Saturday, September 17, 2011

Rediscovering Purpose

A touching and a humbling experience it was indeed for me last Thursday.

I was late for lunch and the table where I usually settle for lunchtime chat was already full. Looking around, I found a seat and thought, "oh, 'should be nice to sit with the young colleague" who just joined us. It was her second day, "If we don't count yesterday," she said. All the national staff were sent back home Wednesday just when they got in. This was the day after the Taliban tried to attack the US embassy and the NATO headquarters in Kabul. There was information going around that something could happen again that day.

"How did we find you?" was my opening line. With a shy giggle and perhaps not expecting a question to be framed that way, she said, "I applied." "Where did you work last?" "I taught English and did some translation work." "Oh. Where at?" I asked because she sounded like one who had gone to school in the US before taking a job with us. Her English and accent were pretty good. "In Iran," she replied.

"It was difficult be a refugee." "I don't want to remember that anymore." My heart sank. She continued that she had spent 23 years there. I am close friends with some who have stayed in Peshawar but have not met anyone who was in Iran. Her words were mellow and her look -- as if she had put all that behind her and nary a hint of animosity. Admirable.

"...And now you are back in Kabul hoping that things will be better," I suggested. "Do you think that there's hope?" Back in '04 and '05, I could readily have answered that question with a passionate "yes", and I could go emotional lengths to say why. But this time, this question tore my gut and challenged my purpose of being here this time in Kabul. Conditions have changed so much for Afghanistan that there is no denying that the backsliding could be gaining momentum. Again, her words were neither curious nor desperate. She was matter-of-fact-ly, but not cynical; laconic but not dismissive.

"Perhaps there should be negotiations with the Taliban and it could put an end to the fighting?" I tried to wiggle out of the already uncomfortable (with my insensitivity) situation that I had put myself in. "During the Taliban (period) all the women were 'dead'." I realized (my stupidity) after her reply, the folly of my the man-think; always as if tested and challenged to find solutions to anything.

I lived in Afghanistan for two years but I've never been struck so deeply by the realities delivered in such gently spoken words. I've been away too long. My experiences then, beautiful and deep as they were, have left my heart and have stagnated in my head -- mere data, un-kindled memoirs. Whatever it is that had brought me back to this place, which had positively changed my life, is just a fleeting thing, a discrepancy in time, I thought. I needed to rediscover purpose.

The remainder of the lunch chat was more casual. I tried to steer away from any more traps that I could set for myself. Three were more than enough. She said that everyone she had met in the office was so kind showing her about and how things work at the office. She said she is excited to have found her new job and more so that she is going to law school also at the same time. Hopeful.

I write this piece moved by that humbling encounter. Three weeks into my first arrival in Kabul back in February 2004, I was "told" in my prayer to "serve the people of God". I could not quite settle then why I had to leave serving my people to go to another land. Since then, I have kept that close to my heart -- to serve anyone anywhere I am called to do so. I remember telling myself (and others) then that many of us (internationals) carry the hope for the Afghans. To lose hope or to fail to ignite hope, therefore, is to give up on God's own people.

Do you think that I should have asked why she choose to go to law school? Nah! I am glad I did not because I might not be ready for her answer. Perhaps if there is another time, I should...if only to find the opportunity to also reassure her that indeed there is hope.

(Kabul, 16 September 2011)

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for sharing this! I can imagine how you must have felt during this lunchtime chat…but I am of the same mind and spirit – such experiences remind us of why we do what we do. For all the good things that we aspire for our Afghan colleagues, they want it more – staggeringly much more – for themselves, their families, their country and their future.