Thursday, December 16, 2010

To Kandahar, With Love

There is something deliciously ironic about a Menno-girl's first-ever blog-post being about Canadian troops serving in Afghanistan, and since I still can't quite believe this string of events, I'd best start at the beginning, where all good stories start.

(You may have already noticed that I have a penchant for run-on sentences with embedded clauses.  You might as well also know that I am particularly fond of the ellipse.  If these habits don't drive you to madness, then we can continue with this relationship).

So, that begs the question: which beginning should be started at?  A brief history of Anabaptists?  Martin Luther and the Wittenberg Door?  Canada's role in Afghanistan?  I think in order to get to the point, I'm going to assume a working knowledge in all of these areas, and if you haven't that, suffice it to say that my people, traditionally, have taken the words "blessed are the peacemakers" to heart, and have therefore refused to have anything whatsoever to do with the military.  Historically, this has been a tough stance to take (which is largely the reason my people moved to Canada, where we could NOT go to war AND farm acres and acres of land.  It was a pretty good deal, actually).  In more recent (and tolerant) years, however, it has also become a convenient "out" when things get tough overseas (as in, "Well, I don't support military action ANYway, so what do I have to say about it?")

Suffice it to say, when it's come to "supporting troops" and all that, I've admittedly fallen back on my history, and managed to mostly get away with recognizing Remembrance Day as a day to mourn the existence of war in a purely philosophical sense, and leave the recognition of troops to other folks.

Then I got a job in a Middle School, where I had the privilege of meeting a strong, ambitious, incredible educator who had served in Afghanistan as a Canadian Peacekeeper.  (I shall call her D for our purposes, as I'm not sure about sharing identities on this blog thing yet...).  I had never personally known anyone who had served, and although she largely kept to herself, she commanded this *presence* wherever she went.  I was in awe of her, and she made me wonder what compelled a young, intelligent, talented woman to put herself in such a place.  To do the kind of work she had done.  To see what she had seen.  I kept my distance, but was curious.  Frankly, her quiet strength intimidated me.

Whenever Remembrance Day rolled around and our school held its obligatory service, she wore her uniform and stood, stoically, at the back of the gym.  She didn't participate- although she mostly kept to herself, she did confide once that she simply found it too difficult to do so- but she certainly forced me to think very carefully about what this day actually meant to so many people.  Real people, and not just people from seventy years ago.  People my age, today.  Families and children and young people burdened with the realities of that place- realities I can hardly imagine.

Halfway through my second year of teaching, D suddenly announced to our principal that she was re-enlisting in the military.  She was hoping to be deployed back to Afghanistan by the end of the year.  It came as a huge surprise to all of us, and we were very sorry to be losing such a talented educator.  But, it seems, she felt her heart was there, and she felt called to go back to see what she could do to help.  She gave up her condo, sold all her belongings, and by the next fall, she was gone.  We "friended" on facebook, she left our school, I got pregnant and eventually went on maternity leave.  Between learning to be mom to a newborn while simultaneously keeping a house and meeting other moms, I have to admit that I didn't think much about her for a long time.

Fast-forward one year, to about four weeks ago.  I am at home with my nine-month-old daughter and finding myself online more than not at times in my "me time" moments, as I have found myself joining online moms' groups and networking with others who know more about this mom thing than I do.  In my wanderings, I came across the blog of a wonderfully energetic and incredibly generous woman by the name of Glennon (check out Momastery if you haven't already- you won't be sorry).  Her stories of kindness, generosity, and just her LOVE inspired me.  She made me feel like taking a risk of kindness is WORTH it.  That maybe more people just need to TAKE that risk once in a while.

It was Remembrance Day.  November 11th.  I thought of D over there in Afghanistan- the only person who I personally know "out there."  We were facebook friends, so I decided, with some trepidation, to write her a note.  This was hard for me- remember, this STRONG person intimidated me!  I am a somewhat self-conscious pacifist girl!  What do I have to say to this woman who gave up all her earthly comforts to do... whatever she does out there?  I wrote and rewrote in my head what I wanted to say to her, and finally settled on a few short sentences: Thinking of you, D. You managed to shift how I think about Nov 11, and I'm sure many former students and staff could say the same. So thanks for that, and for what you do out there. 

I felt nervous as I hit "send."  She will think it's lame, I thought.  Ah, well.  Done.  And I pushed it out of my mind as I enjoyed an unexpected mid-week day with my husband at home on our peaceful rural property.

And it stayed pushed out of my mind for about a week before a reply sudden appeared in my inbox.  I had, it seems, opened a floodgate.  What follows is excerpts of our conversation:

You have no idea how much I appreciate your message, and I am absolutely delighted that you took the time to write and acknowledge what I am doing here. You are the only one who has.

I am running a one-room school here in Afghanistan. I have 87 students (all boys as it is still unsafe for girls to attend school) in one class and they range between 5 -16. Additionally, I collect donations of school supplies, clothing, toiletries etc and, with the help of soldiers, get them to orphanges, hospitals, schools (including clandestine schools for girls), and even prisons in the area. It's great work for the soul.

