The Courage to Serve:
By Cherissa Roebuck
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
There were times during her first few months in north Afghanistan when she longed to get sick enough to be evacuated to Dubai; just to be sick enough to leave the difficulties behind for a while. Language, relationships, health: You have to fight for every inch of ground gained. The expats she knew who’d been there for years said it doesn’t get easier. Those weren’t exactly the encouraging words she wanted to hear, but like the rest of life in Afghanistan, it was a harsh reality that she would have to face if she was going to accomplish the work laid out before her here.
As a young girl, Hannah Kirkbride listened and looked intently as her mother read her National Geographic every month.
“I remember in particular my mother reading me the 1985 issue with the iconic Steve McCurry photo of the Afghan refugee girl on the cover, remarking how beautiful the girl’s eyes were,” Hannah said. “Afghanistan has always been a place of fascination for me as I imagined it was somehow akin to my native Wyoming.”
That native Wyoming was all Hannah had ever known when she arrived as an 18-year-old freshman at John Brown University.
Hannah took Dr. Dave Vila’s Survey of Islam course at JBU and loved it. She left North America for the first time with the JBU Ireland Studies trip in 2002. She earned her undergraduate degree in Intercultural Studies/Community Development, and then went on to earn her Masters of Business Administration from JBU while working with the Soderquist Center for Leadership and Ethics.
The seeds of adventure planted so many years ago by Hannah’s mother and watered during her years at JBU grew to fruition in October 2008 when Hannah moved to Afghanistan to help oversee an adult education program with an Afghan partner of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
At the time Hannah applied with the MCC, there were no openings in Afghanistan or elsewhere in Central Asia, so she accepted a job with a south Sudanese partner of the MCC. During her orientation for that position and just four days before she was to leave for Sudan, Hannah’s supervisor told her that the Sudanese opportunity had fallen through and asked her what she wanted to do.
“I saw there was a job opening in adult education in Afghanistan, the place I most wanted to go in the whole world,” Hannah said. “Theimage that came to mind was Abraham finding the ram in the bushes. That may sound dramatic, but God gave me the desire of my heart.”
After spending six months in Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul studying the Dari language, Hannah moved northeast to the Badakhshan province to work in the more rural area of Faizabad. But her first few months in Afghanistan weren’t exactly the romantic fulfillment of Hannah’s lifelong dream.
“When I arrived at the rural town where I work, it was a complete shock to my system,” Hannah said. “In the first week as I sat at our annual office picnic for eight hours, segregated with the women, getting makeup put on me and barely understanding anything anyone said, I asked myself, ‘Is this really what I wanted?’ And then I got amoeba and giardia later that first month and only had a squatty potty. I remember wanting so badly to leave on the little plane that came once a week.”
From lack of good Internet access to bucket bathing; from dressing with everything covered except her face, hands and feet, to attracting an uncomfortable amount of attention every time she walked out the door, Hannah’s adjustment to life in Afghanistan didn’t happen overnight. But she found ways to adapt to life in Afghanistan, like constructing her own toilet out of plywood and a toilet seat that she bought at an Ikea when she was in Dubai. In spite of culture shock and the physical ailments common to foreigners who move to Afghanistan, Hannah jumped into her new job with both feet.
All in a Day’s Work
Hannah’s work in Faizabad is focused on offering education to Afghan individuals who may never have had that opportunity. Her day-to-day responsibilities include working as an advisor in a non-formal adult education program with 13 Afghan facilitators, training staff, writing curriculum, managing finances, teaching courses, and attending courses to assess and evaluate their effectiveness.
The courses Hannah and her team offer include preparation for the university entrance exam, English, typing and word processing, vocational programming, a leadership course, and lifetime learning skills for housewives: literacy and numeracy, infant and maternal health, and small business skills.
Although Hannah’s daily work takes place in the midst of some uncomfortable circumstances, she tries not to focus on the difficulties of life in Afghanistan, but instead on what needs to be done each day to keep the project moving forward.
“Honestly, I rarely make the direct connection between my getting fleas in the wet season and the lady who was never allowed to attend school learning to read. Perhaps with some retrospect,” Hannah said. “My honest hope is that we improve a few people’s lives in real time, show them a different way, and keep the beacons lit.”
Security is not a Feeling
Three days after Hannah arrived at her post in Afghanistan, an aid worker was killed about five minutes from where Hannah was out walking.
“One of my friends from Kabul recently articulated that aid worker’s death as a turning point in our access to regular life here,” said Hannah. “So I actually have never lived here at a time when that cloud hasn’t hung over us a bit.
“A training class I attended taught that ‘Security is not a feeling,’ and I’ve held to that,” she said. “Every day millions of people in this country get on with their lives. The main threat is being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Even so, no one has to inform Hannah that over the past few years both foreigners and Afghans have increasingly been the target of violent attacks in Afghanistan. She has seen that trend unfold first-hand.
“I’ve had a lot of friends die here this year,” Hannah said. “In that regard it’s been one of the saddest years of my life.”
