsets and moonrises only the desert knows. The children got to swim every free moment, and now the three older girls are able to keep afloat and make their way across deeper water. We were situated on a Native American reservation, so activities were planned around the experience of local culture. We had an elder tell stories about his childhood around a campfire, cooking s’mores, and the next morning an hour-long horseback ride through the snake infested scrub. The horses were agreeable but once they smelled the barn they wanted to move fast. The children learned how to stop and start the animals, turn left and right, and even trot a little. I suppose it would not have been a complete Western experience if the children had not had the opportunity to ride the mechanical bull. This was most hilarious, as one by one on the lowest setting they were flung from the beast. Lida, most athletic of all of us, won prize for lasting the longest: six seconds. Needless to say I did not try.

Sandi had also arranged for a fundraising event at the resort. She had thought of everything, right down to the Afghan flags at each table. This was first class all the way. Several sponsors in the area showed up for the event as well, so it was doubly wonderful to both raise money and solidify relationships. It was our greatest fundraising event thus far, over $5,000.

On our final day we drove into Phoenix proper to visit Thunderbird College of Global Business Management. This is the school that handles the Goldman Sachs 10,000 women candidates in their training. Several of the people we met had known Andeisha when she received her training some three years ago. Over half the student body is from abroad, so the campus was truly diversified. It was good for these various dots to get connected, and for the children to see what higher education can look like.

On top of everything Sandi managed to get our laundry done while we were at the college. At our final breakfast before saying goodbye, she asked whether all six children are sponsored. The two boys are only partially sponsored. Sandi immediately asked to be the third sponsor for both boys.

It continues.

   Hala on horseback  

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Trying on Mardi Gras masks

After making the long sojourn up the west Florida coast and across the panhandle, Alabama and Mississippi the Magic Freedom Bus arrived in New Orleans just in time for Mardi Gras and its first parade. This one was adults only, though, so before the parade got going the children and their two teachers walked through the French Quarter, trying on masks and otherwise marveling at the ambiance, and the already loud and carousing celebration warming up. We met two sponsors, Katy and Kerry at a restaurant for a hearty meal, but not before we had a chance to sit down with a jazz band in an open-air café. Eraj took extra interest in the bass player, and Frishta was practically jumping to the beat.

Mardi Gras maskThe following morning Rose Vines, a long time sponsor met us with her friends and led us on a tour of the Mardi Gras float factory. This was quite extraordinary for the children to see. I am not certain they even now quite know what it is all about, other than just plain fun. This was followed by a riverboat ride on the Great Muddy, and a stop at the battlefield where the Brits lost New Orleans to the Americans.

That evening the children gave a tremendous presentation at a private New Orleans home to an audience of around forty people. There was a raffle and exactly $3,000 was raised. These home gatherings invariably turn out great, relaxed, and people full of food and good cheer. For this occasion the children had decided to wear their Afghan garb, which always adds to the festive nature of the event.

The next morning Rose brought us to sit in on a final rehearsal by the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra, performing works by Mozart, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky. This was especially meaningful to our three younger children that attend music school in Kabul. The conductor, a woman, periodically gave a lesson to the small audience about the works she had arranged.

On the Mississippi River with Rose VinesThen it was off to the country to be in the woods for a night at Rose’s cabin. Getting away from the big city and being close to nature. Then it was a final casual night back in New Orleans with a small group of Rose’s close friends. On this evening all the children were animated and we were up until midnight telling tales and playing games. Among the visitors was human rights activist renowned for her work that lead to the film Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean. Frishta and Hala led everyone in a kind of charades game where people choose randomly a task, such as dance crazily, make the noise of a donkey, or act like a mouse. All the adults participated. This led to singing and magic tricks of the highest order! This is the kind of gathering that we have enjoyed again and again on this journey. Aside from the educational activities, aside from the fundraising, just meeting with Americans, especially sponsors, spending quality time together and learning about one another has been remarkable and life affirming. I am not exaggerating when I acknowledge that everywhere, the children have affected people deeply with their unique blend of young wisdom and innocence, their unconditional trust and unadulterated curiosity. (You can read Sister Helen Prejean’s account of this evening on her blog.)

Now the tour is off to the great wide-open West. Invariably a screening of Dances with Wolves will be in order at one of the RV park evenings. A visit to Carlsbad Caverns, and of course the Grand Canyon await us, along with more sponsors and events.

Mohsan, Frishta and Eraj singing the orphanage anthem to a packed room in New Orleans

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