June 24, 2017 § 1 Comment
Kabul, January 2017. It was the last week of my two-months travel in Afghanistan. The sky was in its perpetual grey, the air was thick with pollution from traffic and coal heating, and the streets were wet from melting snow. Although wearing two layers of socks, my tropical feet were freezing from the cold. I tried to walk faster to reach my destination sooner. But my stiff legs made walking felt a bit awkward.
The streets of Kabul seemed as if it was in everlasting chaos and hustle bustle despite the heavy snow. The bazaar was crowded with sellers with their carts of various items; fruits, vegetables, second hand clothes, shoes, kitchenware, cosmetics, and tools. Intersections were swarmed with halting taxis and soldiers with Kalashnikovs casually patrolling the streets. There is something ineffable that draws me to this place. I was not ready to leave, but my visa could no longer be extended. I opened my eyes wide, inhaled the piercing cold greedily to my lungs, trying to absorb as many impressions as I could, to add to the collections I have, of people, of places, of scent and stories.
* * *
Behind the nondescript gate in an area north west of Kabul, stands the House of Flowers, a home for a number of children who had lost either or both of their parents to war or disease. Founded by a couple, Mostafa Vaziri and Allison Lide in 2002, the orphanage is run on Montessori principles.
Having worked in few Montessori schools for the past six years, I recall always speaking to the children about peace. We invite the children to think and tell us their thoughts when they hear the word ‘peace’. Indeed, Montessori education is laden with Peace lessons as the founder, Maria Montessori, developed the thinking circa 1910s when World War I was about to unfold. In 1930s, after giving a lecture on peace and education, she was placed under political surveillance under Mussolini’s rule. With such intense situation in Europe and the rest of the world, Peace Education becomes one of the key components in Montessori classrooms.
Despite living in a relatively peaceful country, Indonesia, teaching peace to the children is nonetheless relevant. As Montessori said, peace is not only the absence of fighting. It is an environment which works under an umbrella of respect, where people can freely share concerns, be productive, be creative, without punitive or violent results. As cliche as it may sound to those having peace for granted, we tell the children that peace starts from the heart. We expose them to arts and nature. We teach them conflict resolutions, how to be angry without being hurtful -because, it is okay to be angry-, and do a lot of role plays to model peaceful behaviors.
However, it is in a place like Afghanistan where the word peace serves far more than a platitude. It is a longing, a dream, or a nostalgia for some. The word always evokes a sweet feeling imbued with sadness. Here in the orphanage, I understood that peace shouldn’t be just sentimental, but a work to be done.
After being welcomed by the orphanage manager, we went upstairs to the classrooms. The door on the left led to Ms.Fatima’s class. A class was in session and about a dozen children were sitting on the floor along the long table across the room. Ms.Fatima introduced herself and served hot tea with sweets. Finally, I felt warm and so did my poor feet. Everybody was smiling and excited at the sight of foreign visitor. I told Ms.Fatima that I was a teacher in a Montessori school in Jakarta and shared some pictures of the school and the children in Jakarta. Ms.Fatima then showed the pictures to the children who were all curious to have a look.
The children in the classroom seemed to be in mixed age groups. Boys and girls of different skin and hair colors were mingling and learning together. Teacher Fatima said that the children come from different provinces and not only they are friends, they also teach each other the language of their tribe. A little girl in the classroom now speaks astonishingly four languages (including English).
The class was having a silent reading session, but each child proudly read aloud to me to show off their English reading skill, which was impressive. One child immediately pointed ‘Indonesia’ on the map on the wall to his friends when I told them I am from Indonesia. It made me smile, for even adults in Iran and Afghanistan often don’t know where Indonesia is. It is obvious that the children are happy there. As a teacher myself, I could make quite an informed observation that the children were relaxed, confident, and cheerful.
Behind the door across Ms.Fatima’s classroom, is Ms.Razia’s and Ms.Basira’s class for the younger children. When I entered, they were learning mathematics with Montessori colorful beads. The children’s curious smiles were as bright as the sunlight that nicely lit this small room through the window. Ms.Razia showed the Montessori learning materials the teachers had made for children to use.
