Tag Archives: Kabul

Help Send the Afghan Women to the Asian Games

So its official.  The Afghan National Women’s team will go to the Asian Games in South Korea this September!  This will be the first time that an Afghan woman has competed in cycling in such a world class event.

Backstory: Although the mens and women’s teams were invited to the Games, which only occur every four years, the Afghan Olympic Committee was not going to send any members of the men’s or women’s team to the Games because they felt they wouldn’t be able to compete on the world stage and represent Afghanistan in a positive light.  I met with the President of the Afghan Federation, Fahim Hashimy two weeks ago in Kabul, and discussed the progress of the women’s team and the positive story of women’s rights and sports development that they represent is stronger than their racing ability.  The men’s team is relatively strong for the region and both teams can learn a lot and the opportunity will be integral to their development.

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Looking Back Before Looking Forward – 5 years in Afghanistan

I recently returned from another trip to Afghanistan.  It was an amazing culmination of 5 years of work there – can you believe its already been 5 years, and 15 trips since the first visit in 2008?  Many of you have been with me since the beginning, with our first event in 2007, which was the equivalent of me dipping my big toe into the water before I dove in headfirst.  Others have joined the journey along the way, and I a grateful for every ounce of support you have given.  Some of you have volunteered, others have donated big and small amounts, many have shared links and tweeted and helped spread the word.  Before announcing the big updates and plans for 2014 and beyond, I thought it was time to take a moment to look back at our success, our failures, and our evolution!

The Streets of Afghanistan had its finale show at the Afghan Center at Kabul University – the Afghan Archives in November 2013.  We donated the entire exhibition to ACKU for their permanent collection, which means it will be used for years to come in unique ways for programming and around the Kabul campus.   The ACKU archive, founded by Nancy DuPree to preserve Afghanistan’s modern history, now has a copy of the Streets of Afghanistan book.  This was the very first project that I started in 2008 with meetings with Afghan photographers, it premiered in April 2011 at the Denver Art Museum, and traveled to Afghanistan as a series of street art installations in October 2012.  The book documents the exhibition’s pop up style exhibitions in Afghanistan with photography from Tony Di Zinno who documented the first visit in 2008, bringing the entire project full circle.

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This past visit, I also witnessed the final stages of the new school construction for Afghan National Association for the Deaf. It brought great joy to see the land we had secured three and a half years ago from President Karzai, and the wall that had been built around it thanks to Rafaat Ludin and IHFD, come to life with the first school building completed sponsored by ISAF.   The wall still has a debt owed on its construction, but without Rafaat Ludin’s willingness to build without funding, the land would have been lost.  This project has been our biggest overstretch and in many ways my biggest failure, despite my pride at seeing the school completed.  It was a lesson in staying true to my roots of activism and empowerment, and staying away from the sticks and bricks projects that many original Board members and donors wanted to see Mountain2Mountain which focused on building schools.  Students started classes and the hope is that ANAD can flourish and begin to expand its program despite the difficulties of sustainable funding that continue to limit its ability to expand sign language education throughout Afghanistan and bring language and communication to all Afghans.

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We have created computer labs at girls schools, we have stocked boys schools with supplies and computers, we have created and supported kindergartens in rehab centers and prisons, and we have paid midwives and teachers annual salaries.  I have spent time speaking with women in prison, female members of Parliament, female ministers of government, teachers, students, artists, musicians, and activists, to gain a better understanding of Afghanistan and the potential of the women’s role in its future development.  We have tried to implement rural midwife training and failed to spread that valuable seed, due to political short-sightedness.  Lack of sustainable funding has prevented many long term approaches from succeeding, but it also allowed us to stay agile and evolve organically.

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As the years and my experience evolved, we found our roots and our unique role.  We have supported graffiti art projects which have created a ripple effect with artists like Shamsia who have created workshops for others to learn this style of art and voice.  Shamsia has been invited to several countries to take part in exhibitions, and this past month she and other local artists like Nabila formed a collective that created the first graffiti art festival.  Around Kabul you can see Banksy-esque stencil art, street art styled billboards, and occasional marks of the original graffiti art project by Combat Communications that started it all.

