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Afghan Resiliency: Hope Remains by Jaala Shaw

Jaala (left) teaching an all-women’s class at Kabul Education University, 2010

August 15, 2021

“My dear sister Jaala, it isn’t that the Taliban are getting close to Kabul. The truth is, we are surrounded. Ghani [the President] has fled the country and abandoned us. We are trapped and cannot flee. There is no hope.”

This is the beginning of a voice message I received from my closest Afghan friend who lives in downtown Kabul. It is the reality on the ground. She has been working with the British for many years, educating women and doing nation-building work. This work now leaves a target on her back, so she is hiding with her family in a friend’s basement. She has a visa, but can’t leave. The airport is overrun with foreign evacuees, so the Afghans who should be evacuated have no choice but to hide.

Right now, the best I can do to help is to remind people that this is happening now. Today. This minute. God help my friends.

October 2010

Kabul a decade ago was recovering, opening up, colorful and alive. My dear friend (who left the phone message referred to above) and I could walk through the outdoor mall and the markets in Shar-e-now together on sunny days and be happy. We strolled along the paths at Babur Gardens, and admired the resiliency of roses. They grew from all the cracks in the concrete, refusing to bow to their circumstances. My friend told me the Afghan people were just like those roses, steadfast and stubborn, beautiful and resilient.

Jaala (left) with one of her Afghan friends (who was the city’s public defender) in Herat, 2010

At the time, I was working as an English Language Fellow on a State Department grant, training teachers at Kabul Education University. Though it was not specifically in my project description, multiple students at the University asked me to go with them into the public schools in Kabul to help train the elementary school teachers. Many of the female students, as well as my boss at the US embassy, advocated for this plan, but I needed the Chancellor of the University’s blessing in order to split my time at the University to work on other projects.

During an upcoming meeting with the Chancellor, I would propose the plan to train teachers in the community.

As I waited, along with other professors, for the Chancellor to arrive at the meeting, I remember being nervous. I wasn’t sure that he’d allow me to extend my teaching outside of the University into the heart of Kabul. Even though that time frame was relatively peaceful, there were still countless suicide bombings, night time insurgent missions into the major cities, kidnappings, and targeted assassinations happening frequently; it’d be a risk to let me move freely throughout schools in the city.

The Chancellor arrived.

After drinking tea, eating dried chickpeas and raisins, and talking about the weather, our families, and what seemed like everything else but education, the Chancellor suddenly cleared his throat to quiet us all down. 

At first his words were measured, quiet even:

“Miss Jaala, we thank you for coming here to teach our students and train our teachers. I hear that you’d like to go to Dasht-e-Barchi, and other neighborhoods in Kabul to teach the children and train their teachers.”

Lunch in Dasht-e-Barchi with Kabul Education University students (and their siblings). The students also ran their own English school in their neighborhood. 2010 (Jaala is on the left)

I responded, “Yes. I think the teachers in the public schools need additional training, and I’d love to take the University students to the elementary schools as well to assist in the lessons.”

He said, “Because you are a woman, you must go to the girls’ schools. Is this ok with you?” 

(Silently cheering and invisibly jumping up and down) YES!” I stated, loudly.

Then, he began to speak more pointedly.

He said, “Good, now let me tell you something important. Peace depends on this university. With education, there is no war. The enemy knows this; they burn schools and kill teachers to take the foundation of peace away. But here we build the future everyday. Piece by piece we are rebuilding our nation from the ground up. Each teacher who works here knows this; each student who passes through these gates knows this. Peace depends on this university. We welcome all of your ideas, support you, and hope that you are successful in your mission.”

My heart soared.

The remainder of our conversation was focused on why educating women was of the utmost importance. We talked about how education is a weapon that no one can take away from the people. Once people are empowered in this way, they teach the future generations how to empower themselves as well. We agreed that an educated populace can’t be as easily manipulated as an illiterate one. Civil society could not, and would not let their country be desecrated as it was during the reign of the Taliban.

Kabul Education University, English Language Department Graduation 2011 (Jaala is 4th from the left)

August 16, 2021

The Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan.

Thousands of people are fleeing to the Hamid Karzai International Airport, trying to escape. Multitudes hide. The Afghan Government, National Army, and Police have surrendered. 

I send messages to all of my friends to check in on them and ask how they are doing.

Many are pleading for help.

They tell me not to forget about them. 

They ask me to save their lives.

I choke on my heart.

Did I lie to them?

A decade ago, when I told them that education is a weapon which could never be taken away, when I told them that an educated majority wouldn’t succumb to propaganda and extremism, was I wrong?

I fear that all of my friends will be dead soon. All of the work that they did will be washed away. The education that they valued, the work that they did, will die along with them.

Jaala (far right) teaching a group of female public school teachers at Kabul Education University, 2011

August 22, 2021

A week has passed since I got that call from my dearest Afghan friend. 

Other foreign teachers who I worked with in Afghanistan, NGO workers, Government employees, and military friends have built support networks on the ground in Kabul and have gotten countless families to the airport, on flights, and to safety. 

But thousands remain. Thousands of families who have assisted security forces and foreign governments are hiding in Kabul and other cities across the country. They are dodging Taliban raids, moving from house to house to avoid the targeted assassinations that will surely come once the world stops watching this terror unfold. 

August 23, 2021

“Hi Dear Jaala, I have good news for you. After going through a very difficult journey I got to [a western country]. I am still on the plane since the airport is busy, so maybe after one hour the door of the plane will be open for the passengers to get off. I reached here after struggling so much, after so much toughness. I will tell you everything when I have the internet, but for now, I am here. We made it.”

Today, after a week of hiding and fleeing, my dearest friend and her family escaped from Kabul! They landed in a western country (location withheld for her protection), and are safe.

My heart skipped a beat. I am happy, but it is fleeting.

The mixed feelings that I have about my friend’s escape are extensive and endless. Of course I am happy that she got her family out of Kabul. However, since she still has family there she is worried that they will be targeted by Taliban for all the work she has done during the last decade. Keeping her family who remain in Kabul safe, weighs heavily on her mind.

What about those left behind? 

I believe that Afghans left behind will fight with whatever weapons they have. They will mobilize their networks, defend what they know to be good and right, and fight for their country. Those who have left the country will remain connected to those who have stayed, and leverage their resources to join the fight as well.

It is already happening.

The North is mobilizing and they refuse to acknowledge Taliban rule. Sons and daughters of the original Northern Alliance are setting up a resistance movement. The Afghan National Flag still flies over this land, and has never been lowered.

Like the roses my friend and I saw in Babur Gardens a decade ago, Afghans refuse to bow to the circumstances. They are steadfast and stubborn, beautiful and resilient.

There is still hope. 

– Jaala Shaw

Jaala peeking around a corner in Dast-e-Barchi, a Hazara neighborhood in Kabul where a group of her University students lived and taught at a free school they established, 2012

About the author:

Jaala Shaw (CCFT/CF-L3, PN-L1) is a coach, teacher, and writer. First as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Micronesia and China, then as a college-level ESL Instructor, later as a CrossFit gym owner, coach, and competitor, and eventually as a US State Department English Language Fellow in Afghanistan and Jordan. These days she trains CrossFit Kids coaches as part of CrossFit Seminar Staff, owns her own coaching business, and teaches outdoor pre-school, influencing the next generation of nature-lovers. She is looking forward to expanding GORUCK’s mission into the fitness realm through leading the Force Multiplier course and enabling coaches to help others ruck better, move sandbags more efficiently, and have fun doing it.

All images courtesy of: Jaala Shaw

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