I Want to Meet the King of America

A staff member once told me that I focus too much of my field photography and reports on children, rather than on teachers.  “Remember, Fred, we’re Teachers Without Borders.  Keep your focus.”

I always appreciate straight talk.  She was right, I suppose. But not really.  Teachers may be about a better output, but children are about a better outcome.  My eyes will always be on that prize.  Call it sentimentality.  I call it common sense.  Teacher excellence is not only about subject-matter competency or age appropriate pedagogy or the measurement of student learning.

It’s also about love.  It’s essential that teachers be passionate about their subjects, but equally important to be compassionate towards children. It’s not enough to know about children.  We have to know them, too.

Take Vasila Husseini for example.

The heart specialists at NYU said that Vasila Hossaini had Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA), a congenital heart defect.  Symptoms include an enlarged heart, fatigue, difficulty breathing, and cyanosis (blue coloring).

You’d never know it by looking at her.  At the time, she was an eleven-year-old firecracker and a standout at The Afghan Mini Mobile Circus for Children, nestled in the Kārte Se neighborhood of western Kabul.  She gave piggyback rides to bigger kids just to show off her strength, and she led her singing group in front of thousands.  Her buddies jumped through hoops and juggled and performed skits about proper hygiene, malaria, and dysentery.  The MMCC was not a substitute for school and operated for a few hours every day, but the children learned some rudimentary English, proper hygiene, and how to avoid land mines.  And they had fun.

The Mini Mobile Circus for Children was the brainchild of a Danish couple determined to help Afghan children experience childhood.  With the Taliban stranglehold no longer suffocating the Afghan people, they maintained, children should express themselves and make others laugh.  Let’s create a combination circus-camp-school, they thought. And let’s take it on the road.  Audiences squealed with delight.

Vasila, however, was in obvious trouble. One hardly needed a stethoscope to see, just below her rib cage, her beating heart.  I imagine that, after several examinations, Dr. Vishant Tivari eventually sighed, twisted his stethoscope to fit back into his big white lab coat pocket, and delivered the news.  The operation could be done in India. He had been calling around; no takers. It would be best that an appeal be made for it to be done in the United States.  The sooner the better.

A crash-course in Anatomy is in order. You need to get a sense of what was going on inside Vasila’s heart.

Before a baby comes into the world, the ductus arteriosus (a blood vessel essential for fetal blood circulation) connects the aorta and pulmonary arteries, bypassing the lungs because oxygen is provided through the mother’s placenta. Once the baby is born and the lungs fill up with air, the ductus arteriosus is supposed to close up and it’s all systems go for the real world. If the ductus remains open (patent), blood does not circulate normally between the lungs and the heart.

Doctors can identify the defect through a routine examination by stethoscope – a raspy phffft-tum, phfft-tum sound of blood squirting through the opening, like water through a garden hose covered by a finger. Or they might employ more sophisticated diagnostic methods like electrocardiograms, x-rays, echocardiograms, and cardiac catheterization.

Though a small PDA does not always mean that heart symptoms will develop, early treatment is essential.  Depending upon its severity, PDA can be treated (closed) with medication or a transcatheter device. If that does not work, surgery is next. Untreated, PDA can cause hypertension, an infection of the inner lining of the heart, or heart failure.

To take care of it, one needs resources.

The filmmaker Stacia Teele first learned about Vasila writes about Vasila’s family:  “They are squatters who live with six families in a bombed-out house riddled with bullet holes.  They have no electricity or plumbing.  The eight members of her family live in one room that just has two pillows on the floor – all of them sleep lined up with their heads on the pillow and their legs on the floor. The twenty or so kids that live in the house have no toys.  They only had one doll that they shared between them – a little plastic doll that had no arms and no legs.”

While it was fortunate that Vasila could see a doctor, it was short of impossible for her family to access the kind of medical care she would need for a procedure of this nature, not to mention the conditions for a healthy recuperation.

I hadn’t heard about Vasila in 2004 when I was in Kabul and only visited the Mini Mobile Circus for Children for a moment. She became a part of my life upon my return to the United States, and has stayed so.

