All posts by Dr. Hakim

From Kabul to Okinawa, the Outrageous Abolition of War

Inaam (left), Habib (right) and I (photographer) sharing a good laugh at the Borderfree Nonviolence Community Centre in Kabul

I decided to write this ninth love letter specially to Inaam, the 21st century generations of the world and the people of Okinawa because of three personal reasons.

I miss having the wonderful energies of 15-year-old Inaam at the Borderfree Nonviolence Community Centre. Inaam has to polish boots in the streets of Kabul to supplement his family’s income and to survive today’s terrible economic system.

I also wish that the vision and work of abolishing war had been “attractive” enough to keep Inaam in the Abolish War Team beyond three weeks. Inaam, born at the turn of the 21st century, deserves to live in world without war.

I write to the courageous and kind Okinawans because though Japanese soldiers killed my grandfather in World War II, the people of Okinawa and Japan are healing my father through their nonviolent resistance.

*****

Dear Inaam, the 21st century generations of the world and the people of Okinawa,

You’re only fifteen, and I’m almost fifty.

I wish I didn’t hear you say to me, “Hakim, I think that war will never be abolished.” Have we greedy adults made it so very difficult for you to picture a humanity without war?

I know that deep down inside, you want war to disappear forever. I can see this wish on your face in the photo I took in 2015, for the Afghan Peace Volunteer’s #Enough! War campaign.

Inaam in 2015 (second from left) saying no to war

In 1945, the UN Charter had committed to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”.

I’m sorry that the UN and our human family have continued to inflict on you “untold sorrow”.

But I believe in you and your generation! 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thurnberg is your peer, and she demonstrated the same wisdom you have when she said:

Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground, so we can’t save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to change. Everything needs to change and it has to start today.

I wish Greta had said this about the obsolete and ineffective method of war too, but she didn’t.

There is no politician currently in office who has proposed laws to ban war. I had hoped that Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK would, but they haven’t.

With your reason and compassion, you see through all the current peace negotiators of the Afghan conflict: beneath their emperor’s clothes, you see that they are naked war executioners.

When the world imagines that these peace negotiators/war executioners will negotiate for genuine peace, the world is fantasizing that the US military-christened Hellfire missiles, costing about US$58,000 each, or the extremists’ opposing suicide bombing vests, costing much less, can usher heaven into Afghanistan.

Even if you could cast an under-age vote in this July’s scheduled Afghan Presidential elections, none of the 18 candidates will abolish war. Yes, to gain votes, they will all parrot the rhetoric that they wish to end the Afghan war, but none of them will abolish the method of war.

It was only years after his political career, in 2017, that former President of USSR Mikhail Gorbachev wrote:

In modern world, wars must be outlawed, because none of the global problems we are facing can be resolved by war — not poverty, nor the environment, migration, population growth, or shortages of resources.

Gorbachev understands the real political risk of humankind annihilating herself through nuclear warfare.

Inaam, as a war child, you understand by experience that there are also no politics today to abolish war. Together with the Gretas and youth of the world, build the necessary new politics.

You’ve seen how the Afghan Peace Volunteers are organized without a Director, so if the new politics needs to be one without a President, a CEO or a Prime Minister, go for it! And, don’t worry about all the various mis-used and bombastic political terms. Go for nonviolent liberty, equality and fraternity. As the late French diplomat Stephane Hessel wrote about nonviolent resistance when he was 93:  “Indignez vous. Time for Outrage!

Also, to practice magnanimity through life, you and I must exercise timeless patience while working our butts off.

I mean, it was way back in the 1930s that British engineer Guy Stewart Callendar calculated that a doubling of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere could warm the Earth by 2 degrees Celsius. It has taken 90 years to reach today’s level of climate activism, and despite this, we still have people like Trump who denies climate change.

Or like with the abolition of slavery. The Qin Dynasty of China abolished slavery in 221 BC and Pope Paul III forbade slavery of the indigenous peoples of the Americas in 1537. Niger made slavery a crime only in 2003! So, the human family’s struggle against slavery took more than 2000 years, and even today, modern slavery still exists, like with the child brick-layers of Afghanistan.