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We have seen our mission of educating and empowering women and girls evolve to focus beyond education and training,  with activism, arts, and sports to look at ways that connect communities, inspire girls, and build on the belief that women are equal.  Its a perfect fit for me as someone that has been able to travel solo through Afghanistan, as a woman, without security or convoys or restrictions, to connect with Afghans in various areas of Afghanistan, from Kabul to Kandahar, from Mazar i sharif to Maimana, from Khost to Sherbengan.  I believe that larger, staffed, and better funded organizations need to focus on building schools, medical facilities, and conduct trainings.  What makes us unique is our individual approach, our ability to do less, and our goal of inspiring voice and activism in unique ways that challenge gender barriers but that are sustainable, and locally led.

The past five years we have seen recognition of these efforts featured in the New York Times, NBC Nightly News, MSNBC, Dateline NBC, BBC World, Outside Magazine, and hundreds others across the United States, Italy, Brazil, Germany, France, and Spain media and press outlets.  The full list is on our website under newsroom.   The documentary film made about my motivations as the founder behind Mountain2Mountain, MoveShake, won an award at the Adventure Film Festival.  National Geographic recognized me as an Adventurer of the Year for my work in Afghanistan.  I have spoken at TEDx three times – each one about a different aspect of my vision of M2M’s core work:  The Perception of Victimhood and the Power of Voice, A Two Wheeled Revolution, and the most recent, Art as Activism in the Streets of Afghanistan on the TEDx stage in Italy in conjunction with an invitation to speak at the Italian Parliament.  We are making progress, and we are being heard.

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October 3, 2009, I became the first person to mountain bike in Afghanistan in the Panjshir Valley.  Something I did for many reasons, but first and foremost because it is a country that didn’t allow Afghan women or girls to ride.  I rode to challenge that gender barrier and it led to amazing roadside conversations with random Afghan men about women’s rights, sports, and the work I was doing with Mountain2Mountain.  I rode with boys and men in various parts of the country every visit since that intial ride, but never did I find any women.  The power of the bike as a vehicle for social justice was something that became an unexpected symbol and theme of Mountain2Mountain.  We created a bike team, Team M2M, we created a series of community bike rides as fundraisers, dubbed The Panjshir Tour that launched the same day I attempted to ride across the Panjshir Valley in 2010.  If we couldn’t get girls on bikes, we could use the bike as a tool for fundraising.

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As you know, we found the women that dare to ride last year, and we are now pedaling a revolution with the Afghan National Women’s Bike Team.  Our initial step this year supported the first women cyclists focused on our spring gear drive and distribution, which brought over 7 racing bikes and over 450 pounds of cycling gear for the mens and the women’s cycling teams, and raised awareness internationally of these amazing women.     In a country that has historically not allowed women to ride bikes, we are witnessing the challenge, and the eventual elimination, of this gender barrier.  We are building ongoing support, training, and future coaching and we are now playing a role in spreading the women’s cycling movement beyond Kabul for years to come.   This spring we will be launching the first ever women’s mountain bike team and a companion road bike team in Bamiyan province.  We are supporting the spread of a two wheeled revolution for women with the creation of our Strength in Numbers program.  Believing that one woman can create change, we believe that our real strength is in our numbers and that we could create an army of women that could change the world, and we believe we can do it on two wheels.  We need your help  to continue our work in Afghanistan on behalf of the women that dare to ride – who are breaking long held taboos, and who see the bike as their right.

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I also stepped up as the producer for the production of the Afghan Cycles documentary film, with Let Media and an all female film crew to document the women who dare to ride and tell their inspiring stories.  The film is in production and set to premiere in the fall or winter of 2014/2015.  You can learn more about the production and watch the trailer at www.afghancycles.com  As the film’s non profit partner, all outreach will directed to supporting women who ride through our Strength in Numbers program.