Hannah’s original roommate from Kabul died of natural causes at age 24 the day after she and Hannah had returned to Afghanistan from spending Christmas at their homes. Just a few months later in August, Hannah lost more friends when a medical team of 10 were murdered just outside Nuristan at the end of a two-week camp. Hannah knew six of them, and two of them were good friends. “We were all shattered, just devastated,” Hannah said. “It’s too big to wrap your head around.”
Hannah said that although her family back in the U.S. has been supportive of her life and work in Afghanistan, she thinks it has been a sacrifice for them.
“It doesn’t help that there is bad news about Afghanistan every single day in the media,” Hannah said. “I haven’t seen my family since my close friends died here this year, but I’m sure that event in particular has called upon all their reserves.”
Hannah’s younger sister and brother-in-law Ben and Abby (Kirkbride) Rasmussen ’07 traveled to Afghanistan in May to visit Hannah. Abby said that she and Hannah had made a promise that wherever either one of them moves, they will visit each other in that location so that they can experience life there together.
“It was a huge effort for them to come,” said Hannah. “Longitudinally, you can’t get any further than where we’re from before you start heading again around the other side of the world. It was precious to have my worlds collide in this way.”
“The number on our tourist visas for Afghanistan were numbers 23 and 24 for the year,” Abby said. “I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I’m guessing they don’t get too many tourists here.”
Ben and Abby visited Hannah’s home in Faizabad for 10 days, Kabul for about 4 days, and then spent 10 days hiking through the rural Wakhan Corridor with Hannah serving as their translator, an experience Hannah described as a “gratifying milestone.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever traveled anywhere where I’d be so helpless if something had gone wrong,” said Abby. “I felt very vulnerable and I really had to trust Hannah. It would be a very difficult place to visit without an insider.”
One day while Hannah, Ben, Abby and a British woman were visiting a famous historic mosque, a stranger approached them and asked them to leave. He said they shouldn’t be there because it was a place of worship, not a place for tourists.
“It was scary in that we didn’t know what the stakes were,” said Abby. “We didn’t stick around to find out.
“It was the first time I’ve experienced someone hating me simply for who I am. It was quite a stark contrast to the warmth and welcoming atmosphere I experienced from Hannah’s Afghan coworkers,” she said. “But the experience definitely brought home the danger of what Hannah is doing– that there are people in this country who might be personally wishing my sister harm simply for who she is.”
Abby said that even though Hannah may be in occasionally dangerous or uncomfortable situations, both she and Hannah feel strongly that fear is not an adequate reason to abandon one’s passions or calling.
“Hannah and I like to say, ‘You could die in a car wreck on your way home in an American suburb, so follow your calling. Do what you love to do,’” Abby said.
A Beautiful People
Hannah said she realizes it’s difficult for most Americans to see past the war storyline in Afghanistan because it has lasted so long, but she was still surprised to see firsthand the military-focused role that Afghanistan plays in popular culture in America when she was home last Christmas.
“The human experience is here like it is anywhere, and that rarely makes front-page news,” Hannah said. “Little kids are jealous when a new sibling is born, teenage girls giggle when they talk about boys, men want to work to provide for their families, sassy grandmas get to an age where they say whatever they want. We know all of those stories, too.”
As a Westerner in Afghanistan, Hannah said that it is rare treat to be able to step into an Afghan community and experience the fullness of the local tradition. The guest is the center of attention and the hosts make every effort for their comfort.
“Early on, I was visiting the neighbors’ house with a friend. They served us a beautiful meal and midway through as we ate the Kabuli pliau, my friend asked in English if they, ‘ate this a lot?’ The teenage son was translating and thought she’d asked for a salad, which is pronounced more like ‘salot’,” Hannah said. “He and his family were mortified for the guest to want something they hadn’t provided, and I’m not sure we ever did get it cleared up. The next time we ate there, they served us a salad.”
Over the course of Hannah’s time in Afghanistan, she has built significant friendships with both her local Afghan co-workers and the international community of other expatriates doing political, non-governmental, UN and security work in Afghanistan.
“For whatever reason, this place attracts some truly outstanding people,” she said. “I’ve been honored to work with and be friends with amazing individuals.”
She said the FIFA World Cup with the international community was one of her best experiences while in Afghanistan. “It was epic. We had representatives from America, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, Switzerland, New Zealand, the UK and South Africa in Faizabad,” Hannah said.
The fun and light moments with friends have helped Hannah persevere through her more difficult seasons in Afghanistan over the course of the last two years.
Hannah said there have been times in Afghanistan when she has come to the end of what she could handle. “By coming through those times, I am stronger, more broken and richer for the experiences,” she said.
“We each have certain skills and interests. When God calls us to a vocation, He calls us to things within the parameters of our gifting. That’s what it means for the yoke to be light,” she said. “It has been hard to live and work here, but that’s because it’s a hard place for anyone and life inherently has difficulties and heartbreaks. It’s also been just what I wanted, to be a part of an education program for women in Central Asia.”
“If you told me at the beginning of 2010 what this year would hold, I don’t think I could have signed up. Thankfully, life doesn’t work that way. These two years have been, I hope, part of the ‘long obedience in the same direction.’”