Just as Ms.Fatima’s class, the children here are also of mixed gender, tribes, and age. A poster on the wall shows a hand drawn map of Afghanistan with lines dividing the provinces, and the photos of children were placed according to where they come from. Here the children also teach each other languages of the tribe they belong to. “This place is a little Afghanistan”, one of the teachers said proudly. I couldn’t have agreed more, this is how it should be.
Sadly in Afghanistan, the (adults) society is fragmented based on tribes. Past tragedies between different tribes have planted distrust and paranoia, and it segregates people to even the most superficial level of interaction. But here in the orphanage, little children not only coexist, but benefit each other by learning from differences and diversities. Everything here before my eyes is a testament of love and what needs to be done in times of trouble. The laughter, the friendship, the drawings on the wall, the furniture. Somebody had cut the papers, drew, colored them, and stuck them to the wall. Somebody had bought the carpet and the racks, and arranged the books. Somebody keeps this space clean and tidy. The founders that work tirelessly to find donors, the staff that keep things together, the teachers that have built such a strong connection with the children that must be central to their emotional well-being.
The naivete of the children made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. When they introduced themselves (in English, of course), they told me their favorite colors (basically each mentioned ALL the colors -maybe to show off their vocabulary :-D) and favorite dish (many of them said “steak”). At the end of their introduction, they’d say that their father had died. Each of them had different stories to tell.
It is unthinkable for many of us, to imagine a child denied from basic needs in a poverty stricken country, but is also affected directly from the atrocities of war. A war that is perpetrated by adults that are supposed to be their role model.
Children of war may experience a profound sadness since their childhood, some innocence taken away when they learn that a family member has been killed by another. They grow up in a place where killings, use of guns, mortars and bombs are the norm. They may carry a pain that many of us will never understand.
At the same time, these children, I imagine, carry an immense potential. With such an early understanding of the fragility thus preciousness of life, they could be the ones who will appreciate and embrace time and opportunity they have, like many other people I met across Afghanistan who are consciously trying to make lives better in Afghanistan through wonderful projects and initiatives. My friends, two bright young Hazara women become mentors for underprivileged children under an amazing grassroot initiative called ROYA. A 17-year old girl in Bamiyan whose house I was staying in, holding free English class for little children in the neighborhood during winter holiday. Another friend, an amazing young woman pioneered a cycling club for girls, despite being condemned by mullahs. And many, many more.
House of Flowers and many other individuals or institutions serve as a reminder why is it important to press on, even when things seem hopeless at times, especially when things seem hopeless. Afghanistan is no doubt an extremely difficult place to live. Reading articles, analysis, and talking with many Afghans had many sadly projecting that the situation in Afghanistan is only going to get worse. The security is in its worst since 2001 and attacks are more frequently launched by militants. But people are resilient. Or they simply can’t afford not to be resilient. Men can’t stop to get up at sun rise and go to work, no matter how little they make. My friend a Sikh guy in Kabul, just has to continue selling his herbs at the bazaar, despite being targeted as a religious minority. And it certainly is all the more reasons for the women of House of Flowers to love and educate the children, and create an environment where they feel safe to just be.
For the opportunity I had been blessed visiting a very vulnerable country, to learn from the people I have met throughout my journey, to be welcomed with such kindness and open heart, I am grateful and ever more certain that especially here, the beauty lies in the paradox, in which the real strength is one that springs from weakness. For now I have to say goodbye to Afghanistan. But all the impressions are to stay. I know, some day somehow, I will find my way back.
Along with Kitchen, Health, Order, Educational and Control Committee, the children also have a Peace Committee, to help resolve conflict between each other.
The most adorable bank of House of Flowers :D
Learning about other places and cultures is the best way to fight hate and prejudice :)
Learning materials, some were hand made by the teachers
Peace above Afghanistan. One day..