Saturday, May 11, 2013

Stories from Afghanistan: Children Reject the Hatred of Their Fathers

Part six in my "Stories from Afghanistan" series. For the context and background, I invite you to read the previous posts in the series.

Frequently, I spent my evenings in Kabul on the receiving end of over-the-top hospitality generously served up by graduates of the Afghan-Turk Schools. To be certain that I was adequately honored, the Afghan-Turk NGO leadership arranged for me to dine several nights per week with various successful alumni. Needless to say, I ate well, as the alumni treated me to exquisite meals in their homes and took me to some of Kabul's best restaurants.

One of the gentlemen I dined with on several occasions is a young (perhaps 30 years of age) CEO of a construction company. This man was clearly successful and probably wealthy, as evidenced by the fact that he showed me a $50 million dollar municipal facility his company was just completing. Over the course of our meals together, the construction CEO and I shared lots of laughs together and even a few tears. Despite his success, he was quite humble and very likable from my perspective. 

I learned during my time with the young CEO that he unequivocally attributes his personal success to the education afforded him by the Afghan-Turk NGO and to the core values he learned in the schools. As to those values, one story stands out to me. 

As a boy, my new CEO friend boarded at one of the Afghan-Turk schools. Purposefully, school leaders housed him with boys from backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures very different than his own. And they taught the boys to love one another, to respect one another, and to build real friendship--despite their radically different upbringings. While this was happening inside the gates of the school, on the outside the fathers of some of the boys were literally trying to kill one another. 

As my friend remembered and recounted these events, he became teary-eyed. And I did as well.

I invite you to let this story soak in for a moment. It's heavy. And sometimes it's good for our souls to feel the emotional weight of life's events.

For more in the Stories from Afghanistan series:

Part 1: A Journey of Faith and Friendship

Part 2: When God Ran--Jesus, the Prodigal Son, and Unexpected Common Ground
Part 3: Fear, Love, Friendship and a Snowball Fight
Part 4: Shaved Heads and Sacrificial Love
Part 5: An American Evangelical, a Warm-Hearted Jihadist, and a Communist Muslim?
Part 6: Children Reject the Hatred of Their Fathers

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Stories from Afghanistan: An American Evangelical, a Warm-Hearted Jihadist, and a Communist Muslim?

Part five in my "Stories from Afghanistan" series. For the context and background, I invite you to read the previous posts in the series.

During my stay in Kabul, the Afghan-Turk NGO graciously arranged office space for me to use when I was not teaching. My office mate was an Afghan man in his early 50s. 

When my friend introduced me to my Afghan office mate, he said, "Thomas, please meet Mr. Siraji, a key part of the Aghan-Turk staff. Mr. Siraji was a member of the Mujahideen. He was one of the youngest jihadists fighting against the Russians. But don't worry, Thomas. He has come down from the mountain, he has shaved his beard, and he is MOSTLY civilized now!"

With that, Mr. Siraji let out a huge belly laugh and reached out to embrace me in an equally massive bear hug. With a grin on his face, he said, "Welcome, my American brother!" Everyday thereafter, my Mujahideen brother, as I came to address him, greeted me with me with the same joyous warmth--often in the context of one of those bear hugs.

A day after meeting Mr. Siraji, I met another member of the Afghan-Turk NGO administrative team--Mr. Hafiz, also in his early 50s if I had to guess. My friend introduced him by saying, "Thomas, Mr. Hafiz is an Afghan who completed his undergraduate degree in the former Soviet Union. He earned his masters degree at the Kremlin and is our resident communist." Mr. Hafiz chuckled and offered me a kind greeting.

Mr. Siraji, "my Mujahideed brother," was standing nearby as Mr. Hafiz and I were introduced. He began playfully teasing Mr. Hafiz, whom I began addressing as "my communist brother," about their respective ideological differences. It was unclear to me if they still hold some of those ideological differences or if they were only teasing about things from their past. In many respects, it does not matter.

What does matter is that these two Afghan men, from very different backgrounds and on opposite sides of a major war, now work together to help young people in their country find a better way through quality education and by learning respect for those who are different.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Stories from Afghanistan: Shaved Heads and Sacrificial Love

Part four in my "Stories from Afghanistan" series. For the context and background, I invite you to read the previous posts in the series.

Bald Heads on a Chilly Kabul Morning

On day three of my 15-day seminar, some of the Turkish and Afghan teachers greeted me with a major surprise. Kabul in January can be quite cold, and there was quite a bit of snow on the ground outside as we gathered at 8:00am in a chilly classroom for the start of our day's work.

Before I could get the instruction underway, several of the teachers gathered around me, still wearing their stocking caps. One of them, a dear Afghan gentleman in his 40s, exclaimed, “Teacher, teacher, we have a surprise for you!” (The teachers insisted on addressing me as “teacher” as a cultural sign of respect, despite that fact that we are all about the same age.)