History’s gradual but seismic changes happened when different individuals and societies took decisive actions at different times and ages. We can each be those channels of change: get the scientific results of war out there, use your shrill and growing voice, demand for laws to ban war, divest from the military industrial complex, don’t join the military corporations, persuade your soldier-brother to be a conscientious objector, prohibit all weapons, make military generals very unpopular just as the CUNY undergraduates did, refuse to cooperate for war like some Google and Microsoft staff did, replace every war method with a thousand nonviolent methods, turn soldiers into pacifist mediators…

All these are revolutionary acts of love; you’re already familiar with the Dari phrase, “ در کار خیر پیش دستی کردن- dar kaar khair pesh dasti kardan”, which means “For charitable work, set your hands to work quickly!”

Am I asking too much of the 15-year-old you?

You see, I want so much for you to have a meaningful and gorgeous life, and to have enough friends, friends even with those considered “enemies”.

My father had considered my Japanese friend Eitaro Oka an “enemy”, because Japanese soldiers who had occupied Singapore in 1942 killed his father. It was World War II.

But, when Eitaro visited me in Singapore years ago, my father and mother hosted him. The first thing Eitaro said to my father was, “I want to ask you for forgiveness, for the killing of your father.” My father inspired me with his reply, “You were not the one who killed my father. Please enjoy the meal, a special Singaporean dish called Hainanese Chicken Rice prepared by my wife.”

Eitaro (centre) with my parents in Singapore

When I joined a group of Japanese peace activists in Okinawa three years ago, an elderly Japanese monk stood before officials in the local office of Japan’s Ministry of Defense, and asked me for forgiveness! He pleaded against the presence of US military bases in Okinawa. This kind monk had covered his bald head with the Borderfree Blue Scarf of the Afghan Peace Volunteers!

The kind monk (left, standing) and Yuichi (centre, standing) with other Japanese activists in an office of Okinawa’s Ministry of Defense.

Many young Japanese like Yuchi, Sara and Kamoshita are resisting the re-militarization of Japan. Their current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is regrettably addicted to military prowess, and wants to amend the Japanese constitution to enable the re-establishment of a Japanese army. Shinzo is a human being who is sold-out to money and power, and not very sound, as he has even nominated US President Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize!

Sara, Yuichi and Kamoshita ( first, second and third from right) with other activists

Kamoshita and Sara had wanted to visit us in Kabul this winter, but Kamoshita emailed me, I am sorry to late reply. I can’t travel to Afghanistan this time. I couldn’t persuade my family…They worry me to go.”

Not only are Japanese activists working to abolish war. Many ordinary Japanese are resisting the heavy killer machinery too.

In fact, in a February 2019 referendum, 72% of Okinawan voters opposed the construction of a new US military base to replace an existing one.  Most Okinawans don’t want US military bases on their peaceful and beautiful island.

You’ll also be encouraged to know that Masoma, Habib and new members of the Afghan Peace Volunteers had sent Msent Kamoshita, Sara and Okinawans a video message of solidarity.

Ordinary Japanese link hands in protest, at the gate of a US military base in Okinawa (insert) New Afghan Peace Volunteers link hands in solidarity with Okinawans, saying, “No to US military bases in Okinawa and Afghanistan!”

So, dear Inaam, remember how you told me that the current education system is not teaching you anything useful? You’re right. I’m sure that you can educate yourself better than the schools, especially in the knowledge, values and skills needed to build a better world.

We have on many occasions talked about true education: thinking and feeling deeply, freeing ourselves from the control of money, questioning all power, changing the culture of war within us. In relational learning, we connect all the dots and love like everyone and everything in the world is related.

Our lives are brief, but as long as I have opportunity, I’ll walk with you.

Baa mihr  با مهر( With love ) !

Hakim

Nonviolent Versus Violent Peace in Afghanistan and the World

“Salam (peace)!” is how Afghans greet one another, some of them simultaneously placing a hand over their hearts.

But, while everyone including Afghans wants peace, the Afghan Peace Volunteers and I have observed that the human species appears to be stuck on violent peace. We think that this is because most of us are reared as armed doves, like the one drawn by Wifred Hildonen for Cartoon Stock below.

There is a new Peacemaker in town!

Using Wilfred’s cartoon analogy, the Afghan Peace Volunteers and I are differentiating violent peace from nonviolent peace based on whether a society includes or excludes the use of weapons and armies as a resort to secure peace.