I was also preoccupied. Teachers Without Borders was emerging from that the life-support stage of a non-profit.  Some are DOA, some struggle to thrive.  We were on our feet, but very wobbly. I was consumed by the tyranny of the urgent.  I got advice everywhere I turned.  TWB needed a Business Plan, I was told, and a Strategic Plan.  An Infrastructure and Technology Plan.  Lots of Plans.

Planning would have to wait.   After all, I couldn’t get a research grant or any resources from USAID, though I tried mightily, because TWB wasn’t part of a university or didn’t have a big win to brag about.  Though I have since learned to appreciate the art and science of business strategy, TWB had to walk our talk of using the global teacher community, rather than aggregating resources and building an empire.

Besides, I wanted to avoid the whole thing.  So I got on a plane.

TWB had been receiving inquiries from Afghan teachers and other NGOs about our teacher professional development program.  Our Certificate of Teaching Mastery program was translated into Dari.  Ex-pat Afghans living in the United States and the UK were becoming more vocal about an emphasis on Post-Taliban reconstruction.  There was a feeling that Afghanistan could emerge from decades of war.  No longer the doormat of conquerors, the wasteland of the Taliban, or a geopolitical chess move, Afghanistan would have integrity.  It would be a new day.

Never mind that even a cursory glance at Afghanistan’s history would consider such an transformation unlikely, even something just short of delusional.  A nation does not easily shuffle off that coil of feudal bonds and betrayals, servitude and subsistence, gangs of men and mayhem, and go, well, liberal.

But that has not stopped many noble attempts at making a difference in the region.  “You cannot plough a field by turning it over in your mind,” someone once said.

Besides, there was a poster child.  Steve McCurry’s 1985 National Geographic cover photograph of 12-year old Sharbat Gula, a Pashtun refugee living in Pakistan, showed the world the face of war and was making the rounds again. Those sea green eyes.  That fear and sadness.  And her story of suffering and endurance: walking to Pakistan with her grandmother and siblings, sleeping in caves for protection against Soviet bombs.

In 2002, seventeen years later, Steve McCurry found and photographed her again and wrote: “So many here share her story.” In her review of McCurry’s book, “A Life Revealed,” Cathy Newman agrees:  “Consider the numbers. Twenty-three years of war, 1.5 million killed, 3.5 million refugees: This is the story of Afghanistan in the past quarter century.”#

McCurry’s photograph began to take on a larger significance.  The most important accelerator for any country seeking to develop is to educate its girls.  Though NGOs have been screaming about this issue for decades, the world began to [1] take notice.  Strong women leaders were emerging, and they needed support.

Marnie Gustavson, a social worker from Seattle who had lived in Afghanistan in the 1960s, was determined to do something about it.  “It was a relatively peaceful time in Kabul back then. My father was a teacher.  He just packed us up and we moved there. I went to an American-style high school and cheerleaders.  There were flower-pots on street-lamps, and electricity,” she said. “It’s so different now.

She wanted my help.  I was skeptical. After the American war in Afghanistan began, the NGO community entered the scene in droves.  While many were first rate, inexperienced, clueless do-gooders were flooding in, pulling on heartstrings in order to unravel purse strings. In Kabul, the directory of NGOs was about the size of the municipal phone book.  “Marnie, if true development depends upon local capacity, what difference could TWB make?”  I did not want to join the ranks of narcissistic adventure seekers.

I had seen enough of the complexity, condescension, and failure rate of activities intended to build capacity.  Afghanistan would be a challenge by orders of magnitude.  True, many backpackers in the 60s and early 70s have romanticized Afghanistan and seem to have ignored the tribal rivalries and poverty.

But one could not help but be appalled by the change.  Afghanistan was a time-lapse movie of relative progress, but in reverse. Intact buildings strafed and dissolved into rubble. 6th century Buddhas carved into caves in Bamiyan blown apart, leaving a haunting, hollow outline and shell.

As the clock spins backward, hemlines become chadri, a car becomes an oxcart, a window becomes a tarp, and one can find traditional Baluchi prayer rugs with a new pattern and weave of daily life: AK-47s and helicopters.

