Category Archives: Afghanistan

Fighting Corruption, One Bike at a Time

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Yesterday the story of the ongoing corruption and mismanagement and possible abuse in Afghan women’s sports federations finally was published by Rod Nordland of the New York Times, titled Corruption in Afghanistan All but Cripples Women’s Team Sports.  Our founder spoke with Rod several weeks ago when he contacted her about our withdrawl of support for the Afghan Cycling Federation.  She shared with him our experiences and frustrations and discovered he had found proof of some my accusations against Coach Seddiqi and against the cycling federation that had fallen on deaf ears when we had voiced our concerns.

Shannon had confronted Coach Seddiqi last July in Kabul about the corruption and mismanagement, and as we and she have written about in previous blogposts, not only did he deny any mismanagement to her face, he made it worse with the South Asian Championships debacle in India that he didn’t take the girls to (see previous posts), which denied them the chance to race outside of Afghanistan and represent their country.  The Afghan Cycling Federation’s new Secretary General, Fazli Ahmad Fazli, denied any mismanagement and was insulted that I would even mention the word corruption.  He made it clear that our help wasn’t needed, that the accusations were an insult and unfounded, and thus we made it clear that Mountain2Mountain would remove all formal support from the cycling federation effective immediately.

While the NYT article saddens many people that have reached out, it makes me happy to see the systemic abuse of power be exposed so that those in power cannot hide behind each other anymore.  Change doesn’t happen in silence, voices, many voices, must be willing to speak up to challenge corruption.  Even as I write this, I hear news that there may be a new Afghan Olympic Committee President, this despite the continued disputes since the election last year.  Its just another sign of the lack of leadership, stability, and the corruption that has plagued the sporting institutions in Afghanistan from the very top of the food chain, all the way down.  This affects not just the women, but the men’s teams as well….corruption is genderless in Afghanistan.”  – Shannon Galpin

But as in all things in Afghanistan, its usually worse for the women.  When women are forced to remain in structures were the men are in the positions of power, even something as empowering as cycling, or soccer, or cricket, it becomes another source of oppression and entrapment.  The women in Afghanistan may be breaking barriers, but the biggest barrier to women’s sports in that country is ironically the same institutions that are in place to allow women to compete.

Coach Seddiqi was finally removed in an election last month as the President of the Cycling Federation. He was replaced by a man we met in Bamiyan in 2014 during a training camp for the national team we put together, he was the head of the local Provincial Olympic Committee at the time.  Coach Seddiqi has also been fired by the men’s team, but he remains as coach of the women’s team because they are afraid.  Afraid that if they stand up to him, they will lose their only chance to ride, their only chance to compete.  He holds all the control.  And they know it.  Perhaps this NYT’s article gives enough weight for the allegations of mismanagement and corruption that they can feel confident to speak up.

Just last week, we received information that the Coach was intending to sell the remaining donated bikes, we immediately contacted him through a third party and informed him that we were coming to Kabul to meet with him and fully expected that all bikes donated to the federation would be accounted for when we visit.  He cannot operate in the shadows pretending he is a good man, that he is working on behalf of the girls, he is not.  He is working for himself and himself alone.

Looking ahead, we have been working on plans to bypass the corruption and directly support the girls in several ways.  The tentative plan, determined by visas issued by the US government,  is to bring the girls to the US this fall for a training workshop with the hope of creating a future all-Afghan cycling team here in Colorado in 2017 that could support and train these women to become the next generation of leadership for the team in Afghanistan.  This allows us to bypass the majority of the corruption and empower women to be in charge of developing the women’s cycling program.  This has been being planned for many months with an incredible team of cycling professionals who believe in these girls and in their ability to create a two wheeled revolution that puts women in the leadership positions and provide real coaching and training for those that want the opportunity to race.

Beyond that we plan to meet with the Afghan Olympic Committee leadership and the new leadership of the Afghan Cycling Federation, alongside the men’s and women’s team to discuss the future of this sport in Afghanistan.  We will also be speaking with government officials about the state of women’s sports and the Olympic federations in general.  These talks will determine how we continue to support this program and these girls that have had to endure yet another barrier.

