On September 11, 2001, my best friend called and asked me to turn on the television to view the fall of the twin towers. She said, "Our lives have changed now, forever." In 2002, I took my first trip back to Afghanistan since living there in the 1960’s with my family. In 2004, I moved back to Kabul to begin the life-changing odyssey that has spanned the last twelve years.
While living and working here, I have been an informal ambassador for the US and other Western nations. My title is "foreigner" in Dari, and I have traveled throughout Afghanistan, visiting remote villages as well as cities, working with the Afghan people. I am feared, revered and welcomed equally. I have had stones thrown at me, been chastised, and told to leave the country. I have also been praised, rescued from riots, and protected by the people of Afghanistan.
At a time in history when my own country has turned to a fear-driven public dialogue and a highly polarized political atmosphere, I am reflecting on what I have learned while being here.
In the first year that I came to Afghanistan, I witnessed a group of young Afghan men greet a couple of young American women. One of the men grabbed one of the women and kissed her.
"Why did you just do that?" I asked. "You know it is taboo."
"We are a democracy now" he replied. " I get to do whatever I want!"
I realized then that my American country’s democratic political system could be misunderstood. This system, as it stands right now, is not necessarily the answer to all social, economic, and political problems worldwide. One person has one vote and this implies that one’s voice will be heard and have a say in the politics of a country. But on behalf of what?
I welcome the new and intense dialogue emerging from the US and around the world, as it seems we are re-examining what exactly democracy means and what our fundamental values are when we exercise our right to vote.
Recently, as I walked to my office, a small boy picked up a stone and threw it at me. I stopped and asked him "Why did you throw that stone at me?"
"Because you are a foreigner!"
"But I am your auntie also," I said, "I am your foreign auntie."
"Oh…sorry about that!" he said, and then he grabbed my hand and walked me to my office.
Our young people, more globally interconnected than ever, are listening to us carefully and growing up in a world of our making.
I say to my government, do not ask me to choose between life for an Afghan child, an American child, a Syrian child, a child of color and my own child. And that is the world that we live in now, in spite of the fact that we are capable and have enough resources worldwide to end hunger and tackle other seemingly insurmountable global problems. As with the young boy I encountered on the way to work, I believe that we can change our trajectory, but it is now time to set aside the angry rhetoric and put faces to the people who have no voice but will be affected by this new dialogue. I want to be an ambassador for my country on behalf of a democracy in which all people thrive.