“He stares into the distance and sometimes he talks incoherently,” Abdulai said, describing his older brother a decade after the Taliban killed their father and grandfather for being the wrong ethnicity. But, he recalled through a fragile smile, “When our family fled, my brother piggy-backed me into the mountains.”
Abdulai, 15, sits in a small room in a Kabul guesthouse with a friend five years his senior and their mentor, known to them as Hakim. The three described the extraordinary path they’ve traveled in the last six years, a pilgrimage Hakim calls their “journey to smile.”
“I came up with that name after meeting Najib, an orphaned Pashtun refugee picking rubbish on a street in Pakistan,” explained Hakim. “I invited the boy and his grandmother to share some fruit. After washing [the boy’s] blackened hands, I asked him to smile for a photo. This made the grandmother very angry.”
“She called it an ‘unfair request’ of a child who had no reason in the world to smile,” Hakim recalled. That was the moment he decided to work with children like Najib, he said, because, “Young boys, even in war, should be able to maintain the capacity to smile.”
Hakim relocated to Bamiyan, Afghanistan to begin his new work. At first the native Singaporean, a 1993 medical school graduate, served people as a doctor, but he quickly saw that role as “insufficient” when an Afghan youth told him that, “Without peace, it is impossible to live.”
Searching for a way to realize his dream for peace, the 41-year-old began a three-month peace workshop at Bamiyan University. The course began with about 40 college students, who quickly concluded with their peers and others in their community that, “Peace is not possible.” Even so, 16 students agreed to stay together for one semester and continue the project.
Despite continued discouragement and conflicts within the group, the 16 members fostered a spirit of solidarity strong enough to inspire them to celebrate the International Day of Peace by dressing in the same colors as a statement against ethnic hatred. “We had Tajiks, Uzbek, Turkmen, Sayeed and Hazara youth standing together, something rarely seen in Afghanistan,” said Hakim.
They took their message of tolerance and love to other villages via Afghanistan’s national system of youth councils, eventually coming up with “today’s crop” of members, Hakim said proudly.
Afghanistan has no culture of volunteerism and it was very difficult to get young people to come to meetings because the traditional approach was, “No meeting without money,” he explained. “There were even rumors that the boys were getting money for participating,” said Hakim. “Others didn’t approve of Sunni and Shia youth working side by side.”
With unfailing optimism, Hakim related that everywhere he goes, he senses that young people are waiting for a moment when society will want to function based on truth and love – but in Afghanistan, people are understandably skeptical. “We need to be determined and resolute. It will take many generations,” he said.
Mohammed Jan is one of “today’s crop.”
“Before I joined Hakim’s program,” he began, “I thought the whole world was like Afghanistan, where people think only of themselves. I grew up in a corrupt environment and thought it was normal.” Through the peace program, he said he began to learn that, “There may be human beings interested in more than self.”
The tall, thin 20-year-old found the main difficulty in participating to be accusations from fellow Afghans. For example, he said, one guesthouse worker pointedly asked him, “Why are you with these foreigners who have always destroyed Afghanistan?”
What the boys found to be “a noble purpose, with no money and no political groups” was simply unbelievable to nearly everyone else.
Feeling understandably isolated in their hometown of Bamiyan, the boys bore the ridicule alone. Then, on December 19, during the first annual Global Day of Listening to Afghans – an observance they organized with Voices for Creative Nonviolence – a Skype call came in from someone who congratulated the youth, told them that they were not alone and that their work gave strength to others. A smile came over Mohammed Jan’s face as he remembered what the caller said: “Working for love and truth works in practice, even though we are told all our lives that it can’t.”
Hakim interrupted Mohammed Jan to say he was disturbed that when President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, the president said that “that sort of love” belonged to the gods and the stars, “but I have to live in the real world.” The look on Hakim’s face showed he didn’t agree with Obama.
Listening intently, Abdulai made an observation well beyond his 15 years. “The foundation of our work is love and truth, but it is very difficult to bring about a culture of peace, love and truth. Most people don’t know what it is.”
Abdulai illustrated the scorn he must sometimes face in Bamiyan when he recalled that one person accused him of being worse than a dog for turning to other beliefs.
Abdulai said “building relationships” was the key to a listener’s question about how to go about “working out of love and truth.” One of the ways the group of 16 tried to create these new connections among people was to fashion cell phone holders out of a large piece of leather and give them away to anybody who wanted one. “After we build relationships,” Abdulai added, “we can practice love and truth. We just have to increase the number of people who do it.”
Mohammed Jan added that it was also necessary to dare to cross ethnic and religious lines. “We went household to household in the Pashtun community, encouraging them to participate in our discussions. Often, people asked us, ‘What do you get from this program?’ They don’t believe that ethnic groups can relate without money involved. That kind of talk is dehumanizing. In a war-torn country like ours, people have money thrown at them with no accountability.”
Abdulai resumed his account: “We put up a sign in our peace park in Bamiyan that said, ‘Why Not Love?’ and it was vandalized twice. This just shows that people don’t understand. The insults and ridicule can discourage me, but I know that if I don’t see results in my lifetime from what we’re doing, I’ll just have to look forward to the third generation.”
Abdulai opened up to say he is still sad and often cries about his father’s death over a decade ago. “But I know if I take revenge, the cycle never ends. In place of revenge, we should seek reconciliation and friendship.”
As this report was written from a hotel in Kabul, huge cargo planes and transports from Bagram Airbase resupplying the war and occupation in Afghanistan rattled the windows, casting in stark relief how the boys from Bamiyan have decided to live.