To date, the earth has housed violent peace. Human beings are the armed doves inhabiting the planet under the threat of lethal weapons, including 14,575 nuclear warheads. Even small island countries like Singapore are spending more and more money to acquire superior weaponry from the military industrial complex

We’re not differentiating between violent and nonviolent peace to judge anyone, as we would only be judging ourselves. We’ve tried nothing but violent peace in Afghanistan, to everyone’s loss. The time is overdue to pursue peace without weapons or armies, so that we can all enjoy the kind of peace we human beings dream about.

So, please trust your humanity, and trust that we share that humanity too. Like you, we wish to protect and defend our loved ones, so we don’t make this call on the people of the world lightly: “Don’t just pause. Stop! Consider nonviolent peace. It won’t harm you. It is the love we’ve always wanted!”

We so badly want societies that are highly organized on the foundation of love. This is already happening in many places through the local establishment of egalitarian, nonviolent practices. Joan Boaz said, “That’s all nonviolence is – organized love”.

It is happening among the Afghan Peace Volunteers, like with Afghan 11th grade student Rashid, whose story I had begun telling in a previous post.

Rashid

Rashid’s father was killed in a suicide bombing attack on a mosque in Kabul, for which a Pakistani militant group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, claimed responsibility. Rashi’s father was selling oranges at the mosque. Rashid was so devastated by this loss that he became inconsolably depressed and couldn’t bring himself to attend school for three months.

Once during a counselling session, I was listening to Rashid describe the tightness and pain he feels in his chest when he remembers the prison-like religious school he was forcefully enrolled in. Rashid recalled the incessant punishments in class, and the loneliness….The tears started pouring down his cheeks, not the sort of tears that sought any attention, but flowy, tender tears.

“Do you think you can heal yourself of the war inside you?” I asked Rashid recently.

“Yes, by changing the way I think. I can ask questions, and look for evidence before I believe any claim about war or other matters,” he replied.

I asked what he would say if his mother asked to take revenge against the Pakistani “terrorists”, or against the Afghan extremists who, through traumatic indoctrination at the religious school, tried to brainwash him into joining them to wage the “holy war”.

“I will tell her: If I take revenge, you know that they will retaliate with even fiercer vengeance. You could be hurt. I could lose everything,” Rashid said.

I probed deeper, as my own personal journey towards understanding war and peace involved a freeing up of my basic assumptions, “After all that your mother has gone through, don’t you think that it’s her right to fight back?”

“Teacher,” Rashid explained to me, “There is an Afghan saying, “Blood cannot wash away blood.” Taking revenge doesn’t work.”

“But, Rashid, how will you be able to allay your mother’s fears, or even your own fears, if there were no military forces to defend you and your mom? Who will protect you?”

“My father was killed even when the Afghan army and the US/NATO forces were here defending us in Kabul. What we need is a people’s defense, in which the people bring security by conversing with the groups in conflict. We shouldn’t use weapons, because if we do, others will also use weapons against us. Look at the current peace negotiations in Afghanistan. While they negotiate, the sides in conflict are increasing their fighting and killing! How is peace ever going to come?” Rashid explained.

Rashid was stating what even the US Joint Chief of Staff, Marine Corps General Joe Dunford and the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres had both said on different occasions, “There is no military solution in Afghanistan.”

“I used to admire those who looked strong holding dangerous weapons like this or like that…,” Rashid said, switching his arm posture as if he was holding a gun. “I used to think that Afghanistan must have an army to defend the country. I was a fan of the army generals.”

In most countries of the world today, saying something like this will get serious censure, “Rashid is unpatriotic. He is a traitor, maybe a Talib!” As armed doves, we consider the military almost sacred.

“Now, though I respect army generals and even militants as human beings, I don’t like what they do. I used to think that fighting proves how courageous I am. I was like a smart phone that was programmed by a system run by the government,” Rashid said.

I was reminded that I was speaking to a young person who belongs to the digital age and smart phone generation. It’s youth like Rashid and Swedish climate activist Greta Thurnberg who are rising up to change our obsolete and unresponsive systems. Greta had said:

We can’t save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to change.

I could see Rashid applying his mind, the way he does in school, getting first position in his 10th grade class last year, “after the classmate who paid bribes for his grades left school”.

“Is it possible to re-program the human smart phone?” I asked, though I’ve been thinking that with the repetitive war negotiations among fully armed players in the Afghan conflict, neither adult human beings nor our communication systems are very smart.