In the meantime, a huge thanks to our sponsors, Liv Cycling, Skratch Labs, Osprey Packs, and Hogan Lovells and the individual donors and sponsors that have supported us over the past three years.   In the past three years, three new bike teams and clubs for women have started, Afghanistan saw its first women’s bike races and ‘right to ride’ pubic events, the girls raced in Kazakhstan, and they were recognized by National Geographic Adventurer for their bravery and courage.  This article doesn’t take any of that away – it gives us the ammunition needed to bring change and the fight corruption that impedes the opportunities and dreams of these young women, and all the female athletes in Afghanistan.

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Necessary Changes

It is with a heavy heart that we officially removed our support of the Afghan Cycling Federation.  After 3 years of working to support the women’s national cycling team I have determined that the mismanagement and corruption of many involved at the Afghan cycling federation cannot be fixed.  Its difficult to come to this conclusion on the heels of the team being recognized as National Geographic Adventurers of the Year and their nomination as part of Bike the Nobel for the Nobel Peace Prize.  It’s a dream come true that these girls are being recognized for their bravery and courage on two wheels.  Yet supporting the infrastructure doesn’t support the girls.  Time and time again, I’ve seen mismanagement and corruption, yet I have tried to work directly to find solutions, discuss future plans, and advocate for the girls.  Mountain2Mountain, myself, and the Afghan Cycles film crew have created a powerful PR machine that has elevated this group of girls into worldwide acclaim.  Press and media have been covering these girls and my work in Afghanistan steadily for the past 3 years and that is ramping up again on the heels of the Nobel Peace Prize nomination.  They are the darlings of the media right now, doing interviews, and sharing their story.

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Yet in parallel to the success of the team at breaking barriers and inspiring other girls to ride, there is a system of corruption that I can no longer deal with in good conscious.  During the formal announcement of the Peace Prize nominations, the team was supposed to be racing in India at the South Asian Championships.  We sent over racing kits and the funding to get 5 girls there plus the Coach.  Instead, the team got to Dehli and stayed there instead of traveling on to Guhwati.  There they visited Coach’s extended family, he took his new wife to the doctor, and they had one group ride through town.  The girls were denied their chance to race and represent their country because of mismanagement at best, corruption at worst.  This is just the most recent example, there have been many throughout the past three years, this one was simple the most blatant.

There is no effort by the cycling federation in Kabul to support and encourage the other groups of girls that are starting clubs and teams.  Instead these young women that are riding without the safety or direction of anyone but themselves are mocked and ignored.  Girls like Zhara who started teaching girls to ride as a social movement, registered a team with the sports federation and yet is excluded from the federation, and insulted by the Coach.  Instead of understanding that bike clubs only give the federation more strength, that more girls riding strengthens the national team in the long run, the Coach sees them as a threat to his power and control of his fiefdom.

Fiefdoms and power struggles exist throughout Afghanistan, even in the most benign areas like a federation of a sport deemed not worth supporting by the Afghan Olympic Committee.  The previous President of the Afghan Olympic Committee told me directly that it was difficult to get the AOC to even do the paperwork to send the girls to the Asian Games last year in South Korea, even if they were funded, because they are considered a C level sport, and the AOC only wants to support A level sports like football and cricket because they don’t want to look like amateurs.  We fought hard together to get one girl allowed a spot to go.

There is much more to be said about the past 3 years, I intend to focus on the gains.  Since I started working with the team in 2013, they have raced out of their country, been part of training camps where I taught them and the Coach, how to shift, how to draft, and how to ride in a pack.  We discussed nutrition and hydration because the girls and the boys weren’t eating or drinking anything on their rides, and then bonking. Hard.  We discussed a longterm plan, barriers to involvement, and how to expand.  The girls improved, we donated new bikes and helmets with Liv Cycling.  Their story is in two museums as examples of sports diplomacy.  They have been in over a hundred press articles in over 30 countries. They were recognized by National Geographic and the Nobel Peace Prize committee this year.