As I inquired about the surprise, about six of the male teachers ripped off their caps to reveal cleanly shaven bald heads. As the classroom roared with laughter, the newly bald teachers explained that they took razors to their heads as an act of solidarity and respect for me and my shiny head. They succeeded, as I was indeed honored!

Here's a class photo, taken about ten days after the teachers had shaven their heads:

Turkish Educators Loving Sacrificially

In the Afghan-Turk NGO, a good percentage of the teachers are Turks. They are young professionals, mostly in their 30s and 40s, with spouses and children. No doubt, each of these families could have stayed in Turkey to earn more income and to live with a greater sense of normalcy and security. Instead, however, they have chosen to do the hard thing—to live and serve in a war-torn country where life can be extra challenging, where they are foreigners, and where their children sometimes suffer. 

For example, one teacher new to Afghanistan lamented that there are no parks in which his kids can play, and he said this makes him “feel sad for my children.” Other teachers noted that relatives in Turkey said things like “you’ll get shot if you go there” and pleaded with them to choose a more sensible and safe place to live and work. (These stories of suffering children and of the protests of relatives back home reminded me, in every way, of my own experiences as an American Christian with a young family living and serving in another part of the world.)

So, in light of the obstacles and risks, why do these Turkish Muslim educators choose to ply their trade in Afghanistan? After many hours getting to know some of these teachers and hearing their hearts, the answer is clear to me. More than anything, they want to honor God with their lives, and they believe that the best way to do that is by laying down their lives to help others—in this case thousands of Afghan children who are receiving quality education and who are learning core values rooted in basic human rights.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Stories from Afghanistan: Fear, Love, Friendship and a Snowball Fight

Post three in my "Stories from Afghanistan" series. For the context and background, I invite you to read the previous posts in the series.

Fear, Love, and Friendship

In my work with Peace Catalyst International, one of the really important things that we do is introduce people from very different backgrounds and perspectives. We proactively create space for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others with real differences to engage in real dialogue and to begin building real friendship.

As I ponder this bridge-building work, I am often reminded of the admonition of John, perhaps Jesus’ closest friend. John wrote that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18, ESV). The inverse seems to hold true as well in that fear appears to push out love. Thus, fear and love are like oil and water—they do not mix.

Unfortunately, I see this regularly as I encounter “Christians” who are so gripped by fear and even hatred of Muslims that they have no capacity for love. In most cases, this fear is of the baseless, irrational variety—the kind of fear we are all prone to conjure up when we cloister with those from “our tribe” and work tirelessly to cast those from “the other tribe” in the worst possible light. My Muslim friends tell me that there is the same propensity among Muslims to believe the worst about Christians.

The encouraging news is that a growing number of Christians, Muslims and others are recognizing the problem and working to overcome it—expressly by finding whatever excuses they can to get to know one another. As this happens, stereotypes are crushed, irrational fear turns into respect and even love, and people with very real and evident differences discover they have far more in common than they ever could have imagined.

In short, these very different people humanize one another, build friendship on the common ground of our humanity, and learn to talk about differences and share deep matters of the heart in the context of that friendship.

With that, I’d like to help you get to know my dear Afghan and Turkish friends in Kabul by sharing some random experiences and observations from my recent visit there. As you know if you have read previous posts in this series, the Afghan-Turk Educational NGO is a Muslim non-profit focused on education projects throughout Afghanistan, and they flew me in to train some of their teachers and to explore additional avenues of partnership.

To help you get to know my friends, I have written five brief accounts of various experiences I had in Kabul. I will share one below and will post each of the remaining vignettes on subsequent days this week. It is my hope that what follows will offer you a glimpse into the lives and the hearts of my Muslim friends in Kabul and that in some way you will see yourself in them and in their stories.

Teachers Fighting in Kabul--Armed with Snowballs

During my last week in Kabul, I awoke one morning to a fresh snow covering of about eight inches. As my students and I were beginning our early morning class session, we heard a very loud thud. Looking toward the sound, we saw the remnants of a massive snowball that had struck (and nearly cracked, I'm sure) our classroom window.

About 20 feet beyond the window stood Mr. Gurkan, a veteran educator who was co-teaching the 15-day seminar with me. Mr. Gurkan had a smirk on his face that my students, experienced educators from Turkey and Afghanistan, could not ignore.

Desperate to rush outside to respond appropriately to their challenger and yet committed to being respectful of me, they jumped from their seats, ran toward me, and all at once exclaimed something like, "Teacher, PLEASE may we go outside to attack Mr. Gurkan?" As soon as I consented, the classroom emptied into the parking lot, where a ferocious but all-in-good-fun snowball war ensued!