“Of course, once we understand the systems that did the programming, we can un-install the program, or format it!” Rashid quipped.

Rashid thinks we can reprogram ourselves for nonviolent peace

Rashid is becoming the other dove that is within him, the nonviolent dove who offers an olive branch, without any weapon strapped under his wing.

Damn, I don’t want Rahman to end up being killed

Sultan, Ali’s brother, was killed in August 2016.

Hussein, Bismillah’s uncle, was killed in April 2017.

I don’t want Rahman, Inaam’s brother, to end up being killed. Rahman is now training to be a soldier.

Both Sultan and Hussein were Afghan soldiers in their twenties. They joined the army because there were no other viable jobs available. Their families needed food. Hussein was killed in Helmand Province, where in the past 15 years, 18,000 policemen (not counting soldiers or civilians) were killed

Newton would have wondered why we fail to apply scientific laws to human behaviour too; for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The more ‘enemies’ that armies and soldiers kill, the more soldiers and civilians will be killed.

The casualty numbers in Afghanistan and elsewhere prove this.  The 2015 Global Terrorism Index has recorded a nine-fold increase in terrorism-related deaths since 2000. War doesn’t work!

Inaam, whose brother, Rahman, signed up to be a soldier as there were no other viable jobs

Inaam, who is a street kid attending the Borderfree Afghan Street Kids School, had taken me to his family’s rented room so I could do an annual household survey. It was then that I heard his mother tell Rahman’s story. I felt a slow panic, even though I hadn’t met Rahman before.

“My son called to say he was feeling terrible. His hands were blistered from the army training. They are training him to shoot,” his mother told me, her fingers gesturing as if to ‘pull the trigger’. She paused, then continued nervously, “He said he doesn’t wish to continue. I cried. He told me not to cry, saying, ‘This is life, mother.’”

She took the helm of her headscarf and wiped off the tears that had ‘ballooned’ rapidly above her eye-bags. Just as I’ve seen so many times before in Afghan demeanor, she steadied herself within seconds, pulled her shoulders back slightly, swallowed her anxiety, and looked up again.

I heard a paralysis, a sort of helplessness in her voice. Inaam was sitting by the window sill. I could tell he was worried.

Inaam is a thoughtful, hardworking child.

Like a mad fever, I saw the blood-stained history of humanity streaming into that spartan room in Kabul. The water well in the yard outside had dried up to its last drop, part of a severe water crisis in Kabul.  While the leaders of the world are pumping money into the business of fighting and killing, no one is paying attention to the depletion of water.

Like a scene from a movie that’s replayed again and again from a malfunctioning video player, I saw Rahman crawling in the burning, dry desert sand, cold dehydrated sweat on his brow.

When Rahman called, he asked whether Inaam was returning home from ‘work’ earlier every night, instead of at 9.30 p.m., when ‘all sorts of crime and incidents fester in the streets’. Out of worry, I beat Inaam once for coming home too late at night. I didn’t want to punish him, but I got so intolerably worried about bad things happening to him. He’s still so young.

Inaam is 13. I responded:

Why didn’t Inaam tell me that Rahman was hoping to continue his studies in night school? How I wish I had known about his deliberations to join the army!

My frustration at life’s small but water-shed decisions was obvious.

“Inaam didn’t want you to know that we’re trapped in this undignified situation. As you know, Inaam’s father is a drug addict, and we have so many problems. We don’t tell anyone such things,” Inaam’s mother explained. Inaam hasn’t seen his father for more than seven years. His father is in another province, unable to kick his drug habit, and oblivious to similarly desperate challenges at home. Inaam’s mother continued, “And, Inaam is not a kid who complains. He goes to school and then to work. He comes home, and he listens. He doesn’t give us any trouble.”

I reassured her, “There’s no ‘shame’ in your sons’ hard work to eke a living. The Afghan Peace Volunteers are a family, and it is no ‘shame’ for family members to help out if possible. Please ask Rahman to come meet us when he’s on a home visit, and perhaps, we can discuss job options.”

Inaam’s mother gave Inaam some instructions. He shuffled about in the corridor space outside the room, which doubles up as a kitchen, and returned quickly, placing a plate of washed grapes before me.

