“Call him. We can have him over for tea. Or go out to dinner.”
“Liz, I could never call an Afghan man,” my 18-year-old Afghan friend responded. She sounded insulted that I’d even consider asking her to do such a thing.
“But you are not in Afghanistan. This is New York City, where you can do whatever you want!”
The young man in question had just relocated from Kabul to New York to work as a journalist for a news organization. I was not trying to play matchmaker, and as a 62-year-old widow, I was not looking for a Saturday night date. I was interested in meeting the journalist as part of my ongoing attempt to make sense of Afghan culture. I became immersed in volunteer work a year ago, after meeting Tabasum, a young woman from Kabul, who had just graduated from Middlebury College and is now continuing her studies at Oxford University. She was my inspiration to serve as a mentor for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project founded by American war correspondent Masha Hamilton, to give voice to Afghan women. This led me to the School of Leadership Afghanistan, which is directed by Shabana Basij-Rasikh, another Middlebury graduate, with ties to AWWP. The SOLA mission is to educate Afghan women in the U.S. and have them return to rebuild their country. I sometimes write newsletters for SOLA, and one carried the headline, “The Sky’s the Limit!” with an image of Shabana from the back.
My young friend’s goals are beyond sky high; she is shooting for the moon. An honor-roll student, she just graduated from a boarding school in Connecticut and became the first female in her family to get a high school degree. Intent (hell bent?) on attending an Ivy League college — preferably Brown, where she attends summer programs — she obtained a scholarship for a post-grad year at another boarding school to work on her English and prep for the SATs. I will be her host family. I have to smile, since I am not really a “family,” unless you count Henry Longfellow and Sophie, my dachshund and golden retriever. My daughter is at college in Boston, leaving me a widow and an empty nester, with time on my hands and a desire to do something of value.
At one point, she wanted to be president of Afghanistan. Now, though, as the 2014 presidential election looms, she is opposed to a woman president.
“But,” I asked her recently, “how can you not admire Fawzia Koofi? I saw her on Jon Stewart, and even he was speechless. The woman is beyond brave. She was left in the sun to die because she was a girl. Think of that!” I didn’t mention that the same could be said of my adopted daughter, who was left on a cold city street in Hefei, China, right after being born.
“My country is not ready for a woman president, Liz,” she told me.
“Good point. She’d be a Taliban target,” I conceded. But still, I thought to myself, she’s been named one of the 150 most fearless women in the world by The Daily Beast, and if she wants to be president, she should go for it.
My friend seemed less interested in a political career, and I asked her what she was considering now. She told me she might major in finance in college, because she thinks it would be a way to help her family. Her senior project at boarding school was a business plan to help her aunts sell woven scarves. Her start-up costs included five sewing machines at $100 each, or $500.
And so our conversations have gone. At times I’ve wondered what possessed me to take on a second adolescent girl. And why did it have to involve Afghanistan? When friends with the best of intentions ask me why she should ever return to her country, I'm stumped.
“If I were in her position,” my friend Pam, a psychologist, confided, “I’d stay here. Why go back and get killed?”