That said, I am not giving up on the girls.  These girls deserve to be supported and I have determined that the best way to do this is to support them directly.  We will be making an announcement soon about this, and until then we are grateful for everyone who believed in these girls and helped support them over the past three years.  We have to get creative and recognize that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

As this year unfolds, we see their story only spreading more, and with the post production of Afghan Cycles finishing up, their story will soon be told on the big screen.  The future sees a new chapter in this story as we continue to work to support the girls in Kabul, in Bamiyan, and elsewhere to continue to ride, to break barriers, and to believe in their own future for years to come.  Stay tuned, this is going to be good.  #pedalarevolution

 

Kabul Biker Gang Gets Some Bikes

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Ask anyone you know about their love of bikes and they all say something about freedom.  “I feel free when I ride my bike”.  “I love the freedom I feel when I ride.” “Cycling gives you wings.”

In a country where women and girls have not been allowed to ride bikes, and where it is still a deeply seated taboo, there is a two wheeled revolution taking place.  What was a handful of girls just a couple years ago, is steadily growing and growing without the oversight of men.  Girls teaching girls to ride.  In Kabul, in Bamiyan, and in other pockets in the country women are empowering themselves with freedom of mobility.

Last summer, as we were working with the national team in Kabul and  riding bikes with two young women in Bamiyan, a young Afghan woman was spearheading her own bike clubs as part of a Girl Up project.  Fatima Haidari goes to high school in the US and spends her summers back in Kabul with her family.  We found out about her project and fell in love with the photos she posted of her and the girls in Kabul riding bikes they had borrowed.

Last month, we donated ten bikes to the club so that the girls would have some bikes of their own to ride.  Our longtime friend and fixer, Najibullah met Nahid, who had become the de facto leader of the club while Fatima is away at school, at the bike market to purchase bikes for the girls and arrange delivery.  The film crew from Afghan Cycles was in country finishing production and was able to be there for the delivery and interview the girls who have formed their own biker gang Kabul-style.

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The bike has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. Its gives women a feeling of freedom and self reliance.  I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” Susan B. Anthony

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If you’d like to support this two wheeled revolution – you can donate here – what we do doesn’t happen without your help!

photo credit Jenny Nichols

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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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Free the Bikes

In the end, it took a total of 18 hours over 2 days, visiting over 30 offices, gathering signatures, new forms, old forms, stamps, and drinking endless cups of green tea and make idle chitchat to get the myriad of paperwork completed for the Kabul Airport Custom House to release our 53 bikes donated by Liv/giant for the Afghan National Women’s Cycling Team.  #freethebikes became a running gag in my jet lagged state of navigating Afghan bureaucracy.  Seeing the final bike loaded onto the truck alongside Coach Sedique, head of the Afghan Cycling Federation and coach of the women’s team was worth every cup of tea.  Time to ride!

 

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Streets of Afghanistan Exhibition Finds Home in Kabul

IMG_8963The Streets of Afghanistan exhibition has a Afghan home in Kabul at the prestigious Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, ACKU.  The center opened in 2013 and houses the Afghan Archives, and its auditorium hosts many cultural events.   It is a fitting temporary home for the exhibition so that it can continue to be seen by Afghans for years to come at the Kabul University campus.

The exhibition was picked up from the home of Sound Central founder, Travis Beard who had been storing it after the final show in the spring as part of the 3rd Sound Central Music Festival.  Immediately the exhibition was put to use in the interior courtyard so that the staff could understand the exhibit and how it could be used in various ways in ACKU’s events.

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Just days later one of the pieces in the exhibition, a landscape by Beth Wald from Badakshan, was used in one of the speaking events they had in the auditorium to give depth and interest to the stage.  Showcasing another way they will be using the exhibition in interactive and unique ways at ACKU.

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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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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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