What is needed is food on the table, enabled through dignified labour. But, where are the decent-wage jobs that don’t involve exploitation and killing? If the call is to choose peace, where are the everyday options? Why can’t peace, economic justice, and environmental groups pool their efforts together to address their common root problems, which Naomi Klein encouraged as the deepening of ‘relationships between issues and movements, so that our solutions address multiple crises at once’? This would surely include making nonviolent jobs available to Rahman, as a concrete way of ‘saving’ him.

Why can’t I do something about this?

As we left on our bicycles, Inaam pointed out the reinforced concrete walls of an army facility a few hundred metres away from his home. The thick walls had been broken into pieces as if they were made of paper, in a suicide bomb attack a couple of months ago.

Inaam on his bicycle, near his house and the scene of a suicide bomb attack

“I was not at home. The battle raged on for a few hours after the explosion,” Inaam said. I could only imagine his shocked mother sitting in the room alone, legs folded, biting her lips, pale with worry.

My thoughts kept hovering around Rahman, searching for a definite way to ease him out of war’s insanity and death. How?

I had heard Rahman’s voice on the phone before, when I called to ask Inaam to turn up at the Centre. This was before Rahman was recruited into the army. Just hearing a voice, even a stranger’s, can connect us to the person’s humanity. “Where? What time? Okay! I’ll tell Inaam. Thank you.”

That day, as I cycled back to the Borderfree Nonviolence Centre where Ali, Bismillah and the Afghan Peace Volunteers realize that every crisis and every human is connected, my heart was thumping away.

I felt that Rahman’s ‘fate’ was linked to mine and that it was now tied to a ticking time bomb that would follow Newton’s law.

Damn, I don’t want Rahman to end up being killed.

How Life got Intolerable for Ghulam’s Mother and his Afghan Family

Ghulam (second from left) working on our community’s greenhouse, together with Zek, Khamad and Ali

Ali, Zekerullah, Khamad and I miss Ghulam and his family. We feel sad that life in Afghanistan had finally become too burdensome for them. They are now Afghan refugees in Iran.

We have known Ghulam for many years, Ali and Ghulam being distant relatives and the best of childhood friends. Ghulam lived in community with us for about five years. We were his second family, supporting one another through thick and thin.

Ghulam’s focus

Ghulam worked very hard to be a good student. When he transferred to a private school, he topped his class in the exams and thus had his school fees waived.

He felt that doing well in school was the only route to a better life for a poor student.

Besides schooling, Ghulam would spare time once a week to help organize the first Food Bank in Afghanistan, run by the Afghan Peace Volunteers ( APVs ). Volunteering isn’t a prevalent practice, and it isn’t easy trying to get well-to-do business persons to trust the APVs against the background of a ‘corruption tsunami’ in Afghanistan. So, Ghulam’s work with the nascent Food Bank called for his courage, persistence and kindness.

 Ghulam (extreme right) with Hussein and Sarwar going house to house to collect food donations for the Food Bank

Ghulam’s good-bye

I remember that Ghulam had first visited Kabul with us when he was 12-years-old. Then, he had just made friends with international visitors, including with Leila Zand, an American Iranian peace builder. When we were saying goodbye to Leila, the fresh social and emotional attachment of a young boy to a new friend was clearly apparent. Ghulam wasn’t willing to part. He cried like he was losing someone close.

From left to right in 2010: Leila Zand, Ghulam, Abdulhai, Zekerullah, Lala, Ali

Ghulam’s father left his family of seven children for Iran more than 10 years ago, looking for work so as to be able to pay off his debts. He never returned to Afghanistan, and took a second wife in Iran.

Ghulam’s family survived on his mother’s income from washing clothes for rich Afghan households. His older brother Ramez, the oldest among the siblings, had married hurriedly years ago. Amidst worsening unemployment rates in Afghanistan, he could not find regular work anywhere and spent many years paying off the marriage debt. The marriage has not been a happy one. Ramez’s wife could not get along with Ghulam’s mother, and when disagreements came to a head, Ghulam’s mother and siblings decided to shift to Kabul, renting a small room in a residential area. His mother found a job as a house-help, and would either walk 45 minutes to-and-from work or pillion-ride on Ghulam’s bicycle in the mornings and evenings.

Ghulam (fourth from left) with his siblings and Ali (fifth from left)

“It makes me sad that my mom has to work so hard as a house-help just to keep our family going. She sometimes falls ill but still has to go to work, including on public holidays!”