IMG_5557There are several ways to get involved.  The biggest is helping us reach out goal of 100 Bikes by Christmas, which thanks to the support of articles with Matador Network and GOOD Magazine and their planned New Year’s outreach, we’ve extended into the New Year.  41 bikes were purchased as gifts which we will purchase and distribute this spring to women and girls.   $100 = 1 bike that we can donate to the women that are learning to ride in Afghanistan.  You can learn more on our Facebook Campaign or you can donate directly online here:  www.mountain2mountain.org/donation

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You can also purchase a copy of Streets of Afghanistan book for your friends and family – proceeds benefit Mountain2Mountain.

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We are still operating as a one-woman show, no office, no staff, and building our projects and our reputation one trip at a time. It takes a village to create a revolution – and I am grateful for every single donation that comes in, knowing that it is literally the difference between creating change and accepting the status quo.  Those of you that donate have affected the lives of women in Afghanistan in profound ways.  You should be proud, and I am continually humbled and grateful.  If you can make an end of year donation to help us keep our working moving forward, you can donate directly at www.mountain2mountain.org/donation!

Thank you for being with us through the ups and the downs – we can’t wait to pedal a revolution with all of you in the years ahead as we build our strength in numbers!

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Deaf School Finishes Construction and I Breathe Sigh of Relief

Today I witnessed something I feared may never happen, the construction of a school for the deaf in Kabul with ANAD.  Five years ago I first met ANAD, Parween was my incredible link to the fully deaf administration that had founded ANAD and was running a school in a remote area of Kabul under dire circumstances.

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I wrote a short blog about meeting ANAD and the situation for the deaf community in Afghanistan, The Deafening Silence, which I had hoped would inspire those that read it to get involved.

Three years ago I was taken to a run down, dungeon-like building in a remote district of Kabul. This school was run by the deaf, for the deaf children of Kabul.  One of only three small schools in Afghanistan. I was led upstairs to meet Ghaffar, a gentle man with thick glasses who is a modern day Afghan Helen Keller, deaf his entire life, and now slowly losing his sight as well.  He is the heart and soul of the burgeoning deaf community.  The only hearing person in the room besides me and my translator was Parween Azimi, a petite woman, with large brown eyes, in a lavender headscarf who serves as the only liason for ANAD with the hearing world. Parween answered my many questions, and throughout the day, she proved to be much more than a translator between the deaf and the hearing…she is their lifeline. Their only link to the world outside their concrete walls.

As we toured the classrooms, some indoors and some outside in the walled in courtyard, all devoid of any furniture save an occasional blackboard, children’s faces beamed when we walked in. Boys and girls of all ages were split into grades K-6, learning to sign, based on their communication level versus their age. Sitting on the floor with the students, they eagerly took turns teaching me to sign: “hello, how are you, thank you, you’re welcome”. I was given a sign for my name, shown how to ask “Can I take a picture?”, and how to ‘clap’ with the other students. They asked me questions about my life, my country, my daughter. I was given a much deeper taste of the frustration of not being able to communicate that went far beyond my usual limited language skills. Why had I not been exposed to sign language in my own country? How could I be this cut off from an entire segment of population? 

For two years, worked to secure land for ANAD from President Karzai and had a inauguration ceremony at the site.   Soon after we were able to ensure that ANAD wouldn’t lose this land, common in Afghanistan as often its a matter of ‘he who builds first, owns’.  An amazing Afghan man living in Colorado, Rafaat Ludin, offered to build the security wall, knowing we didn’t have the money to build it, but realizing that ANAD wouldn’t be able to keep the land without it.

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The wall was built, a well was dug, and Global Exchange donated hundreds of fruit trees to grow in the courtyard.  At the time, this slice of land was only accessible by a bone jarring drive, which hasn’t changed much in the three years since we secured the land.  What HAS changed is the immense change to the landscape around this desolate piece of land.  What was literally a wasteland, a vast dusty, empty landscape, with our 5 acre piece of land enclosed by a security wall standing alone, is now an explosion of construction.

