Text and photographs by Deborah Copaken Kogan
March 15, 2002
Most people thought it was crazy for photo-journalist Deborah Copaken Kogan to take her six-year-old son to Pakistan to meet with Afghan refugees. But she brought her camera, he brought Legos, and they discovered a world of women, children, damage and hopes. Read more.
EXCLUSIVE: See more photos from their trip only available on Oprah.com.
Saturday, November 10, 2001: Somewhere over the Persian Gulf
My son is singing the chorus to "America the Beautiful" with fanfare and vigor. A perfectly normal way for a 6-year-old to comport himself, except that we've just boarded an Emirates airlines flight from Dubai to Islamabad, and our fellow passengers are mostly Pakistanis, Afghans and a random assortment of traditionally clad denizens of the Persian Gulf. I suggest firmly that he choose another song. He pauses for a minute. Then he belts out an Israeli peace song.
"Jacob," I whisper, "maybe this is not the best time to sing, period."
We're on the third leg of a journey from New York City to Peshawar, Pakistan, a two-person mission on behalf of Jacob's first-grade class that will carry us across ten time zones, two continents and one very long, dusty road against a backdrop of clashing realities: We're at war; we're not really at war. We're fighting to eliminate terrorism; we're terrorizing Afghans. We're dropping bombs; we're dropping food. We're helping the Northern Alliance topple the Taliban; we don't want the Northern Alliance to take Kabul. Pakistan is our friend; Pakistanis are burning our leaders in effigy.
"Let him sing," says my seatmate, Maroof, a Pakistani from Jidda who, I'll later learn, owns the only bowling alley in Rawalpindi. "Young man," he says, turning to my son, "please, continue."
But Jacob has already lost himself in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Maroof turns his attention back to me. "What will you be doing in Pakistan?" he asks.
I relate the story as best I can. I explain how Jacob's teacher, Mariah, showed the class a videotape of President Bush's plea for each American child to raise a dollar for Afghan children. I tell him how the children in Mariah's class were so awed at the personal call to duty that they took the task a step further and sold 251 handmade bookmarks, at $1 each, to their schoolmates. I say that Mariah invited me to Jacob's classroom to present a slide show of photographs I'd taken of Afghan refugees back in 1989, when I was a photo journalist covering the area. I tell him that the bookmark project suddenly became so controversial within the school that Mariah was forced to defend herself and her actions, and that one parent of a child in a different class privately expressed her concern that giving money to Afghan children was like giving money to the enemy.
"That's just ignorant," Maroof says, shaking his head.
"Yes, it is," I say. But, I tell him, when I spoke to a random sampling of other New York City parents, friends and acquaintances—whom I consider to be well educated, open-minded—I occasionally heard similar rumblings. Those people destroyed our sense of safety. Those people are terrorists. I don't want my children knowing anything about those people or their murderous ways.
To be fair, our world was turned upside down on September 11, and emotions in my hometown were running high and raw. We all either knew or knew of people who were killed in the attacks. Opening the mail became an act of courage. The subway transmogrified, at least in our minds, into a sarin- or anthrax- or smallpox-filled tomb. People, including my husband, were losing their businesses, their jobs.
But we can't close our eyes to the open wound festering on the other side of the globe simply because Osama bin Laden chose this place as his special clubhouse. Quite the contrary. Even if self-interest and personal safety were our only concerns, allowing yet another generation of Afghan children to grow up disenfranchised, uneducated, malnourished and angry about their treatment at the hands of the United States, allowing another generation of American children to grow up with no knowledge of or sympathy for the world outside their borders, would be, to my mind, an isolationist recipe for doom. Or, as W.H. Auden more eloquently put it, "We must love one another or die."
So, I tell Maroof, I'm taking my son to Pakistan—home to an estimated 3 million Afghan refugees. We plan to visit Afghan schools, talk to Afghan children, build a few bridges. We've brought along an enormous suitcase filled with school supplies—paper, notebooks, markers, pens, etc.—that Jacob's class has collected. We've brought two checks that the parents in the class donated as a supplement to the bookmark profits: one that we'll deliver to the UNICEF field office in Peshawar, the other that we'll give to the Ariana School, an organization run by a local Afghan nongovernmental organization with which we've been exchanging e-mails.
"I have told the students that a nice boy from America will visit you," began one of the e-mails sent by Fatana Gailani, the school's director. "They exult and I do not know how to express their being so happy. Even the children who never have smiled so far, I saw the cheery smile in their lips. In fact, our children need to be supported and sympathized, as they are the seeds of peace."
We're also toting PowerBars and fruit leathers from the health food store down the street to bring to the refugee camps, along with some toys that Jacob picked out by himself after being told that the children he'd meet wouldn't speak English: Legos, K'nex, a soccer ball. "Stuff that doesn't need language," he said.
"You are doing a good thing," Maroof says. I hope so.