On a few occasions when she fell ill, Ghulam’s mother consulted me for medical advice. She was constantly worried about her children being hurt in militant attacks; the number of civilians killed in Kabul and across the country has  reached record levels.

Initially, Ali was told that Ghulam didn’t intend to go with his family to Iran. But, a day before their journey, Ghulam informed us that he was leaving too. His father must have asked for Ghulam.

In the evening, he came to say good-bye.

Seeing photos of our community on my room’s wall, he asked if he could have all three photos. I immediately took them out of the frame for him, and also gave him two small notebooks to journal his experiences ahead.

Just after midnight, he and his family left to take a coach to Nimroz, and from there, through human smugglers, to Iran.

The next morning, over breakfast, Ali sobbed. He had ‘lost’ his childhood friend. Ali knew that life was probably not going to get better for Ghulam, that life as an Afghan refugee in Iran or anywhere else isn’t easy. And how about Ghulam’s wish to do well in his studies? What’s to become of that?

The journey took them 17 days. They were denied entry at the Nimroz border crossing and had to take another route through Pakistan.

Life must have been changing very rapidly for Ghulam.

Life’s unfair twists

Ghulam is definitely not a silly, lazy scoundrel. He’s not a potential ‘terrorist’. He’s not a liability to anyone, anywhere.

But if we met Ghulam the refugee for the first time, these stereotypes may be how we perceive Ghulam, which would make us fear or dislike him.

How did our education become so narrow and warped?

I think that, in part, it is because our money-tized lives have de-activated our curious, creative, critical, communal and compassionate understanding of the world. Our education and work is increasingly devoid of meaningful relationships with other people and other ways of life, driven madly by personal profit.

Ali has only been able to speak on the phone with Ghulam twice.

“Ghulam didn’t say much. He hasn’t got internet use yet, so we can’t keep in touch via Facebook,” was all Ali could tell me.

Distance.

Each Afghan needing to cope with their own set of challenges.

The uncertainty of survival in war or refugee predicaments.

I asked Kaka Hussein, Ghulam’s neighbor, if he had any word from Ghulam.

Kaka Hussein said in a disappointed and hushed mono-tone, “I think Ghulam has been taken for a ride. Just last week, Ghulam told me that he and his family have shifted away from their father and his second wife’s house, to a place quite ‘far away’. His father needs help to run a chicken rearing business to pay off debts incurred for its start-up, so Ghulam and Ramez have to work for their father.”

“Are Ghulam and his siblings going to school?”

“No.”

Worse, I know that what would add grief to Ghulam’s burdens would be his loss of our community, the loss of not being able to have tea with us in Kabul, whenever he wanted to.

Just as it must be for today’s 65.6 million refugees, I can taste the isolation and rejection Ghulam and his mother must feel.

When our relationships are cut off, our zest for life is cut off.

Ghulam at his study desk in Kabul, calling to make sure his family members were well, in the minutes following a bomb blast nearby

• Photos by Dr. Hakim

How Life got Intolerable for Ghulam’s Mother and his Afghan Family

Ghulam (second from left) working on our community’s greenhouse, together with Zek, Khamad and Ali

Ali, Zekerullah, Khamad and I miss Ghulam and his family. We feel sad that life in Afghanistan had finally become too burdensome for them. They are now Afghan refugees in Iran.

We have known Ghulam for many years, Ali and Ghulam being distant relatives and the best of childhood friends. Ghulam lived in community with us for about five years. We were his second family, supporting one another through thick and thin.

Ghulam’s focus

Ghulam worked very hard to be a good student. When he transferred to a private school, he topped his class in the exams and thus had his school fees waived.

He felt that doing well in school was the only route to a better life for a poor student.

Besides schooling, Ghulam would spare time once a week to help organize the first Food Bank in Afghanistan, run by the Afghan Peace Volunteers ( APVs ). Volunteering isn’t a prevalent practice, and it isn’t easy trying to get well-to-do business persons to trust the APVs against the background of a ‘corruption tsunami’ in Afghanistan. So, Ghulam’s work with the nascent Food Bank called for his courage, persistence and kindness.

