UNICEF Ambassador Clay Aiken wrote this blog post for Fieldnotes, reflecting on his visit to UNICEF field sites in Afghanistan.
It’s not that fun being wrong.
Fortunately for me, I don’t have to do it very often! HA HA!
Okay… I’m kidding. I spend plenty of my time on the side of inaccuracy. But, few of my misdirections or misconceptions could possibly compare to how far off of the mark I was in my assumptions about my trip to Afghanistan.
I doubt it would come as a surprise that my mother was none too thrilled when I told her I would be traveling with UNICEF to a country that many consider to be one of the most dangerous in the world for Americans. My brother had just returned from his second tour as a U.S. Marine in Iraq when I let my mother know, so her blood pressure probably stayed high even after my return. I wasn’t so at ease about it myself. Hostage takings, suicide bombings, and insurgent attacks are all seemingly daily occurrences in many parts of the country. At least that’s what we see on TV and read in papers and magazines.
I couldn’t have been more wrong about Afghanistan. And I couldn’t have been farther off target about the Afghan people. With the exception of maybe my grandparent’s house, I have never felt more welcomed. The Afghan people are some of the most gracious and inviting people on Earth.
After centuries of having their land filled with travelers and explorers, I guess they have hospitality down to an instinctive science. Everywhere we traveled we were greeted with warmth and welcome. Even on the streets of Kabul and the rugged hills of Bamyan. But nowhere as gracious as the schools and UNICEF programs that we visited. Despite the most meager accommodations, we were always invited in and shown every simple resource with the utmost of pride.
And, why shouldn’t they be proud. Until a few years ago, most of these students were forbidden by the Taliban regime from going to school. And now?…. Now over 6 million children are piling into broken down buildings and UNICEF tents everyday to catch up on the lessons that they have missed out on for years. That’s if they are lucky. Many, if not most, haven’t even the luxury of a tent. Just a dusty ground outside in one of the world’s most beautifully scenic landscapes. And still, they come to class. Many walk for miles; for hours.
With frankness I’ll tell you, there is little to show off at these schools. The schools I visited had such limited resources that most made the average American 3 year-old’s bedroom look like a learning lab. I can remember my own collection of books as a 2nd grader, and it looked liked the Library of Congress compared to the school library I saw at a school for over 2000 students. (And, I doubt I ever read half of them.)
Yet, the hunger and desire to read and to learn is so strong that, despite no enforced laws making schools compulsory in Afghanistan, children are clamoring to go to schools.
As I saw on my trip, UNICEF is there. UNICEF is providing tents so children can study away from the elements. UNICEF is struggling to provide school supplies to every young boy and girl in Afghanistan who wants to learn. UNICEF is providing literacy courses for women who have been forbidden far too long from a right of education that so many of us take for granted. But there is so much more that needs to be done.
Afghanistan is so far from the “lost cause” that I had expected to find in the rugged hills of south Asia. It is, I believe, one of the world’s countries with the most potential. The people are perhaps it’s most valuable natural resource. They are determined to break through the years of oppression they have endured. They are sponges for knowledge, and poised for success.
Winter is over in Afghanistan. It’s time to get ready for amazing growth in Afghanistan’s spring.
The people… make that the COUNTRY of Afghanistan showed me and my fellow travelers such AMAZING hospitality despite meager means.
As a people of substantially more means… we can help UNICEF return the favor.