This piece I wrote was going to be published today. Then I heard of the horrible suicide bombing in Kabul just minutes ago and immediately checked in with my new friend Mina (quoted below), who works in an office building very near the center of the attack in Kabul. She is fine, but her cousin is in hospital with injuries from the blast. She is shaken to the core; it has been the “worst day of her life,” she says. I talk with her at 11 p.m. her time, where she says she must now seriously contemplate trying to leave for her safety. “I’m just so tired of trying to stay safe,” she says sadly. This attack, during Ramadan, leaves even the uninjured even more physically and emotionally spent as they are also fasting.
Programs like the UNITAR Afghanistan Fellowship (story below) are so needed to help Afghans. As Mina says, “we can’t end this [ourselves]. I hope troops will help.” Checking quickly into the status of others in the program on their Facebook page, I see many have checked in to say they are okay, and that they will continue to try and make peaceful and positive change in their country. But they can’t do it alone.
On April 23, I leave Seattle for a vacation to Japan, a country I have always wanted to visit. Flying into Osaka, I zip across land on the Shinkansen (the famous Bullet Train) to Hiroshima to meet up with my long-time Canadian friend and colleague, Shona Welsh, who is teaching and mentoring for her seventh year in a program designed and delivered by the United Nation's Institute for Training & Research (UNITAR) Hiroshima Office, the Afghanistan Fellowship Programme.
I plan to sightsee, of course, but also to observe some of the sessions in what is a two-week long intensive course provided to 30 Afghan Fellows at the end of their six-month program. My mission is to learn about the program, projects and the Fellows and do a feasibility study on how crowdfunding might be an alternative for those that are not funded by their own organizations, government departments, or external Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). According to Berin McKenzie, former program officer and UNITAR Senior Specialist, this represents about 45% of the projects. There are five teams with projects in this year’s cohort.
After two days of amazing sight-seeing in Hiroshima at the Peace Museum, the A-Bomb Dome, Miyajima Island, Hiroshima Castle and the Art Museum of Hiroshima, I settle into my Fellowship experience.
I quickly learn that one is not allowed to just watch in the UNITAR family. Within the first day I am engaged with Fellows in conversations at breaks, listening to stories and taking photos. The next morning, I meet with the staff to discuss the study. At lunch Shona and I meet with a Fellow interested in writing a book about Afghanistan. When I ask him if he has any concerns for his safety if he is to write such a book, he shrugs and says, "I might already be considered killable by the Taliban." Then he smiles and laughs. I wonder if his reaction is a mask for underlying fear…how could it not be?
That evening Shona tells me of some of the many dangers faced by workers, women, families and others in Afghanistan...just a few of the many stories she has been told over the years by her students. I see evidence of the many social struggles in presentations made by the students during the workshop...issues of child labor, cultural lack of respect for and violence against women, and more.
Who are they?
The Fellows (25 men and two women) come from many walks of life—the private sector, government departments, NGOs, universities and foundations. They are, as a group, demographically quite young, with most being between mid-20s and mid-40s. Many of them hold high-level positions in their organizations.
The presence of only two women is a long-standing issue; creating a more representative number is one of the goals of McKenzie. "It's very difficult, but I'd really like to see us figure out a way to get more women Fellows here,” he says. “When they do come, they are very successful, and often become coaches or mentors for future Fellows." In this year, women are reflective of a larger social, historical and cultural issue of women and how they are viewed by the traditional male hierarchy. The discussion on affirmative action one day is easily the most heated of those I observe.
On the last morning of the workshop, the five groups make their final pitch presentations on their projects. Just before they begin, I am surprised by an invitation from the staff to join the judging panel, and am honored and humbled to do so. As the only one of the panel with no previous experience of the work that had transpired over the past six months, I decide to focus on how I might react as if I was a donor or investor seeing the presentations without any prior knowledge. I try to provide whatever supportive comments and thoughts I can as the presentations whip through at six minutes each.
Enough love to go around
Following the commencement ceremony, thanks are given all around, and traditional gift-giving ensues. One of the Fellows calls up various staff and facilitators, and various other Fellows bestow beautiful handmade items from their provinces to each in turn. It's beautiful to watch. And then I hear my name called. I am bewildered, and feel unworthy of any recognition. But I go to the front, and accept with gratitude a beautiful lapis lazuli pen holder, quite appropriate for my role as writer. Mina, from Kabul, hands it to me, with a hug and tears, describing its origin as she thanks me for my support. I am included thereafter in both formal and informal picture taking, and receive another gift from one student of a beautiful hand-made hat from his region.
Shona says to me, "They're the most appreciative students you will ever see, and there is plenty of appreciation to go around."
Mina from Kabul says to me later, "There are many of my friends [in Afghanistan] who think all Westerners don't care about our situation and if they help us it is only to line their own pockets, but I tell them that I have seen so many examples that that is not true. Here, at the Fellowship, we see all these Westerners who care very much. We are so grateful for any support."
The love goes both ways
One of the long-time former staff and current mentors, James Short, says to me when I wonder at all this, "Now you see why people fall in love with this program. There is so much gratitude, for the smallest show of support. It just makes you want to do more." In his other life, James is a professor at Toyo University where he teaches peace studies and English in the Faculty of Law. His current research is focused on conflict and its accompanying psychological trauma in Afghanistan.
The resource people all volunteer their time, and they are folks who can, and do, charge a great deal of money for their consulting time in their professional lives. But this...this, they are willing do for free. Said James, "I was at dinner the other night (with other mentors) and had a moment where it hit me and I said out loud, 'Not only would I do this for free; I would pay to do it.'"
Michael Fors, a senior executive at Microsoft in Seattle and one of the five founders of the program, says, "Yah, I'm pretty busy, but this is the best thing I do every year." (In addition to his full-time job, he teaches at Stanford and has numerous other commitments.) He tells the Fellows at the end of the workshop, "I am honored to watch you and work with you on this journey. It's the highlight of my year, every year."
And Shona, a very talented, smart and gifted facilitator and consultant, says this: "Every year when I get ready to leave Hiroshima I look around the room and think, I'm going back to my safe and secure home, and they're returning to violence, instability, and all the issues they face as people trying to be positive change agents in a dangerous environment. It's very sobering, very emotional."
Outside the building and onto the bright, warm streets of Hiroshima, we encounter some of the mentors having coffee and celebrating another successful year. There is no rest for the weary--within minutes of the final ceremony Jennifer Fox, a budget advisor with the US Treasury in Washington, DC, is bubbling over. She comes up to me and says, "I've got it! I know what my next project will be!” She shares her idea, eyes sparkling, hands gesturing. I respond, matching her enthusiasm, because it truly is infectious.
A strong focus of the program (and what makes it unique among many others) is the focus on capacity-building among Afghans, rather than the traditional (and frankly, egotistical) colonial approach of doing for them. The program wants to create sustainable, capacity-building skills and experience in those who are committed to creating change from inside Afghanistan.
According to current program director Nigel Gan, 55% of the 128 projects previously created in the 13 years of the program have become funded and implemented. They range from establishing emergency units in public hospitals in Kabul, to improving governance systems for procurement systems in the central bank, to equipping and involving community groups to monitor private sector activities in remote areas where the government is not able to be active due to security issues.
They study in Hiroshima at the end of their program to immerse themselves in the environment of a city that completely rebuilt itself at great effort over the past 71 years. When the A-bomb dropped on August 6, 1945, it eviscerated the cityscape and surrounding landscape for a five-kilometer radius.
There is hope for you, Hiroshima says to the Afghans. We did it. You can do it, too.
And you feel from these courageous, talented, smart, dedicated people that they indeed can, and will.