Marnie insisted that this was the time.  Laura Bush was building schools, she reasoned, but where was the teacher training?  And even if Afghanistan managed to make tangible progress toward enrolling and educating more primary school aged girls, what happens after that?  What about secondary education?  Higher Education?  Is Afghanistan just one big exotic, girl-with-green-eyes photography fundraiser for big-name charities?  We need to do something real here!

As if that weren’t reason enough, Marnie then showed me a short documentary, “Pen Pals,” in which public school children from a public school in South Colby, Washington exchanged letters and videos with children in Afghanistan. “If you want to see hope in action, see this. And if you want to promote global education, you need to show up.”

The film shows Marnie interacting with both American and Afghan children. It scans their faces as they receive letters from each other—tangible artifacts of a global exchange. Clearly, though separated by over 6,700 miles, these children connected.

“It’s not about money or bake-sales or the poor kids of Afghanistan,” Marnie said.  It’s about curiosity…and passion for learning about other people and cultures. Besides, even if you end up focusing all your work in the United States to smash stereotypes, Afghanistan will benefit.”

At one point in Marnie’s short film, an Afghan boy says:  “Getting letters means happiness, friendship, and kindness,” followed by a girl: “I dont think theres any difference between the children from American and the children from Afghanistan.”

An interpreter then reads a letter to the Afghan children—first in English, then in Dari:

“Dear Child of Afghanistan,

Like many others in America who care about you, I believe in your dreams and in your hopes for your future…

The camera pans both the U.S. and Afghan classrooms.  The translator continues:

“… and the hopes that you have for your family and friends and country.  As you look to the night sky and gaze at the stars, may you have a star that is special to you.  When you gaze up on that star, remember that I see it also. When you feel lonely, scared, or worried, may you look to your star and know that it will reflect back to you your hopes and dreams. Remember that I will be wishing on that same star and working with a world of others to see your dreams come true.

Marnie let the silence speak for itself.

“Marnie, I’ll tell my mother I’m going to ‘Cabo.’  Sounds close enough to how Americans pronounce Kabul, right?  Why split hairs?”

It didn’t look like I would be keeping my staffer’s advice.  My heart melted.  Children hooked me, once again[2] .

Marnie wanted Teachers Without Borders to establish a Community Teaching and Learning Center, with computers and training, in a high-school run mostly by women.  She wanted to expand Pen Pals.  She needed help in documenting families in displaced persons’ camps so that she could demand services for them. She wanted me to see a psychiatric ward.  She wanted me to teach,  to introduce women to new teaching methods, and give them an opportunity to share their teaching gems.

I had six weeks to prepare.

I’ve learned to be as specific as possible when asking for money, equipment, expertise—anything.  I told companies in Seattle that my organization was assisting a woman principal in Kabul who wanted to establish a Community Teaching and Learning Center.  We would teach information technology skills and hold seminars on global connections.  The Center would be well supervised and dust-free.  There were people available to fix computers and provide software support.  Electricity was covered and there was one backup generator.

So I got what I asked for:  15 computers with CD drives and 15 monitors, 15 adapters for 220v, and 8 extension cords. Every time I got a donation, I’d leverage it.  “Your buddies down the hall just donated 4 computers.  They’re getting credit in our Newsletter.”  When DHL agreed to palletize and fly them to Kabul for free, everyone knew.  I had everything sewn up in two week.

The computers arrived in Kabul and sailed through customs, thanks to advice about how to handle the global non-profit commercial invoice.  A colleague at the World Bank wrote a letter of recommendation, vouching that they would not be used for terrorist activity or sold on the grey market.

Though I have never seen a hotel like this in Afghanistan, I also never spelled out the word “Cabo,” so I’d file this Kabul-Cabo thing under “little white lies.”  I have since told her the truth, and she has forgiven me.

Marnie met me at a guesthouse in Kabul.  “Drop off your bags.  We’ve got about 15 minutes and then we have to get the computers. The DHL office is about to close.”

