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9/ll Widows Turn Tragedy into Triumph

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Half a world lies between the green suburbs of Boston and the dusty slums of Kabul. But that distance seems insignificant as Patti and Susan meet Sahera and Sadiqa for the first time, in a one-room home in the Afghan capital. The four women, two American and two Afghan, already share a deep bond; one of shared tragedy and hope, forged in the ashes of September 11, 2001.


Patti Quigley and Susan Retik both lost their husbands, aboard two jets hijacked in Boston on 9/11. Sahera and Sadiqa (like many Afghans, they have no last names) lost theirs, who were brothers, in the years of warfare that tore apart Afghanistan.


 As far as the two Americans are concerned, all four were widowed in the same war. “We are all sisters,” Susan says, as the women hug. “Our countries may be very different, but we know you love your children just as we do, and you want the same things for them.”



But the world has not treated them alike. American survivors of 9/11 were overwhelmed with support, both emotional and financial, from friends and strangers alike. Afghan widows, living in a society where women are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, are often destitute. Patti and Susan, determined that some good should come of their loss, started Beyond the 11th, a foundation dedicated to helping change that disparity.


With the support of Beyond the 11th and other donors, CARE’s Humanitarian Assistance to the Women of Afghanistan (HAWA) program reaches some 10,000 women in Kabul’s poorest districts. Initially focused on distributing food to widows and their families, HAWA has since expanded to include income generation activities, literacy training and savings and loan groups, all with the goal of helping women move beyond dependence.


Patti and Susan’s generosity goes toward one of CARE’s most promising initiatives in Afghanistan; giving women the skills and start-up capital to become small-scale poultry producers. Grants from Beyond the 11th totaling $175,000 have helped provide chicks, feed, training and veterinary care to some of the more than 2,000 women enrolled in the program so far.


By raising chickens in their yard—twenty-nine between them—Sahera and Sadiqa are able to earn a small but steady income, not easy for widows in this conservative, Muslim society, where women’s work outside the home is frowned on. Their family eats better, too; fresh eggs and chicken, as well as the food they buy with cash.


The two sisters-in-law carry a heavy burden. They each have five children, and also must care for their late husbands’ mother, who lost six sons in the war. The elderly woman, crippled with grief, kisses Sadiqa’s hand as she cries, “I have no one else but these two.” Patti and Susan embrace the women and cry along with them.


To Sahera and Sadiqa, any sacrifice is worth bearing if it means their children can go to school. “It is my greatest wish that one day my children can get educated,” says Sahera. “That is a hundred times more important than my own happiness.” Her three daughters are able to attend school—for now. “But there is a problem,” she says. “After a few years, my girls will be young women, and they will face cultural pressure and disapproval from the neighbors if they don’t stay at home.”


CARE has long been committed to helping girls like Sahera’s break those barriers. Even at the height of the Taliban’s repressive rule, when girls were officially forbidden to go to school, more than 20,000 girls were enrolled in CARE’s education programs, which help communities organize and run their own schools.


Another important component helps girls who missed out on education during the Taliban years catch up, completing two grades each year. “Schools for girls are very important, so they don’t get married without an education,” says Nasima, principal of the CARE-supported Qala e Zaman Khan village school, where 166 girls attend grades one to six. “The boys will have the opportunity to learn in any case, in schools, mosques and the street.”


Even widows who first came to HAWA to collect a food supplement are catching education fever where classes in literacy and basic math are an integral part of the program. Patti and Susan visit one such class, held in a mud-brick home in Kabul’s hilly District Seven. The students speak of how they plan to use their new skills to keep accounts for their small businesses and to help their children learn.


When teacher Shukriya Droni asks a question, every hand shoots up. “We know the importance of education,” says Zohra Wali, thirty-eight, who, growing up during decades of war and repression, has never before sat in a classroom. When she completes the CARE literacy training, Zohra will be qualified to enter regular school at the fourth grade level. “This week alone, 850 women graduated from the program,” Shukriya says proudly.


The visitors are deeply impressed at the dedication they see. “We think that you are very brave,” Patti tells the class, through a translator. Susan encourages the women to continue with their education despite hardships. “It’s important to be respectful of your traditions, but you are the most important person in the world, and you should always follow your dreams,” she says, as many in the room wipe away tears.


In a week of visits with Sahera, Sadiqa and Zohra, Patti and Susan are experiencing many such emotional moments. They will never forget the women they are meeting here. But then, in a sense, they already knew them—they are sisters.


Sidebar:


New documentary captures 9/11 widows’ life-changing trip to Afghanistan


Susan Retik and Patti Quigley were accompanied on their journey to Kabul by documentary film producer Beth Murphy and cameraman Sean Flynn of Principle Pictures. Their film, Beyond the 11th, was shot over a two-year period and chronicles the extraordinary story of these two suburban mothers who discover a powerful bond with each other, an unlikely kinship with widows halfway around the world, and a profound way to move beyond the tragedy of that day.


Despite being victims of global terror, Susan and Patti refuse to let fear stand in their way and have themselves transformed into true citizens of the world. A sneak preview of the film was shown in New York and Boston on the fifth anniversary of September 11th, and the film will be released to film festivals in winter 2007.


Related story: Beyond Belief




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