Sunday, March 22, 2009

Return to Afghanistan

I'm excited to be back in Afghanistan to film at the Zabuli School, an all-girls' school in the village of Deh Subz, about 8 miles outside Kabul. There has never been a girls' school in this village before and founder Razia Jan is a true force of nature. Despite lots of pressure from the Ministry of Education to turn the school over to the government, she maintains control. "If they got their hands on it," she tells me, "they'd destroy it. In one month there would be boys there, and soon there would be no girls at all."

Kevin Belli and I arrived yesterday - on Nawrooz, the Afghan New Year. We flew in on Ariana Airlines from Istanbul. (I'd spent a week in Turkey with my husband, Dennis, and daughter, Isabelle. It was an incredibly special vacation, and Dennis is such an incredible Dad - spending 21 hours traveling home with Isabelle and taking care of her for these next two weeks while I'm here.) Ariana has an interesting story - it's Afghanistan's national carrier, and during the American bombing campaign after 9/11, the airline lost 6 of its 8 planes. India donated a few airbus jets the following year, and Ariana was back up and running. They may have the planes, but they are still in the dark ages when it comes to booking flights, issuing tickets and actually knowing their own flight schedule. Despite what it says on their website and on any printed material they might send you, there is no flight out of Istanbul at 10pm on Fridays! And as you stand at the ticket counter and watch them tediously hand-writing your ticket, you wonder how you will ever get there at all.

The Ariana flight itself was interesting - filled with lots of Afghans being deported from Turkey. So many people trying to find a better life, a life with opportunity... a life with some hope. One well-dressed man with perfect English approached me, careful not to step too far from the undercover immigration offer who was escorting him. Sher Shah looked about my age, and told me about his years working as an interpreter for U.S. Special Forces and how the Taliban tried to gun him down as he was driving home one day. He immediately sent his wife and two-month-old son to Pakistan, and paid a smuggler $10,000 to try to get himself to the UK; he'd pay another $10,000 once he arrived in London. He was bitter about the way he was treated in Turkey. "I need to be in an English speaking country. I can't stay here in Turkey anyway. They speak a bullshit language here that no internationals can understand."

His plan was to get settled in London and then reunite with his family. But he never made it. His fake passport worked on the way into Turkey, but not on the way out. He spent a month in jail in Istanbul, and now was being deported home. Well, he hesitated to call it home, but couldn't muster another word for it. After several conversations over the next two hours, Sher Shah told me I was his friend now, and he wanted to share with me the two items in his thin, leather wallet: 50 Turkish lira and the email address of his U.S. commander.

Because of the New Year holiday here, the Zabuli School is closed today, so our filming will begin tomorrow. I'm excited to meet the girls (some of whom are 16-years-old and in first grade), and their teachers and families. These girls are the future of this country, but their schooling comes at a time when the Taliban is gaining strength and girls education is increasingly under attack.

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