A one-legged driver shuttled us to the DHL office and, within minutes, employees were helping us load computers onto a truck.  No request for a bribe, no hassle—pure service. A DHL employee hopped in the back of the truck because he wanted to help with installation.  Classes began within a week.

The displaced persons’ camp was a different matter altogether. I was already wary, having let my heart get broken by the children at the displaced persons camp in Calabar, Nigeria.  I would not rob any vans.

Kabul authorities had been informed about the 200+ families living there, yet they needed evidence:  the names of each family, a photograph, and any particulars of family history.  Photography is always a cultural phenomenon and requires sensitivity to custom and social cues. Americans in developing countries take a particularly boorish and prurient interest in what some aid and development workers call “poverty porn.”  A community may have built an expansive community center or eliminated a waterborne disease or ensured universal education and 95% literacy, but there’s nothing like a blue tarp to bring out the telephoto lens.  A local NGO official once quipped.  “They take pictures from us (notice the meaning of the preposition), then wipe their hands with hand sanitizer.  Shouldn’t we be doing that?”

I asked for others to take the official documentation photographs, but they refused.

This issue turned out not to have anything to do with whether or not it was appropriate to snap pictures.  The people knew that our intentions were good.

This was a different matter entirely.  The Afghans had been introducing me graciously as “Dr. Farid,” despite my protestations. “Fred is fine, really.”  My colleague, Norm, had a slightly different salutation.  He was introduced as “Dr. Normal.”

As far as the Afghan refugees were concerned, we were doctors. At least Norm’s background was in medical anthropology and psychology. Having worked with HIV-AIDS patients in San Francisco, he had some experience. My doctorate in education and leadership, however, was even more remote.  Though we tried to explain otherwise, Dr. Normal and I were often presented with a wide range of medical questions. Our curiosity piqued, we’d spend the evenings pouring over an old Red Cross manual, kicking ourselves for having chosen the Humanities.

Near the end of our first day documenting families, a man kept motioning to me, shouting “Dr. Farid, Dr. Farid! When I reached his tent, he took off his pants to show me a genital rash.

One has to be prepared for such things.

Next, an opportunity to teach.  On the first day, we arranged the tables to change the shape from rows to a square, seminar structure so that everyone could be seen and heard.  This would be a conversation about the medium and the method.  With my interpreter by my side and the door open to make certain that the women were comfortable, I asked two questions, fully expecting shy looks and silence out of deference to the invited guest, the American, and a man.  All teachers talk about the importance of that quiet period right after a question.  It’s supposed to be that delicious moment when real learning takes place.  Or, of course, it could be a really embarrassing vacuum. I prepared to console myself that sometimes one’s culture might preclude one from sticking out.  Or perhaps it’s the question or the translation of that question.  Could it be that everyone wants to talk, but they’re not certain of the protocols for or experience of responding to questions.

I let if fly.  “What might be the advantages or disadvantages of this shape for you to learn as a teacher?  I then said, “And how might this work or not work in your classroom?”

I could not get a word in edgewise for the next hour.

The teachers assembled spoke of the advantages:  a great sense of engagement and inclusion; the ability to solve problems, not simply take tests on the right answers; a way of highlighting – rather than hiding – individual achievement by demonstrating each person’s contribution to the whole; a level playing field and a sense of fairness, rather than hierarchy and power; the ability to practice one’s oral skills or presentation skills.

They spoke of complications:  the need for clarity in forming groups; that small groups might work for some lessons and not for others, requiring teachers to choose. They wanted to be certain that outcomes were defined and a system by which they could evaluate the effectiveness of the group as well as its individual members. They wanted to know more about incentives and disincentives for continued participation; how they might deal with factual inaccuracies in a decentralized structure; what methods might work to ensure self-policing so that classroom management would not spiral out of control.

They spoke of methodology:  the ability of students to teach each other; the optimal size of a group for themselves and for the various grade-levels they teach; how to create groups to brainstorm a general issue or solve problems; constructing study-groups and creative production groups; groups organized to share responsibility for recording and for presenting conclusions.