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This weekend, the students start moving in to the school, built by ISAF.  There is still much to be done, but it does my heart good to see that we were able to facilitate a permanent home for the deaf community and that we can continue to connect those that want to help to ANAD and help them build their capacity, teacher training, and reach their long term educational and outreach goals for the deaf of Afghanistan.  It has been such a pleasure to work in their service in some small way.   We are still raising funds to pay for the wall, something that exceeds Mountain2Mountain’s small annual budget.  Parween hugged me today on the drive to the school, “Shannon without the land, we wouldn’t have a home, without the wall, we would have lost the land.”  The road is long and our goal is to continue to connect them to those that can help them continue forward and build a deaf community for all of Afghanistan.

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Preserving Afghanistan’s History – Afghan Archive

The Afghan archive is housed at Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, ACKU.  The center was opened in the spring of 2013.  It is the only archive of its kind in Afghanistan and serves to collect and preserve all documents and books related to Afghanistan’s modern history, at this moment numbered around 80,000 and growing.

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The bulk of the center’s archive was collected by Nancy and Louis Dupree who started collecting Afghan books and documents while living in Peshawar among Afghan refugees.  The eclectic colletion includes communist propaganda, UN reports, fliers printed by warlords, books, photography, and newspapers.  There are also a number of photography books from the 1960’s and 1970’s that show Afghanistan, and particularly Kabul in a completely different light than what most imagine it was.

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The fascinating part of the story is how Nancy got the collections from Peshawar to Kabul.  Starting in 2006, they began to smuggle around 60,000 documents back to Kabul in plastic bags hidden in trucks fearful that the collection could be destroyed if discovered. A team works to digitize all the documents in the archive for a free open sourced digital archive that anyone in the world with a computer can access.   The enormity of the task means that the team estimates it will take till 2017 to catch up.

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The archive not only preserves books and documents, it also had a separate room that houses a newspaper archive.  I visited with my friend, Jelena Bjelica, a Serbian journalist living in Kabul, who is now working with ACKU.   We were surrounded by piles of bound books of newspapers including Taliban newspapers under the name Shariat, and various mujahedeen newspapers, each faction had its own.  The library manager, Rahim Qaderdan, opened up a book of Shariat papers, noticeable for their lack of photographs.  The sense of history that surrounded me, palpable in the yellow pages stacked to the ceiling.

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The collection first went to the Kabul Library and now is housed in a modern architectural building, ACKU, on the Kabul University Campus.  The center hosts a variety of speakers and presentations in the auditorium.

I was there to deliver a copy of the Streets of Afghanistan book for the archive.  An incredible honor.  I watched the book go to the archivist’s desk to get its identification number and label.   It is now a part of the Afghan archive housed inside the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University a part of Afghanistan’s modern history.

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The book is available for sale – proceeds benefit Mountain2Mountain – at www.streetsofafghanistanbook.com  by Hatherleigh Press.

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Power of Photography: Voices – Mariam Alimi

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I had the pleasure of meeting with one of the talented Streets of Afghanistan  photographers, Mariam Alimi, today in Kabul for lunch.   I met her briefly 5 years ago, in November 2008, when I met all the Afghan photographers in Kabul for the first time at AINA Photo Agency to discuss the inception of the Streets of Afghanistan exhibition.   I delivered her a copy of the book and over pomegranate juice and lunch we talked about the exhibition and the power of voice, the power of photography.   As we talked about her career and how she started as a photographer in 2006, we talked about courage, and activism, and women’s rights, and our cultures.  Mariam said at one point when talking about her start in photographer, “I was not so brave as I am now.”  When I asked her to explain I was surprised to learn that it was intrinsically linked with the key photograph of hers that we used in the exhibition.

One of her first photographs was one she took in Heart, its one that we had in the exhibit and its one of my favorites.

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This man was a poppy farmer near Herat decades ago, before the mujahedeen.  During the civil war and the Taliban times he moved to Iran.  While there he learned about saffron cultivation.  When he returned in 2002, he starting planting saffron thanks to the help of an organization that gave him a few bulbs from the Netherlands.  Each year his crop grew a little more and eventually he started sharing the bulbs with other farmers to cultivate.   When Mariam met him it was to interview him as part of an organization to make a documentary about saffron cultivation.  After they got done filming him, he asked if he could hear what he sounded like and they put the headphones on him and played back his interview.  This photo was taken at the moment he first heard his voice and the look of pure joy hits me every time I see the photo.

