Danville Express

Column - April 27, 2007

Diablo Views: Remember Afghanistan?

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Each week in Safeway, I place items into my cart without much thought to price. At the same moment, women in other parts of the world are wondering how they can feed their children.

A presentation Saturday about women in Afghanistan brought home this fact. In that war-torn country, widows often have as many as seven children and, although it costs only $25 per month to support a family, the money is hard to come by.

"People with families live in shacks, in tents, and the winter in Kabul is really brutal," said Hanifa Tokhi, who works in the Fremont school district to help Afghan families adjust to America. Her family was granted political asylum in the United States after the Russians invaded in 1978. "We were not a rich country, but we had freedom, and people all had a room to go to and be warm, before the Russian invasion," she said.

The Danville-Alamo branch of the American Association of University Women hosted the event at the Shadow Hills Cabana. Edna Mitchell, a retired professor from Mills College who worked on a USAID project in Kabul, had addressed the group last year about Afghanistan and when asked to return, she put together the panel. It included Melanie Gadener, head of the Foundation for Self-Reliance, which works with Afghan war widows; two local Afghan women who are advisors to the foundation; and two educators from the Afghan Friends Network who had just returned from a teacher-training mission.

Shahla Arsala was a well-educated teacher in Afghanistan. "I immigrated after the Russians came and the execution of my father, who was a general in the Afghan army," she said. "My family left with two suitcases." When her husband died of cancer and left her a widow with three children, she felt sorry for herself, she said. But when she thought of the widows in Afghanistan with large families and no means of support, she rallied to help the others.

Shahla said that after 9/11, much attention was focused on the Afghan community, and she gave presentations to help people understand that all Afghans were not terrorists. "I'm very protective of our people, and their dignity," she said. When Shahla visited Afghanistan in 2003, she brought back squares women had stitched for an Afghan Freedom Quilt, which will be on display at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles from July 17-22.

Next the educators spoke - Marianne O'Grady and Elsie De Laere, who is the Amnesty International specialist in Afghanistan. Still jetlagged, they told about their latest visit, during which they gave training to 130 teachers who gathered in rural Ghazni Province. The school building is used for primary grades in the morning, middle school in the afternoon, and high school in the evening, with 80 to 100 students in each classroom. If someone can read and write, he or she might be the designated teacher, the women said, because after 30 years of war and Taliban rule there were no schools and no teachers trained.

The two gave lessons on the skeleton and the digestive system but also taught about early child development, said Elsie. "They were absolutely fascinated," she said because the teachers were only familiar with learning by rote. "This was revolutionary to them."

The two women are surrounded by police guards during their stays and sometimes literally locked into their tiny room together for hours at a time for their own safety. Elsie met with the family of a man who had been beheaded by the Taliban, and she said people urged her to ask Amnesty International to do more to let the world know about Taliban brutality. Its members are not Afghan, she said. They recruit, in Pakistan, young boys who have no families.

After the fascinating two-hour presentation, we all enjoyed a wonderful Afghan meal made by two women in Fremont who had recently immigrated. "It was an honor to make it for you," Melanie told us, explaining that the women wanted to use their skills.

Melanie said she had just spent a day with the Afghan ambassador in Washington, D.C., who said the violence had increased fourfold in 2006 compared to the previous year, and there was a 600 percent increase in suicide attacks. "His message was: We need to help Afghanistan build its human capital," Melanie reported. "Once women in Afghanistan have the means to earn an income, things will change for the better. Our focus is education, education, education."

The Foundation for Self-Reliance began a grants program for this purpose. Women are awarded $25 each month for a year and they report regularly on what steps they have taken toward being able to support themselves. For more information, call (510) 797-4600 or visit www.e-fsr.org. A donation of $25 per month can support a family in Afghanistan even if it can't buy much at Safeway.

Learn more about Afghanistan

What: "East Meets West: Awakening to the Challenges of Little Kabul"

Who: Speakers on Islam in America, multiculturalism in America, and violence and reform in Afghanistan, and more, in a panel moderated by Melanie Gadener, executive director of Foundation for Self-Reliance

Where: Golden Peacock Restaurant, 3681 Peralta Blvd., Fremont

When: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday, June 23

Cost: Free but RSVP because seats are limited; light lunch will be served

Information: Call Foundation for Self-Reliance at (510) 797-4660 or visit e-sfr.org

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