They spoke of disadvantages: bullies who make things worse for victims by creating greater public exposure and humiliation; the tendency to conform to a charismatic group leader; groupthink over consensus; resistance from administrators or parents who want the teacher to be front and center.

These were women with an 8th grade education, working as teachers in a country ravaged by war.  They also began to address the questions they raised.  They asked to form groups by the topics that intrigued them the most.

In another session, I introduced Howard Gardner’s “Multiple Intelligences” with the question, “What is intelligence?” and “Could there be more than one intelligence?”  This lead to a 10 minute lecture about intelligence as a quality, rather than a quantity, followed by Gardner’s list of intelligences, sans terminology:  the ability to be word smart or logic smart, picture smart or body smart, music smart or people smart or self smart.  We talked about how teaching changes if we adopt these ideas.  If they had agreed that the emphasis was more on how smart than if smart one, what would this mean to them?

I drew two columns on the board—one for intelligence as a quantity and the other for intelligence as a quality.  I wondered if I would get quizzical looks and silence.  But, here again, I underestimated them.

The women appreciated the distinctions and qualities of intelligence, but critiqued the categorizations of quantity vs. quality as too polarizing.  A certain amount of brains are needed before one could talk about quality, one teacher said.  Others asked questions about whether someone might be smart because s/he was able to demonstrate more than one form of intelligence—an interesting twist:  a quantity of qualities. And there was concern about how to measure multiple intelligences, about whether authorities would validate such a radical departure from rote learning.  The oldest teacher in the group provided some perspective.  “I hope Afghanistan will have teacher training.”

And then they moved from theory to practice. One jumped up, walked to the front of the classroom, and gushed, “I can teach musical intelligence in my Pashto language class!”  Opening the door for others, the brainstorming began.

For the next half hour, it was I who had the classroom management problem. The principal, standing at the back of the class, clapped her hands to get their attention.  For a few moments, the teachers read the social cues but in moments, the glorious educational chaos ensued.

Throughout the discussion, I had forgotten where I was.  Perhaps they did, too. And then I was reminded.

One of the teachers opened her notebook to a picture of the Afghan flag and proceeded to explain that the flag has changed more than any other country.  She displayed the latest version, made official earlier that year.

The national emblem, she explained factually is white, centered on the red vertical band and overlapping the black and green bands.  In the center of the emblem is a mosque with flags on either side.  Below the mosque are numerals for the solar year 1298 (1919 in the Gregorian calendar), identifying the year of Afghanistan’s independence from the UK). An arc on each side consists of sheaves of wheat.  The upper part of the emblem includes the Arabic inscription of the Shahada (Muslim creed) and the rays of the rising sun over the Takbir (“God is Great”).  The name, Afghanistan, is written below.

“We are debating the meaning of the colors,” she said, and stopped.  I began to interpret the silence.  Was she mirroring the lesson?  Setting up the structure of a group so that we could find out the nature of that debate? Had she entered some kind of difficult territory, especially in light of the clear explanation of the one date referring to independence?  Was I supposed to tell her how much I knew about Afghanistan and explain my own interpretation?

No one jumped in to explain the colors.  The silence was palpable.  Learning about the flab would have to be my job.  I got it.

Class came to a close and we exchanged words of gratitude. The principal motioned for me to have tea with and so I followed her to her office. She left her door open as well.  Down the hall, I could hear the teachers talking as they were preparing to leave.

They passed by the office, half in headscarves, the other in burqas.  From the principal’s office window, I could see them part ways at an intersection.  Those in burqas appeared to look like lavender ghosts in the late afternoon light that day – a photographer’s favorite hour.

Marnie returned to the United States and “Pen Pals” program in Seattle.  We added a video component.  The magic happened again.  Each group looked forward to the day when a package would arrive. And each week, the children I observed were achieving.  It wasn’t so much that they were more culturally sensitive or able to dispel stereotypes.

Something else was at work.

100% of the parents attended the parent evening. They reported a new level of enthusiasm in their children.  During the course of this project, attendance was at its best and their paragraphs were longer.  This, one would say, is statistically insignificant and hardly any reason to draw any conclusions.  There was no independent and dependent variable analysis here, no control or experimental group, no assessment metric or comparative analysis or randomized control trial.

