Photo: Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance
visiting partners at an Afghan girls' school
The late morning sun streamed through the window as she stood, resilient, committed, and strong. She stood with the strength of those who came before her – her ancestors, her mom, and countless others. Her grit, heartbreak, piercing eyes, and her pointed questions were gifts we didn’t know we needed.
My journey to her started with the ordinary rhythm of ministry. Sunday began as it did most weeks - last minute sermon memorizing, bustling around a quiet sanctuary, music in the air as musicians arrived, questions about my upcoming trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a baby shower after worship. Suddenly it was time to drag my somewhat weary body into a friend’s car for a quick ride to the airport. Over the next 48 hours sleep would be infrequent, food would be tried, but my body would slowly relax as alternating flights and layovers moved me forward.
Finally I arrived in Afghanistan, where young women are now barred from education past the sixth grade. I woke up in a region historically familiar with the struggle for equity and liberation following decades of violence. Generation after generation of Shia Muslims were targeted, their basic human rights drastically restricted.
The next day we made our way to schools in the province, remnants of education for young women in Afghanistan, established and maintained by partners of Week of Compassion. Early that morning we visited a classroom of kindergarteners, finding an energetic scene - students enthusiastically answering their teachers, embracing the opportunity of education, and dreaming about their futures. They were young and optimistic.
Later we stepped into a sixth-grade classroom with two young women who presented prepared statements, young and brilliant.
Someone asked, “What are your dreams?”
"Shattered,” one explained. My soul shattered too, as she said the word.
Her dream of being a pilot was distant - this was her last year of education and access to a classroom. Tears welled up in the corner of my eye; I quickly wiped them away. This wasn’t about my sadness; my focus was on her struggle and heartache.
The next school we entered was filled with the sounds of girls. Another room full of sixth graders, learning and reciting English. Then the gift arrived …
Her voice, strength, and resilience were evident as the sunlight poured into the corner of her room and bathed her desk. As we discussed the restrictions on education for young women, she stood without hesitation and asked, “What are you going to do about it? What should we do?”
Focused and determined, her eyes pierced the distance between us. There it was. The gift we didn’t know we needed.
Her struggle, my journey, their history, our shared humanity, and the unknown future burst into that room. Two of us, both ministers, fumbled to respond. We stand with you, you are not alone, a reference to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights – all of it fell short of what was needed. She will not return to school next year. Yet, she dared to ask the question that needed asking. She needed to ask it. We needed to hear it.
She is the dream of her mother, the hope of her ancestors, and a gift we all need. Over the next few days, I considered her question, over and over, and other questions joined my contemplation …
…what do we do with hopelessness?
…how do we respond to the cry of Allah’s people?
…how do we hold that space without rushing to trite answers?
…what am I going to do about it?
What do we do when a young girl’s voice and story shatter our hearts?
We open that gift, tell her story, and support her community. Reclaim the hope, let her voice rise, and let that sunlit classroom propel us into the unknown. Let us be strong, resilient, and committed to this work. For her, for the girls like her, and for the sake of the world to come.
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