I live on the NATO Kandahar Airfield camp. Although it is relatively safe, we are rocketed quite often with the worst being 12 times in one day, and we get the odd suicide bomber working their way onto to camp. It probably sounds worse than it is.

If you are keen to help, I have a special request. We get plenty of school supplies (pencils, pens, crayons etc), but nothing in the way of educational resources. There is no need to canvass friends for money or donations. Here is a very simple wishlist to give you some ideas.

* One of those 1001 science experiments type books would be worth its weight in gold. Something with simple experiments using things around the home.

*Any ideas for math activities like the fabulous hands-on activities G used to have her classes do.

*Coaching and Phys.ed resources.

*Educational posters for the wall would be a want rather than a need, but the walls are completely bare.

Basically, anything that will help me plan and deliver an educational program for these kids. I teach all subjects at all levels, and not one of my students speaks English. As an educator, I'm sure you can appreciate my challenge. "

Well, of course I had to help.  The humanity in me wanted her to know that people out here CARE.  And we want those kids to learn so that maybe they can bring the peace that their country so desperately needs.  I felt like some pretence had been stripped away- we were two teachers talking about a big dilemma, and I could help.  Not only that, my pacifist beliefs were compelling me to BRING PEACE by DOING SOMETHING- find resources!  Send them!  Help D to do the job she is compelled to do!  She is willing to put herself out there- to DO what I myself can not.

One box has been assembled and sent- the military offers free shipping, so I collected what I could from teacher-friends of mine.  I also included some recharger items for D- hot drink mixes, lotion, shampoos and soaps.  We teachers all know that to be good for our students, we have to take care of ourselves too. But then, I felt I should share this story with Glennon and the Momastery folks, to thank them for giving me the courage to BE KIND, and do take a risk to do something for someone who needs it.  Can you imagine my surprise when THEY wanted to help me to assemble the next box!!

So, readers, if you have made it this far, then this is where you come in.  You can be part of this journey!  We can make a difference to the boys that D directly teaches, and to those girls who have to study in private.  We can give a little to do so much more out there.  It's incredible to me, what small measure of kindness it takes to mean so much to someone else.  For we introverts, this can be a bit of a leap, but even confident extroverts need kindness now and again.  And even more than that, there are kids whose brains are primed for learning, and our resources could make a huge difference to their futures.

So write me.  Let me know if you have something you want to give.  If you are a teacher or a parent or just a concerned person and you have access to resources, please send them my way.  Anything that has lesson ideas, basic activities, pictures, maps, or the like- great!  The last box contained many science experiment books, so books in other subject areas would be of help.  And if you have anything "fun" that would make classroom life more enjoyable, that would be appreciated as well.

I look forward to getting to know you all- as the Momastery folks have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate to me, this Internet thing is a powerful tool.  I'm so amazed that so much can come from the hearts and keyboards of incredible people.  Until next time,



  1. i have ideas.

    this is so, so good.

    but let us not become so excited and concerned with what comes next that we forget to stop and celebrate the miracle that has already happened.

    you erased a boundary. you took a risk, you reached out. you made an unlikely friend. you are a peacemaker.

    and now a peacemaker across the world, who was feeling forgotten, who was probably wondering if love really hopeful. we are all so connected. just so connected.

    it's just all good, isn't it?

    love you jenny. more will be revealed.


  2. I'm in! I'm in! My daddy was a teacher. I have many teachers in my life. I might be hooked up. Maybe I could fill a box in Vancouver and just ship it out from here?

    Let's email details soon. Maybe after Christmas I can send a box?



  3. Tova- that would be amazing! Yes, yes, please! I'll look into the logistics of sending from there and let you know, but for sure lets be in touch!


  4. Do the students speak Dari or Pashto? Would language resources help?

    I'm on my way home for Christmas; I was home schooled and I believe we still have a ton of my old curriculum and school books packed away. I'll make sure to ask my mom if she'd be willing to donate them to a worthy cause! Thank you so much for bringing this opportunity to our notice!

    Much love,
    - Sharyn

  5. Sharyn- Thank you for your concern and interest!! I'm going to write D to ask her a few questions- I'll add your language resource question to the list and let you know. Thanks so much for thinking of us and the project!

  6. Hey, Jenny :)
    I've sent you an email about maths resources, and I also have 3 inflatable globes to send to you (what's more educational than a globe? Also these are easy to send, they blow up to about 30cm across, and if she doesn't want to use them in lessons they can double as room decorations by hanging them up, or beach balls ...).

    --Jingle Bella (a Monkee)

  7. awesome jenny! i'm going to see what i can pull together and send to you after the holidays. so early january timeframe.

  8. Okay! Answers to your questions and more in my most recent post- you folks are all incredible. Simply incredible. Happy holidays, and lets keep this up in the new year, shall we?