Neither was there any jargon du jour.  Just learning, pure and simple.

Late one evening, back in the United States, Marnie called.  “I need to show you something.”

Filmmaker Stacia Teele, like Marnie, had lived in Afghanistan.  She had returned with her film crew and director, Ed Robbins.  “Back to Afghanistan” would capture the difference between the modern Kabul of her youth and the retrograde Afghanistan of the 21st century.

Stacia had stumbled upon the Mobile Mini Circus for Children and met founders David Mason and Berit Muhlhausen. She was introduced to Vasila and her father, Armand (an unemployed truck driver) as well as Dr. Vishant Tivari.  They followed Vasila’s progress and made a short documentary, “Vasila’s Heart.”

Project Kids Worldwide, founded by Stephen B. Colvin, M.D., Chair of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery at NYU Medical Center would gather funds and NYU would do the surgery pro bono. “We need Teachers Without Borders” to do the same to cover tests, travel for her father, medication, and other expenses. Things are lining up but time is running out.”

“Uh oh,” I said.

“We sent ‘Vasila’s Heart’ to Nightline at ABC. If it airs, you have to have your online donation site ready to go.”

Within the week, the first of two shows were accepted.

When “Vasila’s Heart” aired, I’d watch donations come in as the show made its way across the country. Together, Project Kids Worldwide and Teachers Without Borders raised enough for Vasila’s surgery, travel to the United States with her father, and expenses devoted to her recovery.

She arrived in New York where Stacia had arranged for her to stay with a prominent Afghan family.  I arrived there soon afterward.

She was the Vasila I expected.  Cheery, alive, bold.  She loved playgrounds and parks, squinted at skyscrapers, and played. We stood around watching, like relatives.

Ted Koppel wanted to meet her and so we flew to D.C.  When we walked into the Nightline offices, the staff jumped out from their workstations to meet her. “Our favorite episode by far,” one researcher said, as the staff lined up to shake her hand.

Koppel entered the room.  “There she is!” he said, beaming.

The rest of the day was spent on a tour of D.C.  She seemed to prefer the public parks, but at one point we stopped in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Stacia leaned over and told her what Vasila was looking at.  “I Want to Meet the King of America!” she shouted.

“Are you sure?” someone scoffed.

“Can I meet the King of America?” she asked again. The next morning, Stacia got the call. President George W. Bush would meet Vasila Hossaini.

It remains to be seen whether or not Teachers Without Borders has made any difference in Afghanistan. That’s for others to decide.  Capacity building remains more an ideal concept than a reality.

I know this, though.  Vasila and Afghanistan changed Teachers Without Borders.

We learned what not to do.  We are just not equipped for the gather-up-computers-and-ship-them-around-the-world business.  We no longer document displaced persons and field questions about rashes.

Development work requires a special kind of savvy, authenticity, experience, “development intelligence,” an understanding of history and context and culture as much as it requires strategic design, data, funders, and impact reports.

And in education, what tops the list for teachers?  Colleagues.

True colleagues are prepared to be changed as they have been inspired to be changemakers.  It involves learning from and with others, just like the kids in the Pen Pals project. To feel true comfort and joy in the company of people with whom you have nothing in common.  To wake up in a strange place and, while your eyes are adjusting to a spotlight of dust-motes, to think to yourself, “I’m glad I’m here.”

It’s hard to chart all of this on a graph.  It does not work all that well on grant applications, either.  But this basic human impulse to learn and share must come through, even as we campaign for our causes and build our strategies.  Development work is almost always underfunded, frequently maligned, and regularly misunderstood.  I, for one, may not be able to see the changes in scale and scope and impact that I imagined when I was a younger man.  So, I have to remind myself that the landscape of human welfare still requires that I keep a compass in my pocket, an open mind, and, in Alexis de Tocqueville’s words, “habits of the heart.”

One of those habits is to forgive oneself and face up to the courage of one’s contradictions.

Like dropping everything just to help one kid.

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