But Mariam almost wasn’t there to take the photo.  As a single Afghan woman, she lived at home and had to ask her father’s permission to go with her organization to Herat.  She had never traveled without her family before, and she was scared to ask her father.  She invited her boss, a foreign woman, to come to dinner and meet her family and in the conversations that followed, she asked Mariam’s father for permission to come with her to Herat.  He agreed to allow her to go, and it was the first step of a journey that changed Mariam completely.   She continued to ask permission to travel and now she has traveled all around Afghanistan, and to many countries, including the United States.

When we started talking about how change for women in Afghanistan starts, she gave me a beautiful example that reminded me of my own journey.  “Everyone when they are young thinks, “I want to change the world”.  As we get older, we realize that we should start by changing our country.  But the difficulties make us realize that we should focus on changing our community.  Then we realize that our own families are part of the larger problem so we should look at changing our family.  Finally, with age and wisdom we realize, everything starts with us, as individuals, and that real change must happen from within each one of first. “

Mariam leads by this example.   She is unusual for Afghan women of her age, one of the handful of female photographers in Afghanistan, she walks the streets by herself, meeting strangers, taking photos.  When she speaks with young girls, they often say to her, “I am not as brave as you, I could not do what you do”.  Mariam tells them that it’s not a matter of being brave or not brave.  It’s about taking a small step in the direction you want to go.  Change yourself first, so that others see you for what you really are, and live your life in a way that reflects what you believe, and those around you change in unexpected ways in reaction to you.

You can see more of Mariam’s work on her website and her work in the groundbreaking, Streets of Afghanistan exhibition, in the newly released book available through Hatherleigh Press and Random House.  Streets of Afghanistan book

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Gear Drive, Bikes, Women, and Afghanistan

Thanks to the talents of Sarah Menzies of Let Media, we had a filmmaker on hand for our most recent trip to Afghanistan.  She generously gave her time and skills to edit a behind the scenes peek at the gear drive to support the men’s and women’s cycling teams of Afghanistan, while she was in Kabul to start production on Afghan Cycles, a film about the women’s national cycling team.  We are so excited to share this with the Mountain2Mountain community who helped make this happen, and hope you’ll share it with your community and networks to help us rally more support for these incredible cyclists as we rally for a second round of gear donation this fall, and are raising money to rent a minibus and driver so that the women’s team has safer transportation to and from training rides on the outskirts of Kabul.  We hope you’ll be inspired by the women that dare to ride and be part of our next steps with the teams this fall.

We need your help to get the second round of bikes and gear over to Afghanistan this fall in support of the women’s national team.  Please donate today and help us rally the funding we need to continue to support the women that are changing the face of women in sport!

In addition – a huge thanks to the film crew that was part of this journey; Sarah Menzies, Whitney Conner Clapper, Claudia Lopez who along with myself as producer, make up the crew for the upcoming film, Afghan Cycles, about the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team – the women that DARE TO RIDE!   You can follow the progress and behind the scenes photos and blogs on Facebook and stay tuned for details as the film is in production with plans for a spring 2014 premiere!

Read more about our spring gear drive and support for the women’s national cycling team here!

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Photography, Bikes, Slam Poetry, Graffiti, and ROCK at Sound Central Festival

The finale show for the Streets of Afghanistan exhibition couldn’t have a cooler Kabul location than the 3rd Annual Sound Central Festival.  Bigger and badder than ever, the alternative music festival has grown substantially each year since founder, Travis Beard launched the first ever Central Asia Rock Festival in 2011.

