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Feelings of familiarity
By Ilaha Eli Omar ’12 / Afghanistan
My journey home began in a quiet, whitewashed office. It was early 2002 and I was an IT assistant at Cal-Trans, when an e-mail from a friend popped into my in-box. It would have been easy to dismiss it, and click on the delete button as I so often do. Yet the name of my birth country in the subject line made my heart pound, delivering an emotional blow that forced me to pay attention. “Help Afghanistan,” it read.
I read the message and immediately called my friend who sent it. I learned that a 747 cargo jet was leaving for Kabul within weeks, carrying desperately needed items for the Afghan people. My people. Evergreen International was flying a plane filled with winter clothes, school supplies and first aid items for the displaced. I knew instantly that I had to be a part of the mission, though I was unsure if I could afford it and unable to measure what impact, if any, I might have. I took time off from work and left immediately for Oregon, where the staging for the flight was taking place.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind of intense activities—members of churches, synagogues, mosques, soccer moms, and complete strangers came together to help Afghanistan. Minivans, trailers and 45-foot U-Haul trucks filled with donated goods streamed into the storage space. Volunteers were knee-deep in boxes and bags, sorting, organizing, categorizing, and attempting to manage the incredible volume of donations being received. I had arranged a fundraiser, contacted everyone I knew, issued a press release, and hoped for the best.
The outpouring of compassion and sense of community overwhelmed me—it was a near festive atmosphere. We all worked well into the night to ensure that these supplies were ready—to make the flight out of Oregon into Kabul. I wasn’t afraid to get my hands dirty to do it. I drove a forklift around the warehouse, palletized medical equipment, and slept very little during those days.
Preparing to revisit the country of my birth was exciting, and a cause for reflection. I was barely six-weeks old when my family left Afghanistan. What I knew about my homeland had been learned through others’ memories, their fables and colorful stories—I had none of my own. When the departure date arrived I boarded the plane with eight others, filled with trepidation and quiet anticipation. I knew there would be much to do when we arrived, yet I also knew I was taking this flight for myself—to assuage the longing that gnawed at me. I was ensnared in others’ interpretations; their bias had become my truth. I was the first person in my family to return to Afghanistan since the war, and I knew I had to disentangle myself from their expectations.
Exiting the plane on the tarmac in Afghanistan provided clear evidence that I was a stranger in a strange land. The humidity, the hazy atmosphere, the air so dense—I felt its soil clinging to my throat. When I disembarked from a plane in the U.S. there was nothing to smell—but here, the odors were strong and unfamiliar. I struggled to take it in, the gift from my home- land. I had to accept this offering.
As my feet hit the concrete, a cacophonous chorus of the Dari language engulfed me. Emotionally, I was both confused and elated, yet managed a faint smile; it was all I could muster. A young man, helping me with my luggage, pointed to the half-eaten pencil in between my fingers. I didn’t have time then to wonder why.
There was no doubt that I was driving through a war-torn city. Kabul was broken. It was as if I had stepped into a bygone era or, perhaps, one yet to be formed. But strangely there was a sense of familiarity, a sense that I had passed this way before. Throngs of children were playing in the dirt, some making mud cakes, others chasing cars. Their play was testimony that perhaps one could find happiness in this place.
We spent time in Kabul before leaving the city to deliver our supplies. I had been told that no trip to Afghanistan was complete without a visit to “Chicken Street”—the so-called Rodeo Drive of Kabul. Since the days of the hippie trail this magnifcent and colorful stretch of real estate had been home to sellers of woven carpets, antiques, lapis lazuli stones and traditional hand-sewn garments. It was a feast for the eyes, and my ears rang with the sound of male voices shouting out their prices and urging me to buy a trinket or two to take home. It was then that I realized: I was a foreigner. My teeth were too white and straight to be anything else. Perhaps a South American, but certainly not Afghan.
We also visited local schools in Kabul, but the stories on CNN hadn’t prepared me for the sight. Schools were assembled in makeshift animal barns, UNICEF tents, and bombed out buildings with half-exposed ceilings, white dusty tarps waving in the wind. I stood, mouth agape, as a classroom of 20 children passed around one or two pencils. I immediately thought of the young man at the airport. What was a pencil worth? The teacher, a pale young woman, cradled her infant son as she taught arithmetic in an over- crowded classroom.
Meeting the last shah of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, at the Presidential Palace, one of only five residences still standing in Kabul, was a wonderful opportunity. Although he had lived as an exile for many years in Rome, he was asked to return to Afghanistan after the Taliban were overthrown. I kissed his hand and I told him I was the granddaughter of Mohammed Sarwar Omar, the former Minister of Commerce. He seemed impressed. He complimented my Chappan, after which I told him that I had purchased it on “Chicken Street” earlier in the day. That elicited laughter among the audience of impassive and stone-faced guests.
Meeting the women at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs was a teachable moment for me. They encouraged us to educate Afghan women by teaching a specific trade, to help edify and uplift by creating independence and self-sufficiency, instead of only throwing money at them. Many of us in the United States were accustomed to doing just that—it was simpler, though not easy—but uncomplicated nonetheless.