 Ghulam (extreme right) with Hussein and Sarwar going house to house to collect food donations for the Food Bank

Ghulam’s good-bye

I remember that Ghulam had first visited Kabul with us when he was 12-years-old. Then, he had just made friends with international visitors, including with Leila Zand, an American Iranian peace builder. When we were saying goodbye to Leila, the fresh social and emotional attachment of a young boy to a new friend was clearly apparent. Ghulam wasn’t willing to part. He cried like he was losing someone close.

From left to right in 2010: Leila Zand, Ghulam, Abdulhai, Zekerullah, Lala, Ali

Ghulam’s father left his family of seven children for Iran more than 10 years ago, looking for work so as to be able to pay off his debts. He never returned to Afghanistan, and took a second wife in Iran.

Ghulam’s family survived on his mother’s income from washing clothes for rich Afghan households. His older brother Ramez, the oldest among the siblings, had married hurriedly years ago. Amidst worsening unemployment rates in Afghanistan, he could not find regular work anywhere and spent many years paying off the marriage debt. The marriage has not been a happy one. Ramez’s wife could not get along with Ghulam’s mother, and when disagreements came to a head, Ghulam’s mother and siblings decided to shift to Kabul, renting a small room in a residential area. His mother found a job as a house-help, and would either walk 45 minutes to-and-from work or pillion-ride on Ghulam’s bicycle in the mornings and evenings.

Ghulam (fourth from left) with his siblings and Ali (fifth from left)

“It makes me sad that my mom has to work so hard as a house-help just to keep our family going. She sometimes falls ill but still has to go to work, including on public holidays!”

On a few occasions when she fell ill, Ghulam’s mother consulted me for medical advice. She was constantly worried about her children being hurt in militant attacks; the number of civilians killed in Kabul and across the country has  reached record levels.

Initially, Ali was told that Ghulam didn’t intend to go with his family to Iran. But, a day before their journey, Ghulam informed us that he was leaving too. His father must have asked for Ghulam.

In the evening, he came to say good-bye.

Seeing photos of our community on my room’s wall, he asked if he could have all three photos. I immediately took them out of the frame for him, and also gave him two small notebooks to journal his experiences ahead.

Just after midnight, he and his family left to take a coach to Nimroz, and from there, through human smugglers, to Iran.

The next morning, over breakfast, Ali sobbed. He had ‘lost’ his childhood friend. Ali knew that life was probably not going to get better for Ghulam, that life as an Afghan refugee in Iran or anywhere else isn’t easy. And how about Ghulam’s wish to do well in his studies? What’s to become of that?

The journey took them 17 days. They were denied entry at the Nimroz border crossing and had to take another route through Pakistan.

Life must have been changing very rapidly for Ghulam.

Life’s unfair twists

Ghulam is definitely not a silly, lazy scoundrel. He’s not a potential ‘terrorist’. He’s not a liability to anyone, anywhere.

But if we met Ghulam the refugee for the first time, these stereotypes may be how we perceive Ghulam, which would make us fear or dislike him.

How did our education become so narrow and warped?

I think that, in part, it is because our money-tized lives have de-activated our curious, creative, critical, communal and compassionate understanding of the world. Our education and work is increasingly devoid of meaningful relationships with other people and other ways of life, driven madly by personal profit.

Ali has only been able to speak on the phone with Ghulam twice.

“Ghulam didn’t say much. He hasn’t got internet use yet, so we can’t keep in touch via Facebook,” was all Ali could tell me.

Distance.

Each Afghan needing to cope with their own set of challenges.

The uncertainty of survival in war or refugee predicaments.

I asked Kaka Hussein, Ghulam’s neighbor, if he had any word from Ghulam.

Kaka Hussein said in a disappointed and hushed mono-tone, “I think Ghulam has been taken for a ride. Just last week, Ghulam told me that he and his family have shifted away from their father and his second wife’s house, to a place quite ‘far away’. His father needs help to run a chicken rearing business to pay off debts incurred for its start-up, so Ghulam and Ramez have to work for their father.”

“Are Ghulam and his siblings going to school?”

“No.”

Worse, I know that what would add grief to Ghulam’s burdens would be his loss of our community, the loss of not being able to have tea with us in Kabul, whenever he wanted to.

Just as it must be for today’s 65.6 million refugees, I can taste the isolation and rejection Ghulam and his mother must feel.

When our relationships are cut off, our zest for life is cut off.

Ghulam at his study desk in Kabul, calling to make sure his family members were well, in the minutes following a bomb blast nearby

• Photos by Dr. Hakim