Travis is a longtime friend, advisor to M2M, and frequent road trip companion to some dodgy places as my photographer-for-hire.   He had asked me last fall if we could keep the exhibition in Afghanistan after our series of public exhibitions to set the backdrop and involve more art forms in this years festival.  I couldn’t think of a more fitting finale.  Sound Central Festival has grown from the initial one day rock festival at Babur Gardens, to a alternative music and art festival spanning four days on two stages with acts from around the world.   The festival kicked off with the Women’s Only day – which allowed orphanages and school girls to attend and experience a different sort of concert.  Slam poetry, a fashion show, Afghan rap duo, films, and a killer performance by White City, and Ariana Delwari rounded out the indoor activities, along with various artisans in the lobby.  Outside was the Streets of Afghanistan exhibition throughout the entrance courtyard, grafitti art with Shamsia, and Mountain2Mountain‘s Bike School with members of the women’s national cycling team.

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Once the music kicked off however, we took the three members of the national team inside so they could take part.  The crowd was a sea of white headscarves from the schoolgirl’s uniform, and they cheered and clapped throughout the various acts.  But when Ru Owen, frontman of Kabul expat band, White City took the stage – they went wild.   She welcomed them in Dari and with arms open called out to her Afghan ‘sisters’.  Goosebumps ran down my spine at her wide smile that showed her genuine pleasure to take the stage in front of all these young girls, who for most had never been to any concert, much less one like this – a full blown rock concert with a strong female lead.  Without further ado, Ru, Travis, and Andreas rocked their world and the girls loved every minute.

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Streets Finale Show at Sound Central Festival

The finale show in Afghanistan for the Streets of Afghanistan exhibition will kick off tomorrow at the Sound Central Festival. The festival is in its third year, and is the brainchild of Kabul filmmaker/photojournalist/rockstar Travis Beard.  The festival started as the first Central Asia alternative music festival and each year has grown to include street art, film, and break out sessions outside of the main stage.

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                                        SCF Founder, Travis Beard, gets excited about this year’s line up

The festival kicks off with a women’s only day, inviting upwards of 500 schoolgirls and orphans to attend to listen to music, watch a film by Afghan American singer/songwriter/filmmaker, Ariana Delwari, and learn about contemporary art.  In the courtyard girls can learn to skateboard, bike ride, and experience art.  The goal is to engage young Afghan girls that wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to be exposed to art and contemporary music and sport.

Next up is where they begin to really rock – three days of rock, alternative, punk, rap, and everything in-between as Sound Central rocks Kabul on two stages.  This is not for the expat scene, Sound Central is open to the public and about engaging Afghan youth in contemporary and alternative music, while highlighting the music scene in this region and beyond with bands from Afghanistan and its neighbors like District Unknown, Kabul Dreams, Tears of the Sun and many more.

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Home grown Kabul boys, District Unknown, rock Afghanistan regularly

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Photography, Voice, and Hope in Afghanistan

The Streets of Afghanistan was a project based in hope.  Using photography as voice, and art as activism, we set up a series of street art installations in Afghanistan.  Red Reel was with us to document five of the seven exhibitions.  We can now share with you the beauty of the country, the reactions of those that saw the exhibition, and the place that art has in conflict zones.  It was such an honor to bring this exhibition to Afghanistan and to share it with Afghans.  We return in the spring for a finale exhibition in a secret location, and then distribute the photographs to orphanages, girls schools, women’s groups, Kabul stadium, and the Mayor’s office as a thank you for his office’s support of this public exhibition in the Kabul locations.  Thank you everyone that supported this project, we couldn’t be prouder.

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Shamsia – an Afghan Graffiti Artist

Ask westerners living in Afghanistan what they think about the country’s future  and you get a variety of answers, most cynical.  But the best response I heard was two weeks ago over a coffee at Kabul’s Flower Street Cafe,  “The people are sweet and the country’s a mess”.

Shamsia epitomizes the ‘people are sweet and the country’s a mess’ like few others.  An artist and faculty professor of fine arts at Kabul University, she has a soft disposition and gentle face with large brown eyes and an easy smile that makes her seem even younger than her 23 years.  After knowing Shamsia virtually for two years, I finally got to sit down with her at the artist refuge, The Venue in Kabul where one of her murals is a work in progress on an interior wall, to discuss her vision of art in Afghanistan and beyond.

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