Stories of the World

Renewed hope for an Afghan child-bride

Situations are never just what they seem to be.

Just as what appears to be healthy, vibrant, and lasting can dissolve in an instant, so situations that look desperate or violently unfair can resolve themselves in surprising and grace-filled ways.

I traveled to Afghanistan in March with the human-rights organization Global Exchange and a delegation called “Women Making Change.” The group of 11 women and one patient male photographer comprised a team of varying mindsets, attitudes, and visions for that country not dissimilar to the widespread political views swirling around various government administrations.

During our stay we visited with women leaders, non-government organizations, schools, orphanages, and clinics. We ate in private homes and saw towns, marketplaces, historical areas, and performances. We heard harrowing stories of courageous women who secretly taught English to girls during the Taliban regime despite grave personal danger, and we walked through the stadium where countless people were publicly executed for imagined or exaggerated crimes.

Photo by Saverio Serravezza

Dishearteningly, we absorbed the presence of beggars, mine victims with stumps and shrapnel scars, and women in burkas moving past like the blue shadows of ghosts. The military felt palpable with occasional tanks lumbering down the streets, and the dark rumblings of helicopters over the hills. Jagged outlines of bombed buildings, piles of garbage, and congested streets of foot and wheeled traffic competed for space and progress with new construction and hopeful entrepreneurs. At times it felt as though the place could never reclaim its original majesty and artistic grandeur.

And yet, Afghanistan is still a beautiful country of snowy mountains and vast wild space. Earth-colored homes built into the cliffs show a resilience and aptitude for using natural resources for both camouflage and protection. There is still spirit in the eyes of the children. Conversations by men and women show that, despite outward setbacks and frequent lack of resources, the population longs for peace, unification, and opportunity.

General impressions became distilled with personal meetings, including one with a 12-year old girl named Gulsoma. She was married at age four and abused for years by her husband’s family after her mother fled to Pakistan when the bombings became fierce. Gulsoma’s new family beat her, withheld food, tied her to animals, and dropped her off the roof where she broke her arm.

When her life was threatened after the disappearance of a family wristwatch, she fled. Discovered by a kind rickshaw driver who took her to the police, an investigation over her troubled home-life placed her father-in-law in prison and Gulsoma in an orphanage. After spending a year in that institution as the only girl, Gulsoma finally found an advocate in the Minister of Women’s Affairs in Kabul.

Gulsoma’s story haunted me, as did her soft but articulate words and shy eyes. She felt like one of the earth-colored homes built into the cliffs, stoically bracing against future violence, leaning into her own natural reserves. She admitted the great fear of being found by her family and suffering reprisals, but also that she wanted an education, wished to spend her life working for human rights, and never again wanted to be married. Dr. Massouda Jalal, the Minister of Women’s Affairs at that time, convinced me to tell Gulsoma’s story after I returned home.

“You must tell Laura Bush,” she insisted. “You must tell this story so that the women of Afghanistan know they have not been forgotten.”

After returning to Seattle, I strived to do just that. Through various slide and speaking presentations about Afghanistan, a cover newspaper story, and a feature on the local television station, I tried to put the word out about this small-statured, big-dreaming girl. I prayed about her, talked about her, wrote to her, and couldn’t forget.

Others, I know, remember her too, and at least one other journalist has profiled Gulsoma’s story.

And the good news? After months of feeling as though everything was no use, that the situation was defiantly tragic and that no one anywhere cared enough to get personally involved, I received a surprising email. Another human rights delegation had visited Afghanistan since ours, and the Minister of Women’s Affairs had praised the group who had traveled before them, OUR group, for their support and involvement.

Apparently a phone call was made from the United States to Afghanistan’s President Karzai about 12-year old Gulsoma. President Karzai requested to meet with her, and he has since passed legislation that has helped her and 150 other girls in similar situations. Surely that does not erase the pain and suffering that has happened, but such efforts show that things are changing, at least on paper. Stories do matter. Hope can win.

I’ve no way of knowing if the changes that have occurred are from my own efforts, but sometimes we’re not destined to know of our impact. Sometimes, just the idea of conscious intention is enough. In any case, I’m thrilled, I’m grateful, and my spirit has brightened.

Here in Seattle, at least one heart has been broken and renewed. Somewhere in Afghanistan there is one young girl who has been given some small protection. May both of us stand just a little bit taller.