Later, when we visited one of the few vocational schools for women, we were confronted with a sea of black and blue burkas. I longed to make contact with my eyes, to find kinship with a sisterhood that I was seeking. As soon as the room was cleared of men each woman unraveled her burka, revealing dancing eyes and generous smiles they had been hiding under their traditional garb. There was a collective breath exhaled in that moment. Some of them even were wearing mascara and lipstick—I wanted to share so much with these women.
The next morning, we prepared for our long drive into the rural villages of Mazar-i-Sharif, almost 300 kilometers away, to distribute supplies to the people in need there. As I stepped into the rickety and stained van, I was unprepared for the grueling journey ahead. The van took us through dirt, unpaved roads, and up mud-soaked terrain until it finally came to halt in the middle of the road. We were perplexed when the driver stepped out, volubly gesturing with his hands to speak to some men in red and orange turbans. We were asked to step out of the van and get on horseback for the rest of the trip. Since we were on the border of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, the warlords in control of this area were going to escort us on to Mazar-i-Sharif.
As nervous as I was in that moment, I romanticized the storybook idea that I was on an unprecedented mission: a life-changing experience to share with my children one day. And so it was.
They took us to the famed Blue Mosque—a gloriously exquisite building and pilgrimage sight. We were witness to Muslim archeological heritage sights that were so beautiful that I could only hold on to these images for a moment. They taught us to shoot Russian Kalashnikovs and American AK- 47 guns, and shared detailed and harrowing stories that left us all clutching each other.
They took us to an underground military facility with a jail. We were offered hashish. Military personnel, bodyguards and guns followed us every- where. And yet, there was a certain sense of safety—I felt we were in a strange sanctuary. This was our only access to the women of Mazar-i-Sharif, and we were grateful for it. We found a way to feel secure in it.
When we finally reached our destination, the women’s faces were a welcome sight—their eyes conveyed so much. Since we weren’t permitted to sit with the men, being alone with these women allowed a certain liberty; a calm entered the room once the men left. I suddenly felt a tug on my shirt and one of the women looked at me with desperate eyes. She begged me for contraception. She had 10 children and didn’t want any more. Her obvious distress left me wishing that I had something I could offer her.
In the van on the return from Mazar-i-Sharif, my thoughts were filled with the stories that these women had shared with me. I had held a woman in my arms as she shed tears of suffering and despair. Such fortitude and courage were hard to imagine, but I had seen it. The questions I had for my- self were: “how could I use my life for the betterment of these people?” And, “How could I return home to the U.S. to use the knowledge I had gained to propel my life forward instead of allowing this journey to fade into the background of my existence?”
Suddenly, the van stopped. The driver showed us that the incessant rain had washed out the bridge connecting the Solang River between Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. We had to get out of the van and cross the river by foot. It was sunset. We left all our belongings in the van and started the long and difficult trek. As we struggled through knee-deep water, some local tribal men came rushing towards us, saying: “We know the way. Sia Sara!” There was an easier route for women, they said, which would take half an hour. The half-hour became an hour, and then two, and finally we stopped after three hours. Some of the women were crying as we continued to brave the cold water, harsh wintry air and a trek with no destination in view. My body was numb and each time my foot hit the unstable ground it felt like a 20 pound weight digging into the mud. Abruptly I lost my footing and was going to fall into the muddy Solang River, when I felt a firm tug on my shirt. Someone had grabbed onto me. I was safe.
At last, we found shelter for the night. An old silver-haired woman invited us into her mud hut home to sleep. The hut was lit by a small kerosene lantern. As bare and remote as the hut was, her kindness was welcome. I will never forget the gentle way our hostess took my hand and taught me how to squat over a hole in her makeshift bathroom. The white porcelain toilet back in America flashed before my eyes. We fell into her home with a sense of complete relief. She covered us with patchwork blankets and offered us hot tea. I don’t believe I have ever since tasted tea so sweet, so flavorful. She apologized for the lack of food in her home—my heart nearly broke.
That night I stared at the mud-soaked ceiling with uncertainty. There was crying, and heartfelt conversation. Some of us were in shock; others held their emotions in check. All of us were wet, muddy and tired—and very emotional.
I didn’t sleep much at all that night. I woke up early, anticipating the rest of our painstaking walk. We were all relieved to learn that we were a lot closer to Kabul than we had initially thought the night before. A cab took us the rest of the way to our guesthouse in the city.
When we looked at the time we realized we had two hours to make our flight. I was worried and afraid, because there was only one flight a week out of Kabul to Dubai and from there, back to the U.S. If we didn’t make this one, we would have to wait it out in Kabul. We rushed in, hurriedly grabbed our few remaining items and ran out the door. We made the flight with only minutes to spare.
I huffed and puffed down the aisle to my seat, passport in one hand, and bags in the other. It was only when I sat down that I noticed my skin and my clothing. I was covered in mud. I had mud caked on my arms, feet, and matted in my hair. The passenger sitting next to me stared at me intently, as if awaiting an explanation. How to explain the distance I had just covered? It was impossible. I closed my eyes in utter exhaustion.
The journey was over. Or had it just begun?
Ilaha Eli Omar is a graduate of Thunderbird’s Online MBA program (now called the Online Master of Global Management). She was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and moved to Hamburg, Germany, at 40 days of age due to the Russian invasion in late 1979. After a year in Germany, her family relocated in Southern California to reunite with other family members. She is co-founder of, Multipoint